Family Engagement

Listening to Parents: What It Means to Be an Ally

The best ways to build trust with parents are thinking before you react, being fully present, not offering quick fixes, and committing to follow-ups.

December 3, 2014

As a first-year principal, I sat uneasily in a police station waiting for information about my ninth-grade student Michael. Suddenly, his mother Angela arrived, her eyes wide open, her forehead creased, her mouth set. She was calm but ready to go to battle for her son. Angela walked straight up to the counter and asked to see Michael, chiding the officer that it was unacceptable to hold a 14-year-old without clearly communicating the reason to an advocate. By then, we believed that Michael had been the victim of police brutality, although officers would soon charge him with resisting arrest.

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Minutes later, another officer escorted us brusquely to an interrogation room and said that he would bring Michael. While we waited, I listened to Angela quietly share her feelings about the situation and the unjust outcome she was anticipating. As much as I wanted to offer answers, I focused my heart and mind on hearing her perspectives as an African-American mother.

This incident left me with lingering questions about how educators can become real allies to our parents, particularly across racial and class differences. What does it mean to be an ally? What behaviors foster an alliance with parents, and what can get in the way? Over ten years later, I understand that the first step is almost always listening.

As educators, we have been trained to act as experts. We wield knowledge as a professional panacea and struggle to simply listen when parents express their concerns and feelings. Lacking tools for reflection, we may jump to defend ourselves or discount the parent's version of events as a way to manage our own discomfort. But as listening educators, we can develop a toolkit that guides us gently in a different direction.

Here are four ways that listening educators can build meaningful alliances with parents.

1. Think Before You React

We all have sensitivities that can be triggered by a distraught parent. A parent's concern or issue may provoke feelings of defensiveness, judgment, or conflicting values. It is essential to cultivate mindfulness about your own triggers, to interrupt running negative stories that you hold about a parent, and to breathe deeply into the business of listening. As you notice your triggers and slow down your reaction, new interpretations and responses become available.

2. Be Fully Present

As you soften your defenses, work to become fully present as a listener. This requires that you cue your brain, body, and heart to open to whatever the parent has to say (even if it's hard to hear). Sometimes, I'll literally say in my head, "All you need to do right now is be present and listen." Presence requires that you set aside your phone, paperwork, and other distractions to offer the pure gift of attention to another human being. Believe me, parents will notice the difference, and a palpable sense of trust will begin to emerge.

3. Don't Offer a Quick Fix

As tempting as it may be to leap into problem solving, try not to go there first. Particularly when working across difference, your attempt at "solving" the issue may signal to a parent that you don't really understand his or her struggles. Instead, take time to honor and explore the complexity of the problem, asking questions to consider different angles. If a parent expresses concern around a child’s performance and asks if you have a bias against the child, you may feel insulted. But what if you said, "Wow, I don't want any of my students to feel that I'm biased against them. I care about them all. Can you share more about what I'm doing to create this perception?" It is also powerful to ask, "How can I become a stronger ally with you and your child?"

4. Commit to Following Up

Trust isn't built during a single interaction. It emerges over time when we listen, stay present, and circle back to establish open channels of communication with parents. If a parent brings you a concern, listen to and explore that concern, ask what support he or she is seeking, and set a time to check back in. Even when the primary issue is resolved, it's powerful to send an email, make a call, or walk up to the parent at school to say, "How are things going, really?" By simply reaching out, you will be helping to cultivate trust and alliance.

Parents know a listening educator when they meet one, but the good news is that we can all grow into this transformational approach to working with our families. I think back to my police station conversation with Angela and recall my urgent desire to tell her what I had done and would do to support her son. At the end of the day, my real work was to quiet my mind and listen to her voice. Through this simple shift, I learned so much more and became positioned as a real advocate.

When and how do you do your best listening with parents? What ways have you found that help parents to express themselves honestly? When have you struggled to build an alliance with a parent, and what did you learn?