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Despite some occasional shrill confrontations that make teachers sound like their first interest is self-interest, most teachers want what is best for students. Sometimes this message gets buried during haggles with school boards or during fights with the Legislature. Teachers can hardly be blamed for wanting better working conditions and higher salaries, but this message often drives out the more critical message that tells us what is really important to teachers. Most important to teachers are the students they teach, and a recent survey suggests that the teachers want help.

Most teachers don't see much wrong with students or the system that parents couldn't cure. This is according to an annual Metropolitan Life Survey of the American Teacher, which was conducted by telephone during the early part of 1993. A thousand teachers were surveyed.Parent involvement topped the list of teachers' concerns. Fifty-four percent of the teachers said that parental involvement in education should be the top public policy priority. The teachers felt so strongly about the issue that a large majority said that parents who allow children to sluff school should be punished "through fines or some other mechanism." A lesser number of teachers, 42 percent, said that parents who refuse to attend a parent-teacher conference should be punished. Somehow I see the image of an accomplice parent writing "I will not let my child sluff school" 500 times while seated in a too-small desk in an empty classroom after most have gone for the day. The parent looks up occasionally at a stern schoolmaster who scowls over reading glasses at the penitent parent. It just might work.

What is in second place after the 54 percent who ask for more parental involvement? The fact that about half as many teachers, 26 percent, said that expanding early childhood and Head Start programs should be top priority could suggest how strongly the majority feel about parental involvement. Next on the list was establishing tough academic standards at 12 percent, and improving school safety, at 8 percent.

Most discouraging about the survey results is the level of dissatisfaction that new teachers feel. Of the teachers who had finished their first two years of teaching, 40 percent who said they were considering leaving the profession named uncooperative parents as a major reason for their dissatisfaction.

Given these concerns, what should a parent do? First, `things' don't make it. Investments in encyclopedias, which are in every library anyway, and computers may make us feel as though we are helping, but they really aren't necessary, just helpful. They are only the stuff that can excuse us from the real issue, time. Things become an excuse for time.

It also isn't enough to ask students if homework is completed. They will answer in vague monosyllables designed to give as little information as possible and the illusion that everything is cool.

The right kind of parent conversation with kids not only helps support the teachers but provides a quality check of what is going on the classroom. For example, parents might ask kids: "What did Mr. Babble, your history teacher (notice that the parent knew the teacher's name), say about the U.S. involvement in Bosnia?"

"Did Mrs. Theorem, your math teacher, notice the `Time' article on imaginary numbers that we cut out?"

"I suppose that Ms. Spell, your English teacher, agreed with your idea that a computer could write a novel when you showed her the newspaper article."

The point is to know enough about what is going on in the class to engage the kids in specific discussion about class topics and arm them with material that can help them participate in the class. It doesn't seem enough to ask about school and try to do the kids' math for them; parents should try to ask about the topics of the school day. Asking about school will get the most generous answer, "fine," but continuing the dialogue of the classroom supports the teacher and the student.

Of course, it doesn't hurt to attend parent-teacher conferences. And it helps to get the kids to school every day. It might also help to write 550 times, "I will talk with my kids about what they are learning in school."