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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Parents and Teachers: Turning Conflicts Into Partnerships

It was back to school night. I was teaching American History. A parent asked me, somewhat accusingly, "Given your liberal bias, how do you plan to teach the New Deal?" My assumption was that this was a Republican parent. My response was, "Well, as to being a liberal, guilty as charged! But as a history teacher, I have a responsibility to help students look critically at the varied perspectives of historical events. I give equal and fair time to Wilkie and other good Republicans." After the session ended, we chatted about how FDR tried to stack the Supreme Court, and I told him I was aware that FDR didn't walk on water.

There were two key variables operating for me. First, I knew my subject very well and knew that I placed my emphasis on students' critical thinking and effectively drawing conclusions, never on indoctrination. Second, I always responded to parents non-defensively and tried to imagine what they were feeling as I communicated with them. After all, I was also a parent!

I want to share a few ways in which parents and teachers can build bridges when they have differences of opinion related to the student and/or the course. I'm purposely omitting an examination of teacher interactions with highly destructive parents and parent dealings with clearly bad teachers. These are not normative and, while important, need exploration as separate topics.

Roles and Expectations

While I believe strongly in a close relationship between parents and teachers, natural allies in educating and supporting the development of children, parent-teacher conflict is also a common phenomenon. The question is: how can conflicts be resolved and, if possible, lead to positive outcomes?

An exercise I did with my teacher interns may be instructive. I gave them a fictitious letter from two immigrant Filipino parents who felt that their sons were not getting the full support they needed. A Filipino colleague who knew many immigrant parents created the letter. The interns were asked to write a response. Then I engaged them in an in-class role-play where they took turns representing their own position and the parents' position.

All too often, the interns explained to the parents the rationale for their teaching approach and tried to assure them that they were not discriminating. But some understood that they needed to focus their attention on truly listening to the parents, putting themselves in the place of the parents. They assured the parents that they would do a better job of attending to their two sons.

When there are parent-teacher conflicts, the factors most frequently at work are (a) control issues, and/or (b) differences in values, and/or (c) different perceptions of the student. And the three are often closely related.

It's important that parents understand they can't control what happens in class and that the classroom is the domain of the teacher. Similarly, teachers have to let go of any notion that they can control what happens in the student's home. What each can do, however, is listen carefully to see if they can learn something from the other about what could improve things for the student in either of those settings.

Communication and Compromise

It was important for me as a parent to immediately let my son's and daughter's teachers know if there was any crisis at home that might affect my kids in school. It was also important for me to let them know when my kids felt excessive school-related pressure that was causing them to lose their appetites or lose sleep. Almost every teacher I encountered was responsive to that feedback.

Similarly, as a teacher I spent a lot of time carefully informing concerned parents about what my approach was to teaching and what kind of classroom environment I established. And whenever a parent contacted me with some concern or criticism, I tried not to be defensive.

It is inevitable that there will be value differences, but still there is often frustration when someone doesn't share our values. Both teachers and parents need to remind themselves that differences in values can be bridged only by respect for each other's values and a willingness to compromise.

In addition, parents and teachers may have very different perceptions of a student, and both are usually correct. It's not surprising that students behave differently in different contexts. By sharing their perceptions, parents and teachers each develop a greater understanding of the student.

Perceptions and Realities

This blog barely scratches the surface of a very fertile topic, so I recommend that you check out these additional sources.

My colleague Rick Curwin’s Edutopia blog, Parents and Teachers: The Possibility of a Dream Team, is at the top of my list. Rick often has excellent ideas for both teachers and parents. Pay particular attention to his comments about "dumping." Both blaming and defending are counterproductive to effective teacher-parent relationships.

Although I’m not crazy about the titles, two books by Todd Whitaker come highly recommended, Dealing with Difficult Parents: And Parents in Difficult Situations and Dealing with Difficult Teachers. I think if we remember that each of us can be perceived as difficult when we have differences with each other, care and communication can make us a lot easier!

Another excellent source is Allen Mendler's Handling Parents. It's available from the Teacher Learning Center.

The bottom line for me is that teachers should feel secure in their knowledge of their subject and their philosophy, should welcome parents' perspectives and even their critical feedback, should never be defensive and, to truly take the role of the parent, should put themselves in the parent's shoes.

For parents, it's important to meet with the teacher as soon as possible when any concerns develop, to share these concerns, and to listen carefully to the teacher’s perspective so that every parent really understands what happens in his or her child's classroom.

And to the degree that both parent and teacher can let go of any notion that they are "right" and instead focus on mutually helping the student, conflicts can truly become partnerships.

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