Parent Partnerships

When a child is misbehaving, not learning (at the rate and manner determined by the adults), or appears sullen and unhappy, what do you do?  Do you blame the child?

“It’s because he’s lazy, spoiled, insolent?”

Or, do you blame the parents?

“They’re spoiling her.”
“They don’t set limits.”
“They let him do whatever he wants.”
“They aren’t supporting her learning at home. “

Blah, blah, blah.

Sound familiar?  No?  Really?

Come on, don’t tell me you’ve never participated in staff room conversations that blame the child or the parents for the child’s performance?  No?  Really?  Well, let me try to jar your memory.

Have you ever been in the staff room on a bad day and you just need to vent, so you start venting about a particular child in your classroom or his parents?  You start slowly because, in your heart of hearts, you’re not sure this is an ethical conversation to be having with your colleagues.  But, slowly, as people start cheering you on, you get stronger in your convictions and your rant reaches a crescendo level.  Finally, you’ve gotten it of your chest.  And by this time, everyone is nodding in sympathy and someone has gotten up to close the door – in case there’s a parent lurking somewhere.  Then, later, after you’ve cooled off, you may regret what you’ve said and wish you could take it back.  Or, maybe you don’t regret what you’ve said.  Darn it!  That’s how you really feel!

Either way, I doubt any teacher is exempt from having participated in this kind of discussion at some point in their career.  We’ve all been there, done that.

Why am I insisting on this?  Because I want us to consider the damage these conversations, large and small, have on us as educators, and by extension our profession, and our students.  They focus on the negative and don’t solve any problems.  In fact, they may create feelings of inadequacy and impotence.  And, you still have to figure out what to do to teach this child who is challenging you to be your best.

Instead, we need to ask ourselves the following questions:

  1. What can I do to help this child learn?
  2. What angle or interest does this child have that can I use to attract his attention towards learning?
  3. What haven’t I tried?
At every school where I’ve taught I’ve heard and read about the importance of “parent involvement”, or at least that’s what we used to call it when I first became a teacher in 1985.  Now, that’s a long time ago!  But over the years, we’ve gotten more PC.  It is now called “parent partnerships”.  In the end, it means the same thing:  parents are talked (down) to and are told what’s wrong with their child.  Then, they are told what the school thinks is the best decision for their child.  Rarely are the parents asked what they think might work or what they would like to try.  Oh, and forget about talking with the child to see what’s going on!  No, no, no.  That would be a “family partnership”.  Can’t have any of that.  Everyone in their place.  Teachers at school.  Parents at home.  And, students…students…Oh, yes, of course!  Students at their desks.    
There’s something wrong with this picture.  Seriously wrong.   
We need to paint the opposite picture.  All of our lives depend on it.  

8 thoughts on “Parent Partnerships

  1. Mm, nope. While I have said things that sound similar, there are some fundamental differences.

    “Studentname just DOESN'T CARE about his/her grades, let alone what s/he actually LEARNS, and I can't MAKE him/her! ARGH!”

    “Parentname has said s/he can't get Studentname to behave at home, either, so I'm not sure what I'M supposed to do. I'm fresh out of magic beans, and I don't think I could get Studentname to swallow 'em even if I had some!”

    I really don't think it's possible to care about students without feeling frustrated by what is effectively self-harming behavior. But there is a big difference between judging behavior and judging a person. When a student doesn't care about grades or learning, it's because there's something else that's more important right then.

    I've never had a parent discussion go badly. Ever. And I think part of that is because I always frame the discussion with “what can we do to help Studentname succeed?” Part of that success includes the idea that the teacher should not have to go through Herculean efforts to make it happen; that unfairly takes resources away from other students.

    Now, have I said some of these things privately? Yes. But only ever to my husband or an empty room with the doors closed. And only with the same degree of seriousness with which I snap at the computer when Minesweeper or Solitaire is 'unfair' to me. 😉


  2. Hi Clix,
    Thanks for your comments.
    I completely agree when you say that if a student doesn't seem to care about their learning then there's probably something else going on or something that's more important to them. And, I would add, that it's our job to figure out what that is.

    While on the one hand I agree with you that it shouldn't be necessary for the teacher to go to Herculean efforts to make learning happen, I think we do have a responsibility to make sure learning happens. How do we do that? I would argue that it's precisely by making Herculean efforts that we help children learn. We try everything we know how to do and then some more. But, we don't have to do this alone. That is the power of collegiality; we can talk through our problems with others – in our school site or online. Professional books can also provide some possible answers.

    Yes, framing the conversation with parents about wanting their child to succeed is important. But, I think that more important than that is to ask questions, both of parents and of children. I think that as teachers we don't do enough listening. We're always too eager to get our ideas across, our opinions on the table, that we forget that parents have strategies for dealing with certain behaviors and they may have an idea that you hadn't thought of. This has happened to me on more than one occasion and it was definitely helpful.


  3. We may be splitting hairs, here, but I would say that talking through problems and professional books aren't Herculean efforts. Where I draw the line is when the resources required to help one student learn could better be used to help the rest of the class. It isn't right for this student's success to come at the expense of everyone else's.

    It's rarely hard to figure out what the non-academic issue is that for the student is taking precedence. Often – like you say – all it takes is asking. For me the tough part has been helping a young person learn to deal with both school and everything-else-in-life effectively. Goodness knows that's something that's challenging even for adults!


  4. Agreed. yet it seems that some find this to be a challenge. Believe it or not.

    I think I've only experienced one time where a student in my class demanded so much of my time that I started to feel like the rest of the class was suffering. Measures were then taken so that this wouldn't happen any more. That was a very difficult year.


  5. Wow, this is a good conversation! Congrats to both of you for actually trying to work out some fundamental things that are right for children. I agree that venting in the staff room is not good for anyone, & one should keep it for a trusted colleague, just to get help really. Sometimes one can be so frustrated at a number of things that aren't going well. Ask the child, even at a young age, then ask the parents. There are many ways to do this, but my advice to those young teachers I work with is to ensure that parents know you love their children & the rest will fall into place, sometimes challenging, but it will work. Thanks for the provocative post!


  6. Good advice, Linda.
    It's so important that parents know the teacher loves their child. That reassures the parent that the teacher is looking out for the child's best interests. And, often, when the teacher can demonstrate this to the child, the child will perform better. It's all about relationships – building them, nourishing them, and maintaining them – between parents and children, teachers and parents, teachers and children, and among all three parties.
    Thanks for commenting.


  7. When I worked in RI, our school made a great effort to cultivate partnerships with families (beyond just parents). We invited families in and stepped out into the community (more than just home visits). I think these great measures helped us to be more successful as teachers since we understood who kids were in and out of the building.


  8. Stacey,
    This is so important. It's about making sure the children's “funds of knowledge” (Luis Moll) get recognized so that they can have agency in the classroom. I have always worked hard to make sure that parents feel that the classroom is as much theirs, in a sense, as it is mine and their children's. And, part of this is understanding the context in which children live outside of school.
    Wonderful things happen when we “see” children as vibrant beings with a contribution to make to the classroom. But, I know I'm preaching to the choir.


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