Professional Development Opinion

Response: A Conversation About Building Trust Between Parents & Teachers

By Larry Ferlazzo — March 22, 2012 5 min read
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(This is Part Two of a three part series on parent engagement. You can see Part One here)

Kanwal Sachdeva asked:

I enjoyed reading your article on ‘how to make students learn to listen’. My question is- How do we make parents to listen to the teachers? You know, for the students who need more help, the parents are not available to talk or they will not really listen. How do we make them understand teacher’s perspective and not believe everything that the student is saying? How do we build that trust?

Parent engagement is a critical piece in creating a successful learning environment. Thanks for raising this important issue, Kanwal!

Earlier this week, National PTA President Betsy Landers and Carrie Rose, Executive Director of the Parent/Teacher Home Visit Project, shared their responses to this question. Next week, I’ll be responding, along with other guests and readers.

Today, though, I’m lucky enough to have Steve Constantino and Joe Mazza share a conversation they had on this topic.

Response From Steve Constantino and Joe Mazza

Steve Constantino serves as superintendent of Williamsburg-James City Country School District in Williamsburg, Virginia. He has traveled extensively as a speaker, capacity-builder and leader in the arena of family engagement and has worked in hundreds of schools in hundreds of districts on four different continents. He is the author of several books focusing on family engagement and is working on a new one called “Engaging Every Family: The New Standards for Global Family Engagement.” Find him on Twitter at @SMConstantino.

Joe Mazza serves as principal of Knapp Elementary School in suburban Philadelphia, PA. He is a current doctoral learner at the University of Pennsylvania studying technology’s impact on home-school partnerships. Each Wednesday night, he facilitates a weekly #PTchat (Parent-Teacher Chat) on Twitter and writes eFACE Today, a blog aimed to share innovative family engagement ideas for schools. Find him on Twitter at @Joe_Mazza.

Steve: The recent MetLife Survey of the American Teacher contained an interesting piece of information. Even though teacher morale and satisfaction are at an all time low, teachers report higher levels of satisfaction in places where family engagement is strong. So, how do we replicate that positive experience for all teachers?

The culture of public education has contained as a core element, an attitude of “we know best” and “trust us, we are the professionals.” The combination of little exposure to family engagement research and practice in teacher preparation programs coupled with teachers’ initial experiences with families’ which more often than not are less than positive, and what results is a perfect storm of mistrust between families and teachers. In many studies, families report better more trusting relationships with bus drivers than they do with teachers.

So what is the secret to building trusting relations between families and parents? The first step is to understand that we as educators are not always right. We must be honest in our relationships with families.

Joe: I agree, Steve. It’s important to understand that building trusting relationships between families and parents is not an isolated area of education. Schools and school districts have a certain culture about them that you notice right away if trusting relationships exist. It starts with the leadership. If the culture is collaborative, superintendents and principals consistently stress and role-model the importance of relational trust amongst parents and teachers. It takes vision, hard work and buy-in amongst stakeholders to get to this point. It is not something that a single program or goal document can accomplish.

As leaders, we have to go about building trust with our families in the same manner as we do our staff. In my position, “not always having the right answer” occurs daily, and it’s fuels an excitement and opportunity for collaboration.

Steve: We must understand that trust cannot be legislated, it can only be earned. Educators often create cultures of uncertainty for parents and families. Believing that every family has value and communicating that belief goes a long way to promoting the kind of relationships necessary for meaningful home-school partnerships to occur.

Joe: Yes, Steve, from day one educators must begin building this trust with parent partners. The investment in trust goes a long way as the parent-teacher-child team moves throughout the year. We know there will be successes and challenges. Developing this strong bond is the goal I have for each of my teachers AND parents. It’s hard work but being on a team and seeing through each other’s lenses is hard work.

Steve: Two-way communication between teachers and families is essential. Most schools are excellent with one way communication...we send stuff home and usually try to control what we get back. ( i. e. signatures, fill out forms, etc.) More often than not there is no system in place to promote real two-way communication.

Joe: Today, there are more two-way communication options than ever. Although none will ever be more meaningful than face to face communication with the tone, eye contact and empathy that method offers. Many educators are using social media tools such as video-conferencing, blogs, texts and Twitter to communicate with their families more consistently. No matter what tool we use, it’s our job to differentiate for their needs, “meet the parents where they are.” This might mean communicating with social media for one portion of the school’s population and using hard copies exclusively for others. We must accept and respond that today’s tough economic times make parents less available than ever. How do we know what our parents need from year to year? We have to ask them. When we make decisions based upon their needs, it goes a long way in building that relational trust. In the end, the kids win when everyone is playing on the same team.

Steve: Valuing the role of all families, regardless of who they are, in shaping the educational destiny of children will go a long way to breaking down barriers between families and schools, building trust between families and teachers and ultimately helping all children succeed.

Please feel free to leave a comment sharing your reactions to this question and the ideas shared here. As I mentioned earlier, I’ll be including many in Part Three of this series next Wednesday.

Thanks to Steve and Joe for sharing their responses!

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

Anyone whose question is selected for this weekly column can choose one free book from a selection of twelve published by Eye On Education.

I’ll be posting the next “question of the week” in seven days.

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo 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.