Parents & Teachers: Assume Best Intentions

Here is a post that I wrote in the Fall.  It came up as a topic of conversation and after going back and reading it and the linked article, I thought I would re-post it as it still rings true to me.

This fall I spoke with a journalist from Reader’s Digest, who was writing an article on “What your Principal won’t tell you”, that came out in September. It was a lighthearted look at what a principal would like parents to know. Not long after that conversation I received an email from a colleague with a link to an article written by Ron Clark (an educator who started his own academy in Atlanta and has been touted by celebrities). His article is entitled, “What teachers really want to tell parents”. While his article raises some very good points, I found it to be a bit harsh. As a parent (and an educator) I take issue with some of what he points out, and much of the manner in which he does it, and while that may be the topic of another article, I thought that since these two occurrences happened so close to one another, it must have been fate telling me to write down some of my thoughts on what I would like parents to know.

Generally, as an educator, I have had great experiences with parents. Some of whom I have become friends with and most of whom I respect greatly. It is no easy job being a parent, and I was always fond of telling those parents who apologized for calling me to “complain/discuss” their child, that they should not apologize for being their child’s advocate, even if they are doing it in an emotional manner. Frankly, I am more concerned with the parents who don’t advocate for their kids, or who are not emotional about their child’s education and well-being. While Mr. Clark and I agree on a few things, I am not sure he quite gets that.
Some things I would like parents to understand are:

• The child we see is not the same child they see. Kids act differently at home than they do in “their” environment at school. It is not necessarily better or worse, but different. In this way, teachers and parents get to see a different side of our kids, and with proper and positive communication, can share these perspectives and gain powerful insights into who our students and children are.

• All kids make mistakes. As both a teacher and a principal, I have had countless experiences with students who I have caught lying to me, their parents, teachers, and peers. In the end, most times, the truth comes out and the fact is; kids make mistakes. Please don’t call and say, “that my child would never lie to me”, and that “I know they are not an angel, but this time….” Kids are kids, and sometimes they make mistakes, and yes even lie or mislead their parents, teachers, principals, etc. We want to work with you, not against you, but please be realistic. We are not here to make stuff up about your kids, we love your kids.

• Communication works best when it goes both ways. As teachers, we often take for granted that our students are talking to their parents about school, and while we provide constant feedback to our students, the major methods of communication home are the progress reports and report cards that go out every few weeks. Please consider those reports as a strong part of our overall communication. If there is something that is not understood or concerning, email or call. With so many children to keep track of, most times we don’t call or email home when a student fails a test or drops a letter grade. If the signs are there on the progress report, and you never called in to check on it, then please don’t call after the report card goes home asking why we didn’t notify you they were in trouble. Rather, call to talk about how we can work from that point on to ensure learning.

• Education does not function well with the top-down business model that many parents work in. Principal’s just don’t “tell” their teachers what to do, even if they think their suggestions are valid. Our goal is to influence teachers, to bring them to an understanding, and assist them in broadening their thinking in order to stretch their boundaries. Most times this results in teachers, parents, and principals being on the same page, but it takes time, communication, and understanding that we all have each other’s best interests at heart. Let’s assume best intentions.

• Please know that some of my time as a Principal was spent defending poor choices made by good teachers. Everyone makes mistakes and while parents and students can comment, often in-depth, about how you feel about the situation, principals and teachers cannot. Hands are often somewhat tied by contract agreements, state laws, and respect for all parties. The overarching goal is to listen to your concerns and hopefully reassure you that something will be done about it. However, it needs to be done in a way that brings about meaningful results that we can all learn from and puts the student’s success first.

• As a Principal, I cannot count how many times I have fielded calls from parents and families about concerns over specific lessons or teachers. While I was always pleased that they felt comfortable calling me, the outcome was usually the same; I can do nothing without talking to the teacher first. As a matter of fact, my first question was always, “have you spoken with the teacher?” The answer was almost always, no. I can speculate on the reasons that parents call the Principal first, but in the end, if you really want to help your child, call the teacher first. Ninety-nine percent of the time, it will solve the problem, clear up the issue, and help the child, parent, and teacher.

Overall, schools work best if we all assume best intentions and increase communication. If I had only one thing to offer to parents (and teachers) it is that positive communication, early and often, is key to creating a strong partnership between home and school. Take time to think about all the positives we experience with regards to our children’s education, and then highlight some of them with a note or phone call. I assure you, you’ll make someone’s day, and you’ll be glad you did.

Chris Sousa is the President of the New Hampshire Association for Middle Level Education, and this article first appeared in the Winter Edition of the NHAMLE Newsletter – http://www.nhamle.org/index-6.html

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