Parent-teacher interactions are the embodiment of the classic Jewish line regarding two Jews and three opinions. Add the joke about two Jews and three synagogues, the one about the Jewish child having two choices (doctor or lawyer) and every Jewish mother joke in history. Subtract 86% of the humor, add the emotional equivalent of an active volcano and the pressure level placed on the people charged with saving the world from an apocalypse and you get close to the predicament that surrounds adults in schools. Today, everyone involved in education talks about the importance of parent-teacher communication, parent engagement and the home-school connection, but there continues to be a divide between the rhetoric and what parents and educators actually experience. If we are ever to truly effect change, parents and teachers need to stop talking at or parallel to each other, and instead engage in direct conversations that focus on building true partnerships.
This process begins by acknowledging a few crucial truths:
1. We are all imperfect
We are each a mash-up of genes, experiences, cultures and values. Whether we are conscious of it or not, these unseen forces play into the relationships between teachers and parents. In her book The Essential Conversation: What Parents and Teachers can Learn from Each Other, Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot calls these dynamics the “ghosts in the classroom.” For the most part, these apparitions are unchangeable. It is in this space that we need to access empathy for each other. If we recognize that we are formed by our varied experiences and accept that while we may fundamentally disagree, we can still seek to understand the other, we will be laying the foundation for positive interactions.
In addition to the parts of us that are tied to our identities, we all have flaws. At its core, this is what school is about—identifying weaknesses and working towards remedies to keep them from standing in the way of a child’s future. Lawrence-Lightfoot makes the very astute observation that:
…parent-teacher encounters are more productive when both parties recognize that all children have weaknesses and vulnerabilities that need identification, attention, and work. There is no child whose intellectual, social, and emotional development is without struggle or injury. Recognizing that fact allow parents and teachers to be more candid, realistic and pragmatic in their conversations with one another, and encourages them to be more discerning in their identification of children’s needs (p.150).
By extension, recognizing that parents and teachers have their own sets of flaws may also bring forgiveness and greater patience to this dialogue.
2. Being imperfect does not negate the need for self improvement
Dr. Maria Montessori wrote extensively about the “spiritual preparation of the teacher.” She believed that teachers must be in a constant state of self evaluation and self improvement. Admittedly, this is an area that is often neglected in schools—even in Montessori environments. However, if we expect children to push past their own limitations, why would we exempt parents or teachers from this effort?
Character development requires positive and pervasive modeling. When parents and teachers engage in their own character work and make this process known to children, everyone wins. You might now be conjuring images of the seemingly endless self help selections on Amazon. Please don’t go on a shopping spree. Instead, ask yourself: “What is one trait of mine that may be negatively impacting my child/ren or my interactions with parents/teachers?” and then, “What is one thing that I can practice that may help lessen the impact of this trait?”
3. Conflict is productive
Rob Evans, a psychologist who studies the problems parents and teachers face, talks about how the desire to be nice can inhibit progress. Parents have valuable and necessary information about their children and they are critical advocates. If they keep quiet for the sake of keeping the peace, this can have a real impact on the child. Teachers or administrators who are afraid to be honest about a child’s struggles do an enormous disservice to those they are meant to serve.
Teachers need to stop hearing parent questions as a personal affront on their skill level and instead, recognize that these uncomfortable exchanges will help push them past their own boundaries and into a place of greater excellence. Parents need to stop talking to everyone they know outside of the person involved. If one is nervous about having the conversation, say “I am nervous about having this conversation.” Then, do it anyway.
In the words of the wise Dr. Lawrence-Lightfoot:
…we must…admit that conflict is endemic to parent-teacher dialogues, that it is not to be ignored or avoided. Rather, it must be met with open eyes and open hearts, made visible and named, and worked with over time…Anticipating these moments of misunderstanding and disagreement as a legitimate part of successful communication and admitting to the primal passions that occasionally get unleashed help parent and teachers be real with one another and create alliances on behalf of children. But there is a difference between productive conflict and destructive assault. The former is clarifying and seeks resolution; the latter feels like combat and leaves you feeling raw. The former moves toward a symmetry of authority and mutual respect between teacher and parent; the latter is a power play designed to diminish the other (p.73).
Parents and teachers need to work together in a way that mirrors what an educational environment aims to create for children—safe spaces that provide opportunities for risk taking towards the goal of evolving growth. Each parent and each teacher can stand up and change the standard for parent-teacher partnerships. Enter the school year with a new brain refrain. Let the other know that you will be bringing empathy, respect, persistence, self accountability and courage to the relationship. Acknowledge that there is always room for improved self awareness, communication and conflict resolution and set this as a collective objective. The route is longer, but we will have a chance to actually get somewhere.