As an educator working in schools, I have encountered my fair share of parents in the entire spectrum. There are parents who are extremely appreciative of the work of educators, and there are parents who expect educators to move the earth and heaven on behalf of their children.
There are many stories I can write about parents. Here is one of them. A caveat first: being a parent myself, I know we want the best for our children. Yet we need to bear in mind that children need to learn in order to grow, so sometimes we need to know when to intervene and when to let go.
I have a practice of writing comments on report cards before they are given to students each semester. Typically I would write for graduating year students, although I also wrote for students of other levels occasionally.
There was this student who committed a discipline offence during one semester. I cannot remember exactly what it was, except that it was probably serious enough to warrant my attention as a school leader. The discipline master gave me a brief on the issue and after discussion, we decided on a set of consequences for the student.
As part of the process, the discipline master contacted the parents of the student, as well as parents of the other student who was affected by the incident. They were informed of what happened and the parents of the student who committed the offence were also briefed on the consequences to be given.
The parents were quite upset with the consequences. They argued that the offence was not as serious as it seems. The school should give him another chance. My discipline master spoke with them for some time and managed to convince them that this would be a good learning moment for the child. With some reluctance, they agreed.
The weeks passed by. The semestral assessments came and went. Results were released, and teachers got busy with writing remarks and preparing to meet the parents for the termly parent-teacher meeting.
I was signing the report cards when I came across this student’s card. I noted that he had not done well academically and his conduct grade was not good. His form teacher had commented on his learning attitude during the semester. Recalling the offence he committed earlier in the semester, I wrote a short note alongside my signature to encourage him to reflect over his behaviour in the semester and commit to an act he could work on to change, in the next semester.
The parent-teacher meeting came. The form teacher came to my office looking for me in the midst of the event. It turned out the parents were very upset over my comments I penned. They felt my comments were incriminating their child, that he had committed a serious offence, and that he had not turned over a new leaf. They also claimed that the remarks were enough to deter anyone reading it from considering their child for a job, or deprive him of opportunities.
I was surprised. I read again the remarks I wrote in the report card, and could not understand why the parents made that claim, and how the child could be marginalised in the future for any possible job opportunities. The form teacher agreed that the remarks were neutral. When the discipline master spoke with the form teacher later, he also agreed that the remarks did not make the child out to be a monster.
The parents insisted that the school print a clean copy of the report card for them. Their reasoning is that their child could use the report card to seek for jobs in the future, and my remarks could have implications in his job search. I was amused as I am unaware of any companies who would require job applicants to bring their school report books along with them for interviews or applications. I decided not to issue a new report card.
Working with parents can be a pleasant or tricky affair for educators. In this case the parents are tricky only when they perceived that their child’s future could be severely compromised because of a report card. Some other parents I worked with can be trickier, because they hold the position that their perspectives are always right. No one else has the right perspective.
I will not claim to have mastered the skill of working with parents. However, I feel that there are some basic principles we can adopt when working with parents. Doing so can help provide consistency and guide to teachers, helping them carry out their work smoothly.
1. Outline a framework of expectations to parents about school. After two years of heading the school, I decided to articulate a set of expectations the school would uphold, and a corresponding set of expectations the school can deliver to parents, concerning their children’s educational development in their schooling experience. The collaboration protocol is meant to lay out clearly and visibly the roles and responsibilities both school and parents have in developing the children in various areas. I make it a point to refer to this set of expectations at the start of each year when I speak with parents and encourage teachers to refer to this with parents. The protocol is also placed on the school website for reference.
2. Engage parents early. This applies for any situation. For example, engage parents right at the start of their child’s admission into the school. Lay out ways to communicate and what to do if they have concerns. Engage parents immediately when an issue with their child crops up. Don’t wait till the situation deteriorates. Engage parents early if there are decisions that will impact their child’s well-being. Engaging means helping them see from the school’s perspective as well as hearing their concerns and issues.
3. Maintain consistency in the same issue. It is not just parents but also dealings with other parties that the school should maintain consistency in enforcing policies or stands. If I had agreed to remove my remarks from the student’s report card at the request of the parents, even though there are no valid reasons, that could lead to further requests from the same parents deemed unreasonable. Likewise, just because parents put in personal appeals for their children to study for a particular subject even if they do not meet the eligibility criteria does not mean their requests should be acceded. There must be clear thinking and reasoning for decisions taken. At the end of the day, the school must run in the best interest of the child.
I cannot remember much about this student I wrote about. I remember he managed to progress on to his final year in school and cleared his national exams for post-secondary education. The report card I wrote remarks in remained with him. He did not commit any more disciplinary offences since.
If you have experiences working with parents in the course of your work, I would love to hear from you how you manage the relations with parents. I am also interested to hear stories of your relations with parents too.
If you are a parent reading this, what do you think of the situation I wrote about? How would you have responded if you were the parents?