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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

What Does “Parents As Partners” Really Mean?

By Peter DeWitt — December 04, 2012 5 min read
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The interesting adults are always the school failures, the weird ones, the losers, the malcontents. This isn’t wishful thinking. It’s the rule. My advice to any child reading this: If you’re particularly good at the violin or math, for God’s sake don’t let anyone find out. Particularly your parents. If they know you’re good at stuff they’ll force you to do it forever. You’ll wake up and find yourself in a sweaty dinner jacket and clip-on bow tie playing “The Music of the Night” for the ten-thousandth time in an orchestra pit. (A.A. Gill. The Parenting Trap. Vanity Fair)”

Recently, Education Week published an article entitled ‘Soft Skills’ Pushed as Part of College Readiness (Adams). In the article, Dan Jones, the president of the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors said “Millennials have had helicopter parents who have protected them. They haven’t had the opportunity to struggle. When they come to college and bad things happen, they haven’t developed resiliency and self-soothing skills.”

The article was an excellent look at developing soft skills for students before they get to college. If you took the time to read the comments that ensued after, you read that there was an issue with the name “helicopter parents.” It really was a good example in how adults need soft skills too.

The problem is that everyone has an opinion about what helicopter parents mean. For some parents it is an offensive phrase that means they care about their children and want to support them as they negotiate their way through life. To others, it means a parent that wants their children to get a trophy for showing up, special treatment throughout the school day, and instant answers when they contact schools. It would be fine if those issues were big and needed instant answers, but there are some parents who abuse the privilege and call for the smallest of reasons.

The problem with communication between parents and schools is that every stakeholder enters the school with their own objective. As soon as things do not go well, finger pointing and conversations ensue in the faculty room between teachers and out in the parking lot between parents. Throw in some social networking sites like Facebook, and schools have the potential for a major problem.

Complicated Relationship
Parents and schools have always had a complicated relationship. If the parents had a bad experience while they were in school, they may carry that baggage and drop it off with their children. However, schools have always had considerable baggage as well and send mixed messages to parents. Some schools hold one hand up waving parents in assuring them that they love to work together and another hand telling them to stop at the door.

The truth is everyone needs to have boundaries. Teachers can’t be interrupted while they are beginning to teach, so parents who can’t instantly talk about an issue walk away feeling rejected because the teacher couldn’t talk to them. It is so vitally important that parents, teachers and administrators find some common ground. The reality is that schools need parents. Parents can be the biggest cheerleaders, offer great ideas, they vote on budgets and most of all, they send their children to school. Parents deserve to be heard and schools have to continue to find ways to communicate better.

Life is busy. Schools are filled with mandates and the past few years have been tough because of a negative campaign against teachers. How some of that will end is by creating a positive relationship between home and school. There will always be parents who dislike what schools do just like there are teachers and administrators who ignore what parents want. The same hand that we have that points one finger at someone else has a few more pointing back at us.

Parents are one of the reasons educators have jobs. They send us their most important resource which is their children. No matter what happens, good or bad, teachers and administrators need to remember that they work with the public...and parents are a part of that public. It does not mean that parents are the educational experts but they do have great ideas that can make the school a better place.

Parents have to understand that their child isn’t the only one in the classroom. Teachers are educating a classroom filled with students, many of whom who have parents that want their children to get a high quality education as well. Schools want more than parents who sign assignments, pay their PTA dues, and show up to parent conferences. They don’t need parents who are abusive every time they call or e-mail.

In the End
Schools are required to challenge students, and students are required to do the work to be challenged. It doesn’t mean death by ditto; it means real engaging work that will help students further their knowledge. It means a balance between curriculum that teachers know is important and projects that are student-centered which will give them a sense of ownership.

Whether we like it or not there are children who do not learn soft skills at home and need to learn them at school. Teachers and principals need to define what working with parents means and it changes as the grades go higher and higher. Not because teachers who teach higher grades do not like parents but because students need to learn a greater level of independence as they mature. If that isn’t allowed to happen, there will be students who enter college lacking the soft skills that they desperately need.

Things to Remember:
• Teachers and administrators shouldn’t be surprised if parents talk negatively about the school if teachers and administrators talk negatively about parents or worse, about their children.

• As educators, we will believe half of what your kids say about you if you only believe half of what they say about us. Kids are kids and they don’t always get stories correct. If something seems like a red flag, seek out the teacher.

• Go to the “lowest” level first. Don’t go to the principal about a small problem with a teacher that you never spoke to. It’s like having someone go to your boss without ever talking with you first. Most times it’s a miscommunication. If it turns into a bigger problem and you can’t get a resolution, go see the building leader.

• Don’t “drop in” to see a teacher. Many times they have 25 kids or more in their class and those students and their parents deserve the best teacher that they can have. If there is an issue, send an e-mail or make a phone call.

• E-mail - I love technology and communication but e-mail can take on a tone that is not there for teachers and parents. Or worse, it can take on a tone that is there! Don’t e-mail back and forth because sooner or later you’ll need to make a phone call. Save the keyboard from the banging and pick up the phone.

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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.