The past few weeks have provided me several opportunities to reflect on parenting from the teacher's perspective. Some of the opportunities have been normal — parent/teacher conferences, my interactions with my children — and others have been serendipitous — a conversation with a mentor, repeated run-ins with an intriguing parent.
Also, one of the chapters I was least satisfied with in v1.0 of Never Finished: Continually Becoming the Teachers We Want to Be (and Staying Sane in the Process) is the one on parenting. When the release date for that book was approaching and my wife's illness was in full swing, I decided getting the book out with a skimpy parenting chapter was better than not getting it out at all.
All of this has me thinking that it's time for some reflective writing. In our pursuit of better, saner teaching, then, here's the question of the day: how do we work better with parents?
0. Begin at humility
Want useful interactions with humans? Begin at humility. First, properly understand it. If you don't have time to read my last post, here are the Sparknotes:
An attitude of humility seeks to habitually detect arrogance in oneself. We are wary of “I'm better than this person” or “My way is the best way” attitudes. This results in us seeking to habitually assume that others are better than us: more logical, more noble-hearted, more intelligent.
It's not self-deprecation; it is other-exaltation.
Humility applied to parents and guardians
Look: I am constantly in search of ways to promote the long-term flourishing of my students. It's my job; I'm a teacher. So chances are that, eight years into my pursuit of this kind of knowledge, I probably do know more, book-wise, about promoting success in children than most of the parents I interact with.
This isn't to say that I know Raul better than his mom does — just like my doctor doesn't know my body better than I do.
But it is to say that I'm a professional. Like a doctor, I devote part of my working hours to developing a growing knowledge of my field.
Yet knowledge alone isn't wisdom — nor is it love.
We must not forget that, in most cases, no one feels more passionate about a kid than that kid's parents. You may feel very passionate about your students, you may even tell them (as I do) that you love them, and truly mean it (as I do). But it is arrogant to think that your feelings for a child exceed the deeper, instinctive stuff felt by primary caregivers, the stuff honed through years of cleaning bodily fluid messes and seeing first steps and dreaming big dreams and snuggling before bedtime.
Humility calls us to assume that the parent or guardian we are working with at any given time loves the kid more than we'll ever be able to. It calls us to assume that the parent, therefore, wants that child's long-term flourishing infinitely more than we ever can. We make a grievous mistake that estranges far too many families from our public schools when we arrogantly assume anything different than this.
Pragmatism calls for this attitude toward parents, too.
Nelson Mandela has this awesome, short interview with Oprah. I've showed it elsewhere, but it bears repeating:
If you look at great teachers who rarely have issues with parents, I think you'll find them living out Mandela's recommendation: “…[L]et people know that you are no threat to them, [and] they will embrace you, they will listen to you.”
It's not a silver bullet, mind you, but a humble attitude disarms people and makes them believe in their gut that you're on their team because, in humility, you realize that you are.
Phrases that communicate humility
With all that said, let's be very practical. Here are some points I try hitting when sitting down with a parent or guardian:
- “You've poured countless hours and years into Lexi's upbringing, and the result is a young lady who is a pleasure to teach.”
- “It is my privilege to team up with you this year in your continuing quest of guiding your child into a flourishing adulthood.”
- “I, like you, want your child to have the skills needed to leave this school and do whatever it is he's on the planet to do. That's what I mean when I say we're aiming at college and career readiness.”
These samples serve as a fine transition into Part I of working well with parents: communication.
I. Communicate, communicate, communicate
Communicate is a word we use flippantly.
It is not communication when you just talk at someone. It is only communication when they actually understand you.
It is not communication when you just listen to someone. It is only communication when you actually understand them.
It is not communication when you spout off 500 things in your head at someone. It is communication when you take the time to think about what's most important in those 500 things and minimize them to three or so.
You'll know you have communicated when, after a conversation, both parties know what they need to do or they feel better or both. You'll know you haven't communicated when, after a conversation, nothing has changed.
The cause of most problems between parents and teachers
Many of the problems we run into with parents come down to a breakdown in communication.
Often, either the parent or us stops receiving communication because they've been threatened or offended in some way. When we're threatened or offended, our brains shut down and we enter this kind of “fight or flight” mode.
This is why, like I discuss in Part I of Never Finished, it's so critical that we keep our professional identity separate from our sense of self-worth. If I encounter an angry or offensive parent and my sense of self-worth is attached to how things go, then I'm going to fight or run to protect myself. Yet if I enter the same situation with professional detachment, I'm able to analyze it like one would a puzzle and determine how to best remedy things.
Whose fault is it when communication breaks down?
There are two ways to approach this question: the pointless way, and the empowered way.
Want to chase after the wind? Then approach parent-teacher communication mishaps as the parent's fault. I mean, heck — you're right. But you're also completely powerless to impact the situation if you choose to focus on the other party's fault in the situation.
Instead of doing anything about it, we end up complaining about the parent with our colleagues. #RecipeForAnAwesomeLife
Instead, approach every single communication snafu with this truth in mind: I played a role in the breakdown. What can I do to fix it?
This enables action and disables the life-draining, I'm-a-victim mentality that I see killing far too many teachers. Folks, we're not victims. We're professionals. It doesn't matter how the public views us. Standardized test insanity is a blink of an eye compared to the long, noble history of our work as educators. It will pass away. Root yourself in the nobility of your calling to teach.
Having done this, own communication breakdowns like a professional, then put on your work boots and get to work.
How to not communicate with parents
If your goal is to ensure that most parents don't understand you and that they stay at arm's length, try things like this:
- Throw lots of edu-jargon at them.
- Speak for minutes without end.
- Use a condescending tone.
- Tell them only nice things about their kid, even when those nice things don't bring the whole truth.
- Refuse to reflect on elements of your grading system or curriculum. Are they as developed as they need to be? Could they be simpler? Fairer?
How to communicate with parents
If your goal is to ensure that parents understand you and that you are maximizing the potential of the school-home partnership, try things like this:
- Speak as simply as you can. (This should always be our goal no matter who we're talking with.)
- Think more, speak less.
- Experiment with both approachable and authoritative tones. Think: knowledgeable doctor with a great bedside manner.
- Tell them the truth, which usually is: there are great things about their kid, and there are things that need work.
- Reflect on your class from a parent's perspective. Whether you have kids or not, ask: Is there anything I would be uncomfortable with or confused by if I were a parent of a child in this class? Is there any part of what I do — grading, management, planning — that I wouldn't want a parent to ask about? Persistent thought applied toward an element of our work will yield greater clarity.
II. When it all hits the fan
Sadly, there are parents and guardians out there who, without intending to, have become insane. Some have an inordinate need to hear that their child is perfect; others are blind to faults that are blatantly obvious to the world.
Humility teaches us that these folks never set out to become like this — yet, somehow, here they are.
So when you next get into one of those situations where a grown person is yelling at you like a child, or an intelligent person sends you an absurdly juvenile email, or you hear that you're being slandered along the Little League sidelines, here are some things to help you take heart.
You're a professional
It is my job to do all that I can to promote the long-term flourishing of students. One of the ways I do this is by working as best I can with parents and guardians because I know that they are one of the greatest predictors of my students' life outcomes.
Yet at the same time, I hold no pretensions of omnipotent power or inordinate responsibility. I am not able to change a person, nor do I feel that it's my job to try.
If a parent insults you, it's generally not at all about you. It's about their own issues, their own idolatries, their own warped psyches. We'll know we've nailed this when we continue to wholeheartedly seek to serve them and their child even when they treat us horribly. For my literary types out there, channel Atticus Finch and his encounters with Mrs. Dubose.
You are not your job
There's also a chance that the parent is angry at you because you've legitimately messed up. You said something you shouldn't have. You are negligent of your gradebook. You behaved unfairly. (I've been guilty on all counts, by the way.)
In these situations, we learn from our mistakes. We apologize openly and without reservation. Never Finished teachers own their mistakes.
But when we leave that school building for the day, it's not as a failure. We don't haul home a load of self-recrimination. Why? Because we are not only teachers — we are people. Our identities are based on more than how well we do our work.
The greatest teachers are those who let the fire refine them, not those who never experience the fire
One thing I love about Rafe is that he's widely considered one of the greatest teachers of our age, and yet he still experiences berserker parents. The thing about Rafe, though, is that he hasn't allowed these situations to burn him out. Rather, in humility he has sought to learn from him what they can, to let them grow what character in him they can — and then he's gone on to continue to do the work he's on the planet to do.
If you're in the thick of a parent maelstrom right now, I pray this post is a little aid in helping you to do as Rafe has done: hold on and learn what you can. This too shall pass.