Personalization: Compassion and the Parent — Teacher Partnership

“Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.” Pema Chodron

Everyone agrees children learn best when the significant adults in their lives work together to encourage and support them. With this end in mind, school leaders lay the foundation of productive home-school partnerships by carefully crafting communication plans, so parents understand the nuts and bolts of school life. They listen to parental concerns without becoming defensive and support teachers in problem-solving. Many schools offer multiple opportunities for parents to become involved in the school community. These critical elements are not enough to ensure positive home-school partnerships. Teachers are the key.

Often seasoned professionals and novice educators view parent relationships as an extra job duty. Many teachers describe parents as demanding, critical and impossible to please. Their fear is real; everyone knows at least one teacher who suffered through a terrible year because of a misstep that spiraled out of control. Other teachers decry parental apathy, complaining about the amount of time spent on parent communication that yields no or negative response. Even teachers who deftly handle prickly parents and sticky situations dread spending hours crafting messages to families and responding to needs. Fear and dread of parents block authentic connections at the heart of satisfying relationships. By framing our work with compassion, and curiosity teachers can develop real, respectful and productive partnerships with parents. In Part One I discuss why compassion for parents is essential and in Part Two I address curiosity.

There is nothing more beautiful nor more uncertain than raising a child. It is the most compelling, unpredictable, experience of love possible, but it doesn’t come with a map or compass. When parents send their children to school, they are sharing that precious experience with teachers, experts in understanding children, who may notice their parenting mistakes and most certainly will influence the child’s view of the world. Moms and dads are keenly aware of the power we have to make judgments and wield influence over their children. Naturally, parents feel vulnerable. When we recognize and accept their vulnerability and ours, we can act with compassion. Teaching presents us with many opportunities to act compassionately.

One of the most important acts of compassion is to suspend judgment. Judgment clouds our ability to understand. A few years ago a parade of angry, anxious parents shared intense and numerous complainants about a talented educator and Head of School. They barely acknowledged her obvious teaching gifts or the love she lavished on their children. Instead, they focused on a series of small mistakes, which separately were trivial but had aggregated to create a tsunami of discontent. They were sure she did not like her job, their children or them. Half of the year had passed, and there were few positive connections between the educator and the parent community. When I spoke with this gentle, experienced school leader, she expressed exasperation with the parents. She described them as entitled, in denial about the needs of their children and failing parenting 101 by allowing too much screen time and ignoring reasonable bedtimes. She wanted to offer parents advice through a series of parenting workshops. She had much to offer, but first, she had to pause and consider what the parents wanted from her. Simple steps quickly turned things around. She greeted them with a smile, her presence at drop-off and pick up became predictable, and she used that time to share the day’s many bright moments. By focusing on the joy she found in teaching instead of on her concerns about the parents she won their confidence. Until they felt confident in her commitment to their children and safe from her judgment they could not connect with her. By the end of that year, the families engaged happily in the life of the school community. They joined field trips and even took a school-wide camping trip. A year later her parenting workshops were popular, and the school community she nurtured was thriving.

Compassion counters anger. Every teacher I know has received at least one angry email from a parent or felt the sting of a critical comment made on Back-to-School Night or in a parent conference. It’s hard to respond with compassion when we feel attacked but doing so transforms our outlook and renews our energy. By taking a breath and recognizing our feelings, we are better able to consider the fears behind hurtful remarks. “How can I help?” is an effective first response to an upset parent. When we listen compassionately, defensiveness falls away, and we don’t feel the need to give quick answers. Instead, we can say, “Thank you for bringing this to my attention. Doing so is a first step in making things better. After I listen, I will need time to think deeply about what I have learned, and we will meet again to discuss moving forward.”

Delivering bad news to parents is one of the hardest aspects of teaching. Whether calling home with a report of misbehavior or meeting to discuss the complex needs of a struggling child compassion can diffuse simmering anxiety felt by parent and teacher. When speaking with two parents of a boy who was struggling to succeed academically and socially, I noticed tears welling in the mother’s eyes and the father’s clenched fists. I stopped midsentence and said, “I am sorry this is hard for you and your son. I know it may not feel like it right now but I believe in him. I know he is curious and creative. I enjoy hearing his ideas. I have worked with children with similar profiles, so I know he can shine. It will take hard work and time, but I believe we can work through these challenges. I hope that together we will take the first step today.” By allowing myself to see and acknowledge the pain of parents who were very upset with me and by demonstrating my genuine knowledge of their child’s potential I was able to guide us to common ground. That family eventually decided our school was not the best place for their son to thrive. They did not leave in anger. They thanked me for caring for their son and for helping them to understand his needs. I recently heard from them. Their son is thriving, and they thanked me for giving them hope.

The compassion we bring to work with parents is not pity, charity or care without boundaries. It is intertwined with empathy. Compassion is the recognition of vulnerability, ours and the parents, followed by acts that demonstrate our understanding and desire to help. When we practice compassion to the parents of our students, we can set boundaries. Even the most anxious, demanding parent will accept limits when they feel cared for and heard. Authentic relationships are grounded in compassion, and real, respectful relationships with parents allow us to know our students well and guide them to reach their full potential.

Educator, entrepreneur, boundary crosser, community builder, advocate for learners of all ages.