PJ Caposey is the principal of Oregon High School, an adjunct professor in the educational leadership department for Aurora University, and he is currently pursuing his Doctoral degree through Western Illinois University. He is the author of Eye On Education’s book Building a Culture of Support: Strategies for School Leaders. He can be found on Twitter @principalpc, and he is a guest blogger for many websites such as Eye on Education, ASCD, Edutopia, and Test Soup.
“They either do not communicate at all or they communicate too much. It seems like I either cannot get an answer or they are on my voice mail three times a week.”
These exact same comments are heard in teacher’s lounges throughout the country as teachers complain about parents and in coffee houses in the same town as parents complain about teachers. Communication is such a fundamental part of any partnership, but it is still something that parents and schools struggle to get right.
I, like many educators, have the benefit of wearing two hats in the educational system – that of a professional and as a parent. Through my experiences in each realm I have developed three tips that traverse the individual roles and can help to bridge the sometimes significant communication gap that exists between parents and schools. Let’s call them the 3 F’s:
FEAR – The fear of the unknown exists in nearly every parent/school communication. When talking off the record with most parents they indicate that their heart rate accelerates when the see the school phone number appear on the caller ID. The thought, “Oh no, what did my child do now” races through their minds. Similarly, when a teacher checks their voicemail after working with 30 nine-year olds for seven hours and hear a random parents voice, they think, “Oh no, what did I do now.”
This conversational fear is exactly why so many parent/school conversations start off poorly. There is a failure by the other party to realize that the natural defensiveness of the other person with whom they are trying to communicate. Teaching is very personal. Raising a child is very personal. Whenever any human fears that one of those two things is going to be criticized, the majority of people’s natural reaction is to become defensive. Understanding the natural fear that surrounds parent/school communications allows for the other party to set a different tone during the conversation – a tone that lends itself toward productive discourse rather than defensive talking that generally does not lend itself to the end goal – helping students.
FLEXIBILITY – The purpose of communicating with parents as a teacher, or with a teacher as a parent, is to increase the effectiveness of the school environment for kids and thus increase student achievement. It seems simple, but that is truly the core issue for nearly all parent/school communication. With that purpose in mind, communicating effectively becomes of optimum importance, not simply communicating. Both parties must remember, communication is a two-way process. There is a delivery and reception of information – and you can only control one of those things.
In this day and age, it is imperative that you learn to communicate in the modality the person you want to communicate with prefers. If I am a teacher who hates texting, but it is the only way I can reach Bobby’s mother – then that is what I need to do. If I am a parent who knows if I email Mrs. Smith I will get an answer that day and if I call I may wait a week for a response – then emailing is what I need to do. Too often, both parents and teachers get in a game of ‘communication chicken’ refusing to alter what they are comfortable with in order to appease the other party. Remembering that the purpose of communication is to support student growth – I encourage all parties to be perfectly happy losing that game of chicken.
FOLLOW-THROUGH – Effective communication builds, and in many cases, requires trust. There is nothing that erodes trust in a parent/school relationship faster than lack of follow through. Many times – too often in fact – communication between school and home requires problem-solving or intervention to take place on behalf of the child.
Conversations that generate ideas, strategies, and plans to help kids must be enacted. I have been witness to these plans failing because of the failure to follow-through by both parties.
The rules of engagement or simple: never commit to something you do not believe will benefit the student and always follow through with what was agreed to. In cases where those two things occur – positive, productive relationships with outstanding rapport emerge.