Finish this statement: “The kids aren’t the problem. It’s the ______.” Did you say either adults or parents? Then you are not alone! Many teachers say the same.
After years in the public school setting, one of our writers transitioned from teaching to being a stay-at-home parent, though, and found that the other side of the table brought its own set of challenges. Although they experienced over a decade in the classroom, the experience was not at all what they imagined it would be.
Here are some insights into the world of education from a parent’s viewpoint.
Schools Are Intimidating
Parents with Childhood Trauma
For some parents, school was a safe haven for them as children. Other parents had perfectly acceptable school experiences, but school was school and not necessarily their favorite part of life.
Still others are dealing with trauma associated with learning, personal disabilities, or difficult experiences with school staff and faculty during their childhood. These parents do not feel comfortable in the school setting. Teachers are intimidating by nature and frightening to deal with.
For these parents, school is a scary place, and they feel terrible having to leave their children there each day. They fear that their child will have similar struggles.
It is very difficult to move past the survival mechanism in place with these parents, and their fear often takes the form of anger and frustration, which is a more socially acceptable approach. They will use any excuse to fuel their anger and fight with teachers and principals because being angry is easier than expressing feelings of unworthiness, stupidity, or fear.
Even parents who do not have built up trauma in relation to school may be easily “triggered”. School is a formal place filled with adults who learn for a living. They may feel that they don’t know enough to even hold up their end of a conversation.
The sad truth is that schools have to be an extension arm of the law in many cases of child welfare which puts the school in a difficult position with some families. This is especially true of families who live in fear of law enforcement.
Letters threatening legal action for tardiness and absences, calls to CPS, and endless paperwork requiring proof of status for everything from the inability to pay for school lunches to homelessness and disability may be necessary, but they are also harmful to the relationships schools have with families.
Some families only send their children to school because they are legally required to do so, and it can be humiliating for families to be involved in any of the situations above.
We can’t neglect our legal responsibilities. However, we must be aware of the strain caused by situations families find themselves in and consequences of decisions they make and do what we can to acknowledge it and bridge the gaps it creates between schools and families.
Schools Can Be Unwelcoming, Unfriendly, and Unsafe
School secretaries may answer hundreds of questions a day from families via phone calls, emails, and family walk-ins. It may seem impossible to create a welcoming atmosphere in the midst of all that activity, much less within the classroom, but it is important to families that they are included in the education of their children.
The added stress in the last few years brought on by increasing acts of gun violence does not do much in the way of helping parents and students feel safe. In fact, many efforts to make schools safer serve to also make schools less welcoming.
Combating not only the reputation of schools for becoming unwelcoming, unfriendly, and unsafe, but the reality that children are dying due to violence is a tall order. Schools and communities must continue to work together to find the best solutions possible for keeping students safe.
Schools Are Confusing
Never assume parents know what you’re talking about. Schools run in their own dimension of reality. From confusing acronyms to events and activities that are unclear, we could definitely improve upon explaining our processes in layman’s terms.
Ways Schools Can Bridge the Gap
Offer Definitions and Information Freely and Often
Sure, explaining and informing are great, but where do we even start? Unless you are immersed in the school culture on a daily basis, it’s pretty hard to truly understand a lot of the acronyms used, activities done, testing terms, or any of the other hundreds and thousands of things parents may not understand.
Front-load your communication issues by first listening with intent. What questions are parents asking? As a school, start tracking queries. Once you feel you’ve started a good working list, start answering those questions as a grade level, department, or school depending on who needs the information.
For example, you may create a handout for ARDs with lists of acronyms.
During parent-teacher conferences, each teacher may have a standard list of things that all parents need to be told or questions that should be asked.
Doctors do this. There are screeners for things like depression and anxiety in many states. Everyone is asked the same questions.
These solutions may not necessarily change things immediately, but at the very least it provides the opportunity for open conversations about difficult topics.
Administrators should consider the aspects of the educator’s job that mirror customer service jobs. Providing resources for teachers so they aren’t left in a lurch when dealing with parents can do so much to assist them.
Rather than providing professional development that does little more than motivate, consider practical training that helps teachers develop a plan for dealing with an irate parent, or what to do when an angry parent parks in the pickup line and starts yelling at everyone.
Become a Safe Haven for the Community
One of the most effective alternatives for safety is to increase the number of community members that have ownership in the school.
Parents are sometimes in desperate need of resources and don’t know where to begin looking or who to ask. In some communities, the answer is to create a hub within the school by making a place where parents and students can get food, clothing, use laundry facilities, and be given information on counseling and other services within the community.
At one time, counselors were expected to provide these services, but “counselors” are no longer much more than testing coordinators and facilitators (a tragedy that must be rectified, but we will save that topic for another blog).
Parents need information and advice, and they rarely want to approach the school to find that information, so they often get those needs fulfilled by talking to other parents. The problem with this is that it sometimes works like the game “telephone”. By the time the information gets to the last parent in the line, it looks and sounds completely different from the original.
Parents are then working from misinformation.
One of the best things a school can do is intentionally educate parents.
You cannot over-communicate. That’s not a thing. Educate parents on school processes, procedures, and as often as possible, answer “why”. Parents will jump through hoops of flaming fire for you if there is a good reason and it will help their children.
Sometimes the reason itself doesn’t even have to be that good! As long as there IS a reason, parents are more willing to help out.
Every parent has questions. Parents who are teachers working in the school can casually get their answers from observation and stealthy communication, but parents from outside the school don’t have that luxury. They may literally feel like they have no idea what happens in that building all day, and that amount of “unknown” happening every day “to” their most precious asset can be enough to push any parent off the deep end when something happens in the classroom of which they need to be aware.
Some of the topics parents may need information on beyond and in addition to the inner workings of the school are:
- appropriate and typical child development
- educational psychology
- parenting roles in education
- how learning works
- discipline dos and don’ts
- content information (how to help with reading, science, social studies, and math homework; tutoring refreshers without judgment for parents who don’t remember learning to read, or how to do fourth-grade math)
- citizenship, community, and how parents and school personnel can work together to make a successful school
Not all parents will need every type of assistance your school offers, but many desperately need help and are afraid or ashamed to ask. Schools have to start the conversation. Don’t wait for parents to come to you.
Make More Time to Communicate
First, the beginning of the year conferences should not be scheduled in ten-minute increments. Parents may not need a whole lot longer, but rushing through the only face-to-face meeting with a parent you may have all year is a bad idea.
Plan 45 minutes to an hour if possible, and let parents know you want to answer questions and hear their thoughts during that time. Tell them about the conference with plenty of advanced notice and give them a list of things they may want to think about beforehand. When you do this, you are giving yourselves the opportunity to confront any future issues you may have.
Even if the entire 45 minutes is spent swapping funny stories about the adorable or wacky things kids do, you’re establishing a rapport so that when you have a conflict, you can go to that parent as an equal and talk about the issue as fellow adults.
Often, if you are proactive in opening lines of communication in this way, most of the issues you face later in the year will be much easier to face together.