Parents and Teachers in Partnership by Head of School Bob Henderson
One of my most disconcerting parenting moments occurred when I attended a parent-teacher conference day when my oldest son was in kindergarten. It had nothing to do with any news that was delivered. Rather, it had everything to do with the seating arrangements. I entered the classroom somehow expecting that I would be having an adult interchange while perhaps seated on the opposite side of the teacher’s desk. Instead, I was directed to one of the tiny round tables where the kindergartners gathered. I sat down awkwardly in one of the little chairs that they used. The teacher, however, had a larger chair, although I suppose in retrospect that was fair enough given that the teacher had to be in that spot all day long. The psychological effect on me, however, was immediate and powerful; there I was in a diminutive setting, the teacher towering over me. The terms of our relationship, at least in my mind, were made clear. In reflective hindsight, there was absolutely nothing in that conference that was remotely difficult or confrontational, yet I could not help but feel like a supplicant.
As a school person, that was an important educational moment for me. Thereafter I have had keener insight into the complex relationships that parents have with schools and teachers. Everyone arrives with their own personality and baggage, and parents can feel uniquely vulnerable when interacting with teachers, advisors and coaches who have powerful perspectives on and significant influence upon their children. Psychologist and best-selling author Michael Thompson wrote a tremendously well-attuned article on this topic almost two decades ago. In it he said, “Speaking as a parent, it is my observation that children give you a tour of your inner weaknesses – all of your hot buttons – for which you never asked and which you really do not want. Nevertheless, once you have a child, you get the tour. And when you sit down with your child’s teacher you are nervously aware of your amateur status.”
Teachers, similarly, have their own anxieties about parent interactions. For experienced teachers, I can guarantee that during their careers they have had at least one scarring interaction with an out-of-control or misinformed parent that thereafter remains a source of anxiety. More commonly, teachers struggle with the fact that our general culture does not accord them appropriate respect, and sometimes the perceived status or attitude of some parents makes interactions strained or uncomfortable.
Difficult interactions between parents and teachers are far, far from the norm in the Nobles community. Indeed, the contrary is the truth, and most Nobles parents over time develop deeply important and positive relationships with one or more of their children’s teachers, coaches or advisors here. But there have been unfortunate moments, and they almost invariably stem from misunderstanding. I want to assert four precepts that should guide all parent interactions with members of the Nobles faculty and staff. First, always assume good intentions and not ill intent on the part of members of the faculty or the school. Second, approach teachers with the respect that you would want to be granted yourself, even when you are upset or deeply concerned. Third, if a conversation or interaction seems to be taking an unfortunate turn, reach out to the appropriate administrator to help you navigate the situation effectively and in the right tone. Finally, remain open to the possibility that the teacher may know something about your child or the circumstances that you do not, or that the way your child related something to you might not be entirely accurate or might have an emotional, hyperbolic or manipulated component that needs to be deconstructed. Do not expect that if you approach the school with demands or accusations you will find satisfaction by virtue of your ire, persistence or volume.
In the annual enrollment contract that parents sign, one of the explicit stipulations is that, “Noble and Greenough School reserves the right to terminate this contract if the actions of the student’s parents or guardians impede a constructive relationship with the school or otherwise interfere with its educational purpose.” I have never had to invoke this clause in dealing with a family, and I would be immensely reluctant to do so. Unfortunately, however, it is necessary to make the assertion so that the boundary is understood. Nobles is absolutely delighted to have your children here, and this is a community that works well and serves young people superbly. The faculty sincerely hopes to forge effective partnerships with parents on behalf of students, they correctly assume that parents want that same outcome, and they deeply value and enjoy the perspectives of parents on their children’s experiences in the school. To be effective, however, this partnership requires genuine and sustained commitments to integrity, civility, trust and respect from everyone involved.