Here’s what we know—healthy parent involvement in a student’s schooling has a positive impact on student learning. When home and school are on the same page and in true partnership, students benefit. We know that parents care deeply about their children and that most appreciate opportunities for meaningful participation in their child’s education. We also know that most teachers appreciate information from parents that can help them meet the needs of students in the classroom.
In Charlotte Danielson’s Framework for Teaching,1 one critical component included in ‘Professional Responsibilities’ is communicating with families. According to the Danielson framework, ‘distinguished communication with families’ looks like this:
- Teacher provides frequent information to families, as appropriate, about the instructional program. Students participate in preparing materials for their families.
- Teacher provides information to families frequently on student progress, with students contributing to the design of the system. Response to family concerns is handled with great professionalism and cultural sensitivity.
- Teachers’ efforts to engage families in the instructional program are frequent and successful. Students contribute ideas for projects that could be enhanced by family participation.
The italicized sentences above referencing student involvement denote the difference between ‘proficient’ and ‘distinguished’ communication, i.e., when a teacher can directly involve students in the home-school partnership, relations are further enhanced.
Teacher provides frequent information to families, as appropriate, about the instructional programme. Students participate in preparing materials for their families.
Like most schools, Oak Grove hosts a ‘Back to School Night’, usually during the second week of school. The whole parent community gathers together with staff and teachers in the evening to not only learn important information about school protocols but also to mix, mingle, and get to know one another and the ways they can participate in the broader life of the school (Parent Council, Special Event Committees, Volunteerism). Parents then meet with their child’s teachers in the classroom. Teachers are expected to have an overview of the year’s curricula in the form of a map, syllabi, or scope and sequence document available for parents to peruse, and there is time for the teacher to review this and take questions.
Thereafter, teachers send bi-monthly email communications to their parent body roughly following this format—what we’ve been doing; what we are about to do; special highlights; and important upcoming dates. This is often accompanied by photos. These regular communications keep individual families abreast of what is going on in the classroom. Some teachers may involve students in helping to determine what goes into their class emails or other communications that go home to parents.
At the same time the school sends a weekly email communication called ‘This Week at Oak Grove’ that includes important upcoming dates, schoolwide information, resources, calendars, highlights regarding school-wide activities, events, or alumni news. The email also includes beautiful photos that help parents get a better sense of school life.
Teacher provides information to families frequently on student progress, with students contributing to the design of the system. Response to family concerns is handled with great professionalism and cultural sensitivity.
Oak Grove has four formal opportunities for communicating student progress—two face-to-face parent conferences, one in the fall and one in the spring, and two narrative reports sent at the end of the first and second semester. Beginning in Grade 4, these conferences are student-led, i.e., the student is present and has worked to compile a range of student work that can be reviewed together with the teacher and parent. Often, this involves a range of reflection exercises and goal-setting for the student that is shared with the parents.
Informally, student progress is communicated much more frequently via phone calls and email and parents may request an additional conference at any time. In fact, they are encouraged to do so when there are concerns of an academic or social nature and teachers are encouraged to respond to parent concerns promptly with empathy and respect and honest communication.
Teacher’s efforts to engage families in the instructional program are frequent and successful. Students contribute ideas for projects that could be enhanced by family participation.
Many teachers either individually or collectively host curricular nights like ‘Science Night’, ‘Math Night’ and ‘Poetry Night’ where parents come to school in the evening and students share work they have been doing at school. Often teachers will invite parents to attend a celebration of the end of a large project or unit of study where students showcase their work. Additionally, parents may be engaged in meaningful ‘homework’ such as reading a particular book at bedtime, engaging in a student-parent interview for a class project, or a review of portfolio work sent home.
We do all this and yet…
Notwithstanding everything we know about how deeply parents care for their children, and given the degree of wonderful outreach most teachers engage in, why is it that teachers often still feel relations with parents are difficult? According to Michael Thompson,2 a psychologist and school consultant, one answer is ‘the fear equation’. Thompson points out that both teachers and parents come into the parent-teacher relationship with multiple latent and usually unconscious fears. Given the importance of the home-school partnership, it is worth examining how some of these fears may be influencing our ability to engage in positive home-school relations.
In a nutshell, Thompson suggests that parent fear sounds like this, “While I may look competent, I am not completely secure about my ability to parent, which makes me feel vulnerable. My child’s behaviour when I am not present may reflect badly on me (and my fear is the teacher will judge me). I cannot protect my child from the world, and once in a while my worry gets out of control (and you, the teacher are recipient of my outof- control anxiety). You, the teacher, may know something about my child that I, the parent, don’t know which makes me anxious. I fear the power you have over my child (possibly because I feared the power teachers had over me). Now that my child is struggling or in trouble, all these fears are operating in overdrive.”
In contrast, teacher fear sounds like this, “While I may look competent, I am not completely secure about my ability to meet the needs of every child and that makes me feel vulnerable. I fear you, parents, see me through the distorting eyes of your child. Like you, I am a professional but our culture does not accord me the same respect as you (the CEO, doctor, other professional) and so I fear you do not respect me. I have been attacked by a previous parent so I am wary you will also attack me and therefore I am automatically defensive. I am afraid that if you are not pleased with me I could lose my job. I strongly identify with the age group I teach which makes me a great teacher of this age group, but when you are confrontational, I am frightened/overwhelmed (elementary) or protectively sarcastic/dismissive (secondary).”
On top of all this, as independent schools, parents are the ones paying tuition and, at least in the US, schools are competing for students. Where this is not the case, parents may feel their child is lucky to have landed a precious spot in an elite school. All this can additionally lead to a culture of perfectionism where the possibility of admitting vulnerability or error on either side is limited. Within such a culture, it is difficult for parents to admit that they are struggling with their child at home and ask for help. Also, within the same culture, teachers may find it difficult to admit they are unable to connect with a particular child and ask for parental support and help.
What to do? We are fortunate within the community of Krishnamurti schools to have an approach that encourages us to consider ‘the mirror of relationship’. Perhaps the parent-teacher relationship, fraught with latent fears as it is, is a good place to begin. Krishnamurti asks, and I have taken the liberty of inserting parents for wife, ‘Can I look at life—at it all—without the image? I look at everything with an image, with a symbol, with memory, with knowledge. I look at my friend, at my wife [parents], at my neighbour, at the boss, with the image which thought has built. I look at my wife [parents]with the image I have about her [them], and she [they] look/s at me with the image she [they] has/have about me: the relationship is between these two images.”3
One of our elementary teachers recently shared how she approaches a potentially difficult parent interaction. She said, “Usually, I’m feeling pretty nervous because I really want things to go well but then I try to remember a story I heard about a talk Krishnamurti gave where he revealed ‘his secret’ to a happy life. I don’t know if it’s true or not, but apparently he said his secret was, ‘I don’t mind what happens’. So I just do the best I can to be present, compassionate, empathetic and aware and then I have to let go, and obviously I care deeply but I try not to mind what happens and somehow that helps me relax a little and it also gives me courage.”
It begins with us, with the teachers within our schools, to enquire into our fears, and empathetically acknowledge the fears parents bring to the table. Can we take a moment before meeting, calling, or speaking with a parent, to look within and sit with our fear before it overwhelms our contact? Can we begin to bring into our awareness the mythologies we may be projecting onto the parent? Can we take a moment to consider the anxieties inherent in being a parent before we too harshly judge the parental perspective? And finally, are we brave enough to share our vulnerability with parents, which in turn might encourage them to share theirs? Empathy, compassion, and self-understanding appear to be essential in order to move beyond our mutual fears and it is clearly not an easy endeavour, but the fruits of it could be transformative.
Meanwhile, Oak Grove teachers and staff spent time together at the beginning of the school year brainstorming our collective wisdom regarding best practices for positive parent relationships. These have been collated and edited into the following document which we hope will be of interest to other schools.
Best practices for positive parent relationships
Establishing, strengthening, and sustaining a positive relationship with parents is critical and worth every moment you spend on it. Here are some best practices generated by Oak Grove School teachers and staff.
At the beginning of the year…
• Reach out in multiple ways to your parents (student postcards over the summer, class potluck for meet and greet, class welcome email, open door to begin school in first days, be available in the parking lot at pick up, telephone calls, ‘Back to School Night’). • Share your curricular plans for the year up front. • Be clear with your classroom processes and expectations including making your personal boundaries clear (how you can be reached, when you check email, what is turn-around time for responding). • Be patient as parents learn the rules and/or culture of the school. • Encourage parents to get involved (Family Work Party, Coffee Mornings, Harvest Party, Parent Council).
Determine communication protocols for parents with dual custody— knowing when to contact one or both guardians.
Throughout the year…
• Send regular, timely, weekly/bi-weekly class email communications that include important upcoming dates, what the students have been doing in the previous week/s, and what is coming up in the following weeks. Include interesting and positive anecdotes about the WHOLE CLASS (not individuals). Remember children often respond to their parents’ question, “What did you do today?” with “Nothing!” - Use bcc on class emails: include Head, Director of T&L, Programme Directors. - Be sensitive to diverse parenting styles. - Include photos! • Be proactive with communication to individual families: email, telephone, face to face. • Review communication protocols4 frequently (and model them). • Reinforce that parents/teachers/students are on the same page and equal partners. • Encourage discussion between parents and children around homework. • Be mindful/professional with colleagues who are parents. • Parent Meetings: schedule responsibly, ask for agenda items ahead of time, be confident, use ‘scripts’ if necessary, create applicable and meaningful topics, provide opportunities to create/build community amongst parents, offer opportunity to dialogue around how we handle conflict. • Conferences: use active listening, create space for parent questions. • We are a small school in a small town, therefore, be professional always, watch ‘talk’ in public, respect everyone’s wish for privacy, don’t engage in gossip.
Silence creates a vacuum that can easily be filled with negative projections… Communicate, communicate, and communicate some more!
Even using all the best practices in the world, sometimes communications can become challenging. Here are some best practices for dealing sensitively with parent and/or student concerns:
Email is for good news or non-controversial information. Everything else needs to be a phone call and preferably a face to face conversation. • Direct concerns to the appropriate person (see Communication Protocol)4 • If the concern is expressed via email: - Acknowledge receipt in a timely way and offer to set up a phone call or face to face time to meet. - Appeal for time to pause and reflect; for example, thank you for sharing this concern…can you give me a day to gather some information/sit with this and then we can meet? - cc administration if appropriate. • Know when to call in a colleague or ask for administrative support; utilize the team when communicating concerns. Don’t go it alone! • When questioned by a parent about a programme, policy or decision of another teacher, administrator or staff person, assure the parent that you have confidence in the professional judgement of your colleagues and encourage the parent to speak directly with the appropriate person. • Be aware that we have multiple relationships within the school; not necessarily just personal friendships with particular families. • When speaking with parents in that face to face conversation: - Use active listening. - Make sure parents feel heard (take notes, listen closely, do not think you have to immediately find solutions). - Pause before responding. - Share observations not judgements. - Create speaking points ahead of time, especially on tricky issues. - Think ‘teachable moments’ with parents and ourselves; even adults deserve ‘do-overs’! Compassionate awareness of parental anxiety and fear will help you sensitively approach parents and respond to their concerns.
- Enhancing Professional Practice: A Framework for Teaching, Charlotte Danielson.
- ‘The Fear Equation’, Michael Thompson, Independent School Magazine, Spring 1996.
- The Collected Works, Vol. XVI, 169, ‘Choiceless Awareness’.
- ‘Communication & Conflict Resolution Protocols’, Oak Grove School Parent/Student Handbook