I remember the first Back to School Night as a principal. I introduced the teachers and invited them to leave for a few extra minutes in their classrooms. I shared with parents our plans for the year, adding a reminder as parents were heading to the classes that Back to School Night follows an extended school day and is one of the most nerve-wracking moments of a teacher's year.
As many parents greeted me on the way to class, they shared they had never thought about how challenging Back to School Night was for teachers. They had nervously approached Back to School Night, wondering if the curriculum was challenging enough but not too challenging, wondering how their child was doing in class, and wondering if they would hear any concerns from teachers or administration-- driving home how often we forget to nurture the relationship between parents and teachers.
The parent-teacher relationship consists of the adults our children spend most of their day with, the adults with shared goals for helping our children develop healthy relationships with themself, with learning, with peers, and with the school community.
The parent-teacher relationship is not without its challenges as we often disagree about how to meet these shared goals. And because of the segmented relationship, we avoid engaging in challenging yet important topics. As a consultant, parent, and educator, I have heard many times over, "We agree we need to work on this area, but we know the parents will object," thus ending the discussion. Or "Yes, the school says my child is struggling, but it's not him, it's the teachers, and the administration protects the teachers," thus ending, for the moment, the chance to identify potential struggles for the child and targeted supports. I have also heard parents say, “I want to call the teacher, but I don't want to be that parent,” thus avoiding questions that, if addressed early, may head off more significant concerns later.
Many of us struggle to care for the parent-teacher relationship in day-to-day living. So, how do we care for the parent-teacher relationship in the time of COVID-19?
- We embrace that we get to co-create the “new normal,” and we decide what kind of relationship we want to have. We ask of ourselves, “Do we want to be a community of people who complain about each other?" Or "Do we want to be a community who works together toward our shared goals?”
- We assume certain matters to be true. We presume most teachers were not trained to teach remotely, to teach by packet, or not to teach their students at all. We assume parents were not prepared to parent their school-aged children at home every day, particularly when those children were not able to see their friends. We assume educating the children is not the top priority at all times as many teachers and parents are working from home or concerned they won't work again. Parents and teachers may be in the position of having to work while their young children need parent and teacher time; many are caring for loved ones near and far amongst other responsibilities during this confusing era. We assume the best in each other, speaking to and about each other from this shared assumption. We remember our shared goals have not changed, even as the circumstances we are in have changed.
- We recognize what is normal. This point in spring is often challenging as we careen toward the end of the year, often bringing irritability and limit-testing and resulting in clashes between students, parents, and teachers. Feeling this way is something familiar, and we know how to navigate it as we have done so before.
- We ask how we can support each other with “How are you?” and “How can we best meet our shared goals?” When we are confused or challenged, we ask each other how to clear up the confusion or meet the challenge. Simply put, we resist assuming the other is not doing their job as a parent or teacher and ask how we can co-construct the plan for meeting as many of our shared goals as possible.
- We elevate what is going well no matter how small, and we ask what is working. Through these touchpoints, we ground the parent-teacher relationship in communicating care for the student and for our shared experiences. When asked what was going well, a student struggling with being away from friends shared that a highlight of her week was a movie review with her friends via Google Hangout. On the surface, this may not seem academically beneficial. Still, it gave her a sense of normalcy, created a few inside jokes, and prompted her to think outside the box about her English assignment, with the idea that the class make mini-movies about their readings followed by a movie night of their own making.
- We can remember this is a new situation for everyone, we need to work together to figure out what works and adjust as needed.
As a parent with kids unexpectedly home and as an educator learning how to work with faculty, staff, parents, and students in a new way, I know it’s easy to fall back into the divided relationship between parents and teachers. However, I hope that one of the new normals to come from this time is a stronger parent-teacher relationship forged in the shared task of thinking in new ways about how to meet our shared goals of nurturing the child's development of healthy relationships with themself, with learning, with peers, and with the school community.
Jen Cort worked as a counselor, principal, and senior administrator for 25 years before moving to consulting for schools on equity, diversity, inclusion, and justice. Jen is the host of a podcast called Third Space with Jen Cort.