By Rebecca Weisman
I’m no prophet. I don’t read palms or interpret tea leaves. When I was the middle school principal at a large, pluralistic Jewish day school, I regularly admitted that I didn’t own a crystal ball and couldn’t tell the future.
I do, however, have a prediction about the Ides of February as accurate as the soothsayer’s in Julius Caesar. Around February 15th parents will come a-calling – if they haven’t already. Mid-February is the time of year when parents are eager to resolve lingering grievances or raise concerns about student achievement not yet reached. This falls around the same time as re-enrollment contracts are mailed, so the pressure to please and prevent parental panic is greater than ever.
Most parents value healthy, appropriate school-home partnerships. However, an increasing number of parents overstep boundaries, carry irrational expectations or feel the best way to resolve their children’s struggles is to have other people solve them. Regardless of the metaphor – helicopter, lawn mower, snowplow – overly involved parents add unnecessary stress to the school-parent relationship and drain everyone’s time and energy.
How can educators mitigate parents’ frustrations and worries before interactions escalate into anger, accusations and “Fix it!” demands attached to their re-enrollment commitments? Here are eight communication strategies that can calm parents and support your school’s student retention efforts.
Use a discerning eye with a parent lens on students’ progress to identify parents who need to hear from you. Take a close look at students’ performance as reflected on portals or report cards. Grades do not offer a full picture of learning and growth; however, for many parents it’s their only window to evaluate their children’s headway. Email outreach is swift and efficient for simple issues, whereas a call or in-person meeting offers a more personal touch and a focused discussion when the topic is sensitive or warrants a substantive dialogue.
Most parent complaints come from a seed of truth – no matter how big or small they make the issue. Therefore, it is critical to acknowledge all parents’ feelings and restate their concerns. Their perceptions are their reality. They need to believe you understand the grievance and are listening to the details. For ongoing problems, indicate you recognize it is frustrating the issue is not yet resolved and communicate what you have already done and will continue to do to identify solutions that will work.
Share your commitment
Parents want to know you are on their child’s side, so make it known you are on “Team Student!” Assure them you support their child’s journey to meet his/her goals and reiterate your desire to help their child develop the skills needed to persevere through adversity, to learn from mistakes, and to be and feel successful.
Invite parent partnership
Let parents know you value their input and want to strategize together. Ask for their suggestions to consider for classroom implementation or reinforcement at home. Parents bring a longitudinal perspective about their children, and educators bring a deep dive with professional expertise.
Be clear and kind
Parents deserve to hear the facts in a polite and honest manner. Remember to include positive observations and traits even in conversations about necessary changes and challenges. Cite actions, not adjectives, to describe what is happening so parents have something concrete to put their heads around in guiding their child. “Jane is disruptive, so she isn’t learning” is a statement that ascribes judgement and feels unchangeable. Alternatively, “Jane jokes around and has side conversations with classmates, interfering with her ability to follow the lesson” makes it clear what behaviors need to change with assurance the student is capable.
Some parents act on impulse to prevent or fix every challenge their children experience. Research shows that children need opportunities to problem-solve, endure challenges, and persevere through struggles. Explain the strategies you will employ that can result in enduring learning; invite parents to partner with you in prompting student reflection, encouraging student self-advocacy and coaching students in adopting new strategies or solutions for future hurdles.
Protect the limits
Parent and educator perspectives may be at odds sometimes, and it is essential you maintain decorum in every conversation. If things get contentious, suggest another meeting when everyone has had more time to collect thoughts and ideas for a productive and open dialogue. While you should be open to parents’ creative suggestions, know the line and commit to strategies that are appropriate, reasonable and aligned with your school’s policy. Trust your gut as an experienced educator, but don’t dig your heels in if parents have innovative suggestions that may work for their child. If you aren’t sure, let parents know you will explore their ideas with the administration and get back to them.
Document and share the action items discussed. Deliver on your promises. Let parents know how things are going, and ask them to share what they observe at home to reinforce the partnership. Communicate in a timely fashion. Don’t wait until Pesach! Sensitive issues usually require ongoing outreach.
Caesar ignored the soothsayer’s warning. Perhaps we should turn to a different ancient ruler and follow King Solomon’s sage advice. We can help diffuse worried parents’ tensions by bringing positive, honest, action-oriented communication into the conversation. “If there is anxiety in a man’s mind let him quash it, and it turns into joy with a good word” (Proverbs 12:25).
Rebecca Weisman creates professional development for K-12 educators and nonprofit leaders at the Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership. She worked as middle school principal and upper school admissions director at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School and as a congregational educator. She also facilitates workshops on effective communications and change management. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.