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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Parents Shouldn’t Have to Talk Educationalese

By Peter DeWitt — November 12, 2011 5 min read
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Are we talking at parents, or are we talking with them?

As much as we should try not to leave students out of the parent-teacher conferences (Student-Led Conferences), we should also make sure we are not leaving parents out either. As educators, we communicate with parents daily or weekly, not just at parent-teacher conferences. We need to make sure that we are providing them with the opportunity to give input, because they know their children better than anyone.
Every time that we meet with parents we have an opportunity. We can show them we understand them by listening to their concerns and opinions or we talk our own language during a meeting and loose that opportunity because they feel as though they are not being heard.

Many years ago Dr. Stephen Covey provided habits that everyone should have in order to lead a successful life (1989). One of those habits was to “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” As we meet with parents we need to ask ourselves, are we talking at parents, or are we talking with them? Are we providing them the opportunity to talk with us or are we trying to get the meeting over?

Too often educators find themselves pressed for time, so they want to get to the heart of the issue and find ways to move forward. Parents need time to process the situation. Provide parents with a warming up period because many parents walk down our hallways and get transported to when they were in school. If they had negative experiences in their own education, they may bring that baggage with them when they meet with us.

Have you ever been a part of a conversation with non-educators and were lost in the conversation because they were using “work terms?” I know that many of us try our best to hang out with people who are not in education so we can take a break from talking about school. While we are all in our chosen careers, we speak a different language.

One of the easiest ways to lose a parent in a conversation is to begin speaking in acronyms. In education, just like many other professions, we speak in educationalese where we use acronyms to explain how we are educating their child. Many parents do not ask us what we mean when we drop different acronyms, which means that they do not understand the whole conversation.

Educators need to understand what it feels like to not know what someone is talking about. We all have friends that work in other professions who use acronyms that we do not understand. We find ourselves smiling through conversations while we try to figure out what the acronym must be so we can rejoin the conversation.

Before educators use an acronym they should provide the full phrase and then provide the acronym that goes with it. “We would like to recommend your child to the Child Study Team, which we call the CST. We usually recommend children for CST when we want to brainstorm other ways to engage them in their own learning.” When we easily fit it into the conversation we are less likely to exclude our parents from the conversation.

Bad News
Many years ago when I was teaching, I had a student who had a notebook that was used for daily correspondence between the parents and the teachers who worked with the student, which included me. The first time I opened the notebook I realized it was carried over from the previous year which meant it included correspondence from the previous year’s teacher and although I tried not to look, I did.

Every day the teacher wrote something the child did wrong. As I took more time to read some of the passages, there were only a few days when they wrote that the child had a good day. The passage actually said, “She had a good day,” and nothing else, which was very sad to read.

However, on the days the child had a bad day, the teacher wrote their own version of War and Peace about why the child was wrong. And then I saw it. A few months into the school year, the parent wrote that they did not just want to read bad things about her child. I completely understood why the parent wrote the comment, and made sure that I limited comments that focused on negative behaviors.

Educators can write comments about how a child had a bad day without making it negative; they just have to make sure that they are proactive from the very first day. Covey calls this the “Emotional bank account.” Educators can make deposits by focusing on the positive behaviors of child. There are times when educators need to focus on a negative behavior of the child which may result in a withdrawal from the emotional bank account.

One last pitfall we all fall into, no matter if we are the educator or the parent, is the dreaded e-mail. We have all been on the receiving end of some horrible e-mails, and it literally takes our breath away when it happens. We need to always keep those experiences in mind, especially when we are sending a parent an e-mail.

In the past decade we have fallen into the trap of sending an e-mail to explain a situation because it is “easier” and we are pressed for time. All too often those e-mails require a phone call to clarify, which means that we could have saved time and heartache by just picking up the phone.

Not every situation requires a phone call but educators (and some principals too!) need to think before they press send. My secretary, who I respect greatly, tells me to put it under my blotter and take time to think before I press send. If I receive an e-mail that is negative, she looks at me and simply says, “Put it under your blotter and go down to see the kindergartners. Answer the e-mail later.” I usually listen, and after I calm down I am able to resolve the situation.

Always keep in mind that the simplest of statements can be misread in e-mail. Think of all the different ways the following statement can be read. “Your child had an issue today on the playground that I need to talk with you about.” Read it any way you like, e-mail has a habit of taking on a tone that is not there. Even worse, e-mail can take on the tone that you wanted it to.

In the End
In the end, relationships matter. In my spare time I present at conferences for the International Center for Leadership in Education, and they focus on Rigor, Relevance and Relationships. I find that the most important first step for any educator is to establish positive relationships with students, parents and colleagues.

Whether we like it or not, on days when we are exhausted from repeating the same direction over and over or are tired from seeing yet another politician say that we are failing, we need to remember that we are in the business of working with people. Some of those people are parents, and some of those people are the small ones that walk in our doors every morning. How we communicate with them matters.

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Acronyms that we use (there are many more than this but it’s a good start):
CSE - Committee of Special Education
IEP - Individual Education Plan
SPED - Special Education
AIS - Academic Intervention Services
CST - Child Study Team...also known as Individual Study Team (IST)
G&T - Gifted and Talented
HAL - High Ability Learners

Covey, Stephen. (1989). The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Simon & Schuster. New York, NY.


The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.