We begin each school year by welcoming new families into our community and assuring them that our philosophy is firmly rooted in the educator’s adage of “parents as partners.” As sincere as we are, how true is it in reality? Do all school staff, including administrators, counselors, and teachers, view the partnership through the same lens?
The word partner commonly connotes a member of a couple and an equal relationship with shared responsibility. In a thriving international school, like the one where I currently work as a High Ability Program Coordinator, where collaboration, teamwork, and shared decision-making take center stage, perhaps a more apt definition is the less used meaning of the word partner:
“One of the heavy timbers that strengthen a ship’s deck to support a mast —usually used in plural” – Merriam-Webster
At whatever level of involvement we encourage, invite, or expect, parents can at least participate as one or more of the heavy timbers. How can we effectively build and maintain the ideal heavy timber partnership with parents that strengthen and serve our children? I suggest starting with the 3 E’s: empathize, educate, and empower.
Particularly in international schools, we often find ourselves defaulting to a Western concept of education with its concomitant value system and social norms around rigor, wellness, and even how summer vacations are meant to be spent. Parents have intentionally chosen our schools because mission and vision are a good fit. But their goals, fears, and hopes for their child’s future success, and what they envision as the challenges and opportunities, may differ mildly or vastly from what we assume them to be. A parent recently shared her frustration at some of the schools’ assumptions, “Being the parent of gifted children has been tough. There is a stigma that we are demanding and that our kids aren’t actually gifted. We may appear demanding because we have had to try to meet their needs in systems designed around age cut-offs rather than actual needs. It’s been an endless pursuit and we have had some good partnerships and at other times, we have not.”
We must regularly elicit from parents the unique goals they have for their children, guiding our counseling and placements accordingly. We will be less apt to label parents as “pushy” or “problematic” when we truly understand and can empathize with the concerns they have for their children. Beneath every complaint or request is a common truth: parents simply want what is best for their kids. They don’t want to set them up for failure. They are anxious to make the right decisions at the right time. They don’t want to feel as if they missed an opportunity to provide them with the best chance for a successful life.
I often encounter parents who are more attuned than we are to the academic needs of their children, and no wonder: they have been studying, observing, and researching ways to support their gifted children for many years, so they have an eye for what does and does not work. One gifted parent reflected, “Had someone asked, my child was solving complex puzzles at home, learning musical patterns more rapidly than older peers at music class, and had a keen sense of understanding feelings and relationships. She also had very intense feelings and reactions that she saved for us until she was home from school.”
Other parents may not have gleaned the insights we have about their children from the unique setting of school (playground or collaborative group leadership, facility in learning notes in music class, and the like), so effective parent-school partnership is clearly beneficial in our quest to understand and nurture the whole child. I recall one parent describing to me that they, “did not know our child learned patterns rapidly until a music teacher pointed it out to us. Turns out, once we started paying attention, it was any pattern whether solving a puzzle, predicting patterns, or understanding a music composition.”
Of course, during the pandemic many parents came to know their children in ways that only teachers typically do – level of engagement, stamina in attention, and academic interest. Still, there is more to discover on both sides of the partnership. For gifted students, find out what you may not be seeing at school in traditional classes and with grade-level, subject-specific tasks: hold a parent interview or have parents fill out a comprehensive gifted survey such as the GATES-2. Supply what may be lacking in their understanding of giftedness – hold regular parent workshops, ask them for topics they would be keen to learn, and equip them with tips on how to partner best with their student’s teachers and the school as a whole.
Finally, when you have empathized with your parents, educated them, and allowed them to educate you on their children, you will have given them a voice and provided them with tools for understanding and raising their highly able children. They can be recognized as active and valuable members of your student support teams in lieu of simply being passive listeners and signers of school-crafted plans and placements.
As one gifted parent entreats, “Listen to parents; we know our kids. We won’t know your school’s programs, differentiation, choice options, etc., but we do know our kids…we live with the intensity and endless hard work of trying to meet their needs.”
If we are intentional and consistent in reflecting the 3 E’s, we can make great strides in bridging the divide between our families and our schools – and reap the myriad benefits of authentic parent partnership as we share as heavy timbers in the complex task of educating our gifted children.
Anita Churchville is an educational consultant and founder of the HAGT Learners Collaborative. She currently coordinates the High Ability Program at the American School of Bombay and conducts professional development workshops at a number of private international schools. Anita can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and @ChurchvilleAN