Families as Partners, Part Two

Last week my wise and compassionate colleague Sara authored a blog post about what educators can do to create positive and respectful relationships with their students’ families. Sara’s blog struck a chord with me because I spent many hours last week in staff-and-family communication around some issues that had come up at my daughter’s elementary school. I’m the school’s PTA president, and as such I often get looped in on exchanges between families and staff, or those camps come to me for counsel. I’ve been doing this for about a year and a half now, and I’ve seen some things. I’ve formed some opinions. Because last week’s exchanges were particularly contentious, I brooded a few days ago in the shower that what we really needed is a tract I would title “Just Stop It. Now.” or “Interpersonal Communication for Dummies.” Every suggestion that Sara offered in her blog is spot-on, so the advice I would serve up in my grumpy tract (which thankfully has evolved into this kinder, gentler blog post) is intended as a “yes, and” to what Sara’s already shared. I’d be hard-pressed to identify a family that wouldn’t welcome more positive, open communication with their child’s teachers. In light of that, it’s bewildering to me that so many parents end up communicating in ways that undermine that goal. In my daughter’s school, some staff members have confided to me that it’s often easier to keep silent than to share information with families because of the unconsidered and inflammatory responses they get. This is bad for everybody. In the absence of good information, conjecture becomes currency and we spend precious time sorting that out. What can families do to ensure that the lines of communication remain open? Some suggestions:

1. Just Stop It. Now. (Okay, I’m kidding about this one.) But seriously, parents—we could all take a few minutes to stop and reflect on recent exchanges we’ve had with school staff. Are there things you wish you’d said—or hadn’t? Did you leave the encounter with a better understanding of the person(s) you were talking to and the issue(s) involved? 2. Assume You Don't Know the Whole Story. The truth is, about 90% of the time, we don’t. Whether it’s a new school policy that’s been announced, a disappointing experience your child had with a classmate, or a comment from a teacher you can’t quite interpret, the story is usually different and more complex than it appears on first blush. Families can invite conversation with communication that goes something like this: “I understand X/Y/Z to be true. I’m sure there are things I don’t know about the situation/decision/circumstances, and I’m curious to learn more about those. I’d welcome the opportunity to talk with you so I understand it better.” Instead, sometimes I am party to parent communications that go something like this: “My child told me X/Y/Z. If this is true, then I am shocked and stunned that you did this.” The “if/then” jump to judgment here isn’t helpful—better to end that email with “Is this true? What else can you tell me about what happened?” 3. Words Matter. Avoid incendiary language. Hearing that someone is outraged, incredulous, or appalled doesn’t exactly whet their appetite to engage with you. And all too often, if we use that language, we regret it afterwards. Is it something you would say in person, versus in an email or voicemail? If not, then perhaps you should reconsider. Will you wish you had spoken more moderately when you re-read it a day later? If so, then maybe it’s best to wait a bit before you reach out. The principal at my daughter’s school gets particularly aggrieved by hyperbole. For example, the school is currently over capacity (which the district is working to remedy); I know him well enough to know that when parents use words like “chaos” to describe the hallways at dismissal time, it sets his teeth on edge. Busy? Yes. Loud? Yes. Chaotic? No. (I told him I promise to save my use of the word “chaos” for when a giant sinkhole appears in the middle of the gym floor or all the building’s toilets back up at once.) I know this about him because we’ve built a good relationship over the last year and a half--the result of thoughtful work and open, respectful communication. 4. Start at the Source. The only thing that aggravates our school’s principal more than words like “chaos” is when words like “chaos” get thrown around on social media, attached to our school’s name, or when such communications go straight to the superintendent or the school board. When do you need to go straight to the superintendent? When your school’s principal has embezzled funds to buy a 40-foot RV. If that isn’t happening, start with your child’s teacher, school resource staff, and school leadership. Engage others at higher levels only if you can’t resolve an issue locally—and show respect to your school’s staff by letting them know when you’re going to do so. 5. Assume Good Intentions. Education is a complex endeavor. Families and school staff members are not always going to agree on the best solution to a tricky situation, but we have a better chance of problem-solving successfully when we assume that the other person really does care about what they are doing and really does want all students—including your own—to have a good school experience. I don’t agree with all the moves made by the staff at my daughter’s school. I think it’s OK to respectfully dissent (after I get the whole story) and offer ideas about other ways to approach a situation. In a handful of cases, there may well be something very wrong and your child will need you to wield some power on their behalf. My point is—that shouldn’t be your assumption going in. 6. Begin Positively. In last week’s blog, Sara counseled educators to build good relationships with families by sharing positive feedback early and often, before there’s ever a need to have a harder conversation. This goes both ways, families. During my first year teaching high school English, one of my students stayed after class to give me a card from his mother right before our winter break. He was surprised and a little alarmed to see me burst into tears when I read her sweet words about how much her son was getting out of my class. I had very little sense of whether I was doing a good job, since no other adult had entered my classroom in three months and my 14-year-old office mates weren’t really providing me with a lot of substantive on-the-job feedback. The small kindness of that card was the biggest boost I got that whole year. (Thank you, Mrs. Sherry.) If your child really enjoyed a creative class activity, triumphed over something really tough with a teacher’s help, or glowed because of a teacher’s kind word or deed, tell them. (And do it before winter break!) I could go on, detailing what I think of as common-sense communication tips (for example: there’s no way you need to write in all caps unless something or someone was FREAKING AMAZING.) Some of you readers may feel like all this is pretty elementary—and I would agree, save that in my elementary I see problematic communication all too often. Just think of how much time we would free up, how much goodwill we could generate, and how much we would accomplish together if we communicated with forethought, skill, and kindness. If you have additional suggestions for how to strengthen family-school communication or challenges in that area you’d like to troubleshoot, we’d love to hear from you. Image courtesy of