By Tracey Dowdy
There may be no better illustration of the breakdown in trust and communication between parents and educators than last week’s Oakley Union Elementary School District Board meeting. Prior to the meeting’s official start, and unaware the online forum was set to public rather than private, board members used profanity and made jokes about parents wanting schools to reopen so they’d have a babysitter or be free to smoke pot in their home. In the wake of the fallout, all board members have resigned.
As a parent and a former teacher, I’ve been on both sides of the desk for parent-teacher conferences and understand that emotions can run hot for both parties. I’ve not had to navigate educating a child through the COVID-19 pandemic, but I have an appreciation for what my family and friends have struggled with. Camron Kirkland, 9th – 12th-grade teacher at Cranberry Area Jr/Sr High School in Cranberry, Pennsylvania, says, “We know this is not the best mode of education. We know it’s harder for most students. We would love to just have all kids in school and educate in a normal setting. However, the best way for your kid to get something out of this schooling (at least at the high school level) is to learn to communicate with teachers professionally. Express your struggles, enlighten us about how you’re overwhelmed with multiple assignments due at the same time, seek additional tutoring or material from us, and let us work together instead of us vs. them.”
When it comes to communicating with your child’s teachers, practice these strategies:
Develop a team mentality. Even if distance learning has devolved into a less than ideal situation, remember it’s not Teachers vs. Parents. Principals, educators, and school support staff are invested in your child’s success too. Remembering you’re all invested in ensuring the child feels supported and encouraged builds trust and a solid framework for advocacy.
Communicate early and as often as necessary. Don’t bombard teachers with requests for accommodations, but don’t hesitate to reach out to see if your child is struggling emotionally or academically. Early intervention is critical. Educators are aware their students have varying levels of parental engagement because of the demands on time and the strain of balancing home and their own jobs. Understanding the situation at home enables teachers to contextualize what’s happening and identify which tools and resources will be the most effective.
Teach your child to advocate for themselves. Kirkland says, “The worst thing to do (for high schoolers) is for you to reach out on your child’s behalf. Teachers are much more inclined to cut breaks, extend due dates, stay late for tutoring, etc. If it is the student asking for it directly.” Your child needs your support, but as they transition from high school to their post-grad education, they’ll need the skills they’re developing now to advocate for themselves. This isn’t abandoning them to sink or swim. It’s setting them up for success.
Demonstrate diplomacy and compassion. There’s a difference between advocacy and aggression. One teacher who asked to remain anonymous because she feared the repercussions said, “This has by far been the hardest year I’ve ever experienced as an educator, and that includes the year I balanced teaching and chemotherapy. We’re all frustrated – teachers, parents, and students – but I’ve never been so disrespected and outright bullied by parents. Maybe it’s because everything is virtual, and since we aren’t face to face, but some of the emails I’ve received from both parents and students are downright shocking.”
If you feel there’s been a communication breakdown or your child’s needs aren’t being met, don’t let your emotions get the best of you. Start by drafting the email or text and then walk away for an hour, a day, and come back to it with fresh eyes. It’s a good idea to read the letter back as though you are the one receiving it. Remember, your tone can be misinterpreted via text or email, so be careful of the language you use. Don’t speak in absolutes like “You always” or “You never,” and use “I” statements instead of “you” statements. If you’re unsure if you’ve communicated clearly and effectively, have a friend or family member read over the message before sending it. A second set of eyes and honest feedback can help you avoid awkward interactions and prevent misunderstanding in the future.
Most of the teachers I interviewed say they wish people understood the challenges they face teaching virtual, hybrid and in-person classes. They say some parents and teachers have “checked out” because of the hurdles they’ve faced and the negative impact virtual learning is having on their child’s mental health. They realize some of their students are food insecure, have poor internet access, limited support from home, and abuse isn’t being noted or reported the way it should be. The weight of seeing families struggle weighs on them, though they are often powerless to help.
Baker, a second-grade teacher in Washington state, who also asked not to use her full name because of possible repercussions, told TODAY Parents, “It’s the best job in the world. Just not this year.”
Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits, and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.