The featured post today at BlogHer was titled, “5 REALLY important things I just filled out on a form for day camp.” Posted by blogger Terri Lively, the essay described one of the rituals that 21st century parents despise: filling out paper forms, again and again, as each of our children joins, or rejoins, each activity.
As a parent, I too hate this paper mill, filling out slightly different versions of what feels like the same forms. Thank goodness my pediatrician’s standard form works for nearly everything or I would get even crankier. In fact, I am often printing them out at the very last minute, scrawling my signature in yellow crayon as my child waits impatiently at the door.
But as an educator, I see the other side, the side that parents may never otherwise understand. Hence this blog post. (If you are not a parent, please stop reading now. This will bore you to tears. And if you are someone who lacks the means to send your kid to ANYTHING — my apologies. The camp-forms dilemma is a first world problem of the highest order.)
I write not to complain about the parents’ lament (I have made it myself) but rather to explain what is on the other side of those forms, in the interest of parent-educator harmony.
So here’s the deal, from the educator’s perspective: the forms have three purposes. First, the forms allow us to stay in business so your kids can continue to go to our camp. We have to meet state, city, and federal regulations. TONS of regulations. Because we are educators, working with minors, we have to work in ways that allow us to obey pages upon pages of requirements. These are insane numbers of very well-intentioned regulations that exist to keep kids safe. These regulations have exploded in number and complexity since we all were kids. There are regulations on the precise size and shape of preschool classrooms, the number of caregivers per child, the size and shape of sinks and toilets. There are regulations about field trips and medicine and yes — who can touch your child to apply sunscreen in the middle of a summer’s day. These regulations require forms, and if we do not collect, file, and produce those forms properly when the authorities come to call, it doesn’t matter how many smores we served or how many kids overcame their fear of the water. We get shut down.
Second, the forms allow us to solve problems that would otherwise endanger kids and inconvenience families. If we ask about constipation, it’s because we know how rotten it is to have a miserable kid with a tummy ache. Allergies and meds are vital — maybe even life threatening — for us to know about. When I have students who are Jehovah’s Witnesses, I need to know exactly how to get them proper medical care. When I have students who are not vaccinated, I have to know that the other kids in my camp are at a greater risk for childhood illnesses. I swear we’re not prying: if we’re asking, either somebody made us ask (see above: regulations) or else we have found, through hard-won experience, that this stuff has a bearing on kids’ safety or comfort.
And finally, all that information is crucial so that we can get in touch with parents when necessary. Educators are not individual family babysitters who get to know your family’s quirks and schedules. Rather, they deal with huge pools of parents with radically different expectations and habits. Some parents are on top of their responsibilities: they drop their kids off on time, pick them up on time, and always send lunch. Some are INSANELY on top of their responsibilities — either because their kid has issues (and please world, take pity on these parents) or because they just worry.
And then other parents are out to lunch, either in a pleasantly laissez-faire way, or in a kid-got-sent-to-the-E.R.-and-Nobody-picks-up-any-phones. We all want to imagine we are the pleasantly laissez-faire sort, but only the luckiest among us (with easygoing kids) can pull that off. This is why we ask for three phone numbers — because at least once a summer, somebody is going to end up needing to call you, (or, god forbid, hunt you down for late payments) and not everybody answers their email/text/phone as quickly as you might imagine. And if even a few of our students’ parents aren’t meeting their end of the bargain, it adds enormously to our burden as caretakers of all of the kids.
SO, as the camp director/administrator, I am responsible for all those little people, all of those parental expectations, and also for the personal and professional futures of my entire staff. Because if one of my staff does something that one of the parents does not like, that person could really suffer: hence the questions about constipation and sunscreen permissions. The more information I have up front, the more prepared I can be, and my staff can be, to do our job: taking care of the kids.
“Why can’t we just fill all this out online, once?” you all are asking. I know, because as an educator I get this question all the time. Tech-savvy parents, used to high levels of technological competence at work, or used to instantaneously successful websites, expect a high level of tech-service when interacting with camps and schools. This may be even more true of those of us who have the time and resources to read stuff like BlogHer in between camp drop off and pick ups.
Here’s the deal: as a camp/educator, I don’t have a lot of money for tech support. Parents might be paying what feels like a lot of money for the time your child is at camp, but very few camps have the cash to have super fancy (expensive) spreadsheets that work beautifully. We have forms, and xeroxes, and trust me, we don’t love them either. It may be the 21st century at your job, or on the websites where you choose to shop, but at most schools and camps, we put time and money into kids, not efficient systems.
And also? Not all of our parents have the same level of tech skills. You might want a simple online form, but the parent of the kid your child is swimming with may not even have a working email address.
The piles of forms suck for you, but trust me, also for us. We spend hours collecting and organizing all the information. We wish our website worked better, too. But most educational organizations are treading water as fast as we can to try to update our backend database systems, websites, and tech departments, but it’s expensive and time-consuming to try to keep up with the revolution in digital data.
(And if the health care sign up computer system had to go through 6 months of glitches to get working properly, how do you think our small town sports camp could do any better?)
Most people who work with kids do so despite the low pay (my salary as a middle school teacher with 25 years of experience comes out to about 2 dollars per kid per hour — not including the hours I work outside of school.) We do it because we like kids, we want them to thrive, not because we are trying to inconvenience parents or be idiots.
(OK, some of us educators are idiots. But so are some of us parents. Neither group has cornered the market on sanity and rationality, so let’s each try to see one another as though we’re all operating with good intentions in an imperfect world. One with lots of camp forms.)
Like you, I will still always hate forms. I will hate them as an educator who has to collect them. I will hate them as a parent who has to fill them out. But the longer I stay in education, the more times I have had actually to use them — and the right information on a simple xerox can be the difference between a simple solution to a problem and something much worse.
Parents, camps, teachers and administrators: can we all try to get along? Rub my back with sunscreen, and I’ll do the same for you.