Ever Feel Misunderstood?

I’ve been thinking about the communication gap that sometimes exists between parents and teachers and how we can narrow it. For example, has this ever happened to you?

A teacher offers advice on an issue a child is having, and the parent hears it as veiled criticism. The parent offers additional information to help the teacher more fully understand what’s going on, and the teacher thinks the parent is just making excuses.

Or this:

A parent relays a concern about his child’s experiences in school, and the child’s teacher feels she is under attack. The teacher responds by describing what she has observed, and the parent feels she’s dismissing his concerns.

The other day I was on the receiving end of such a conversation with a teacher, and the view from the parent side was enlightening. My young son has been taking swim lessons, and his well-meaning teacher suggested he move up to a level where he would have much less adult support in the pool. This suggestion may have fit his swimming abilities, but I know—from how stressed he gets on our way to class and how tightly he clutches me as he does his kicks through the water—that emotionally he’s not ready to be on his own in the pool. When I told his swim teacher this, she seemed annoyed. I’m sure she had no idea that her suggestion would be met with resistance. We were coming at the situation from completely different angles.

The same kind of disconnect occurs at school. As teachers, we look for ways to stretch students to meet learning benchmarks and behavioral expectations. Parents also want their children to achieve, but they know things that we may not. And they have their own experiences of school and teachers, as well as parenting styles and worries, and those things may also color how they hear and talk to teachers. Some of the disconnects may be inevitable, but there are things teachers can do to narrow communication gaps with parents. Here are a few ideas:

Give positive feedback about the child.

Photograph by Jeff Woodward.Throughout the year, let parents know of strengths, kind acts, learning risks, and other positives you observed in their children. Try to offer this positive feedback without attaching any advice or suggestions.

Invite parents to share their understanding of their child.

Remember that parents have known the children you teach a great deal longer than you have. Take advantage of that knowledge by inviting their hopes and dreams for the year, asking for their views of their child’s strengths and challenges, and seeking their insights into issues you are seeing.

Have some agenda-free interactions with families.

Instead of communicating with parents only when there is a problem or when you need something, aim to interact with them regularly just to stay in touch. Invite them to Morning Meetings or lunch or some other part of the school day, send them photos of their children at work or play, or go out of your way to say hello when you see them.

Try to talk when both of you are calm and un-rushed.

The swim teacher and I talked at the end of the day. She had been teaching all day, and I had just finished up my own day of work. Neither of us was at our best. If you can, talk when you are both un-rushed and not overly tired.

Try to see things from the parent’s point of view.

Strive to understand the parent’s perspective. If you are having trouble doing so, ask a colleague or trusted administrator to help.

Plan out potentially difficult conversations.

If you suspect that a conversation is going to be upsetting for a parent, ask a colleague or administrator to help you plan what you’ll say—and then practice it—so that you’re direct and empathetic.


Margaret Berry Wilson is the author of several books, including: The Language of Learning, Doing Science in Morning Meeting (co-authored with Lara Webb), Interactive Modeling, and Teasing, Tattling, Defiance & More.

Tags: Difficulties with Families, Family Connections, Working with Families

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