“If you were anyone else, I would punch you in the face.” I stood there, holding my little girl, rather shocked by what I had just heard. I was a young teacher, and I had not had many dealings with parents and certainly never had one tell me he would punch me. Yet here stood one of my students’ parents, angry, ready to fight—how did we get to this point?
A few years later, as a new principal, I sat in a parent meeting. The teacher began rattling off all the ways this mom’s child was not “up to par” with where she should be. After a few seconds, the parent, clearly frustrated, simply said, “Do you have anything nice to say about my kid? Do you even like her?” Needless to say, the rest of the meeting was tense.
Sadly, these scenes and worse are becoming more and more common in education. Whether it is teacher mistakes and misconduct or over-the-top parent behavior, it seems not a week goes by when we do not hear of some controversy among parents, teachers, and schools. It is almost as if battle lines are being drawn, and instead of acting like we are on the same team, we line up as if we are opposing forces, battling over the same turf, our children. It seems as if we are forgetting the common goal and cause we all have—the education of our children.
As the tension between these two groups seems to be growing, and the divide separating parents and teachers expands, it feels as if we have begun to look with suspicion on each group, expecting the worst. Once, not too long ago, teachers were revered, respected, and honored for their contribution to students’ futures. Parents were viewed as valued partners, working together with educators to fulfill this most critical of needs. Teachers behaved with an honor and decorum that suited their position, and parents supported teachers as respected and valued members of their child’s life.
Over the years, I have asked myself, “Where have those times gone? What has changed so drastically to cause this monumental shift in behaviors and attitudes, helping us slide from valued partners and respected teammates to confrontational enemies?” Sadly, the headlines above are just a small sample of the examples of teachers behaving badly and parents running wild.
Instead of partners and teammates, we act as though we are on opposing teams, with no respect for one another, turning our students’ education into a battle of us against them—and unfortunately, when this happens, there is only one loser—our children. Their education, their development, and their well-being are the things that suffer most.
We could sit and point fingers at who is more to blame. Both sides could cite examples of the other group’s misconduct or breach of trust, for there is plenty to go around. We could continue to fight one another to prove the point that the other side is wrong, and as long as we keep doing these things, our children’s future is put on hold and affected because we simply cannot get along and find a way to work together. Shouldn’t education be something more? Shouldn’t we be practicing what we preach to our children? Isn’t there a better way to find common ground in our differences?
At some point, there must be at least one adult in the room and at least one adult in the discussion. Whether you are a teacher or parent, you cannot control the “other” person in the discussion, but you can control yourself and model what hopefully we are telling our children. There are simple things we can do to find our way back to a healthy partnership for our children. Whether you are the parent or teacher, if you take some of these steps, you might just be surprised at the result:
1. Show your support to each other, and be sure your child knows you are a team. Have each other’s back. My parents had problems with some of my teachers, but I never knew it, at least until I was an adult. That gift helped me learn to show respect, even in challenging situations.
2. Show respect for each other. Do you tear down or criticize the teacher or parent to the child? This simple step can go a long way to keeping a good relationship going.
3. Learn to listen. Many times, we march into a situation sure of what is going on, only later to discover we did not have all the facts. Take time to listen and not take it personally. When we approach a situation with ears to hear, and a heart to listen, many times that solves 90 percent of the problem.
4. Believe the best. I love my children, but as kids, whenever they gave me a report, it usually put them in the best possible light. No, they were not lying, they were just telling it from their point of view. They might also exaggerate a little for the sake of emphasis. A principal friend of mine used to tell all his parents, “I won’t believe everything your child says about you, if you don’t believe everything your child says about me.” It was a tongue-in-cheek way of simply saying, let’s give each other the benefit of the doubt.
5. Cultivate a relationship, and be involved. Take time to know the “other side.” Parents, find ways to support and help your child’s teacher. Teachers, take time to support your students. Be understanding of schedules and support activities each are doing. Show up to class parties and help, and visit students’ ballgames (and sit and talk with the parents). When you take the time to know the families or the teachers, you may just be surprised at what great people they are and see the heart they have for these children.
6. Always be honest. Sometimes, to spare feelings, we sugarcoat things. Honesty does not have to be rude or unkind. Honesty can be straightforward, and still kind.
7. Take time to talk. Sometimes, emails are of the devil. We can read things into an email or text based on our mood or the day we are having. I found many times just picking up the phone or talking in person eliminated most of the problem.
8. Be calm. It is easy when children are involved to let our emotions “run away with us.” Take time to cool down and calmly approach the situation. If you do, there will be less defensiveness and more teamwork, and you might just have a better shot at finding answers and solutions to the problems.
9. Apologize and make it right. Sometimes, teachers and parents blow it—I certainly have. Sometimes, we just need to say we are sorry and work to make it right. This step can often build more trust than anything we do.
10. Don’t bring your baggage (or what you hear through the grapevine) to your child’s education. You may have had a bad experience, or another parent or teacher may have had a bad experience with a student, family, or teacher. But just because they did, does not mean you, your child, or your students will. Each day, each year, needs to be a fresh new start. Don’t hold things against children or teachers—give them a chance to show change and growth, and remember we all have people that have interesting things to say about us.
Incidentally, I did not get punched, and the dad and I became friends. Also, that teacher worked things out with the parent, and the rest of the year went well. In both cases, we took time to listen and hear each other and realized we both wanted the same things for these students.
There will be times when bad things happen—we all mess up and make mistakes. When this happens, deal with it using these tools above, but do it in a constructive, not destructive, way. When we do, the true winners are our children and students, for when we are all on the same team, working together, we will help our children build a solid foundation for their future. We all want the same thing, so let’s work together as a team to give our students the greatest gift we can—adults who act like adults and make it possible for our children to grow and succeed.
This article was originally published in American Essence magazine.