How to “Frankenstein” The Perfect Teacher/Parent Relationship

Since November 8th there has been a lot of talk about relationships. Conversations have ranged from tearful laments to ebullient declarations for the future. While I admit that I am still processing my feelings around the election results, the subsequent conversations and expressed concerns from both sides have caused me to think about a common relationship topic amongst teachers. While individuals, families, and companies heatedly discuss the future post January 20th; my teacher friends and I continue to navigate the dynamic ecosystems of the parent/teacher relationship. Back to school has come and gone and some of us have settled into the Fall semester quite nicely. Notice that I said “some” and not “all” or even, “many”. This is not an error of semantics but rather a simple acknowledgment that for many teachers, the start of the school year was anything but smooth. Just as parents are often faced with uncertainty and filled with worried optimism, teachers often report a sense of dread as the next Report Card Night looms before them; especially with the seemingly interminable expanse between Fall break and Thanksgiving, the days crawling along at a snails pace.

Dread may be too strong of a word but that’s often what it sounds like whenever we teachers get together and “that one parent” (cue the eerie pipe music now) is mentioned. “That one parent” is known by many and feared by all. You know, that one dad or mom who is always sending emails, requesting an update, demanding a meeting, etcetera, etcetera. I find it both interesting and saddening that the parent whom many teachers may mention with an air of angst, is also the person many teachers would idyllically describe as the “perfect parent” for their students.

So how do we overcome this perception barrier to have an amazingly awesome “parent as partner” for the school year? Just as it will take many parts of the whole coming together to help move our country forward in the coming year, I propose it starts by applying what I’ll call a “Frankensteinian” approach; an approach designed to destroy the lore that is poor parent/teacher relationships. Since I’m dreaming up approaches, I’ll start with an explanation. People frequently refer to the creature that Dr. Frankenstein created as the actual Frankenstein. In the story they also often attributed very negative qualities to him based on his outward appearance, and responded with fear and avoidance (see where I’m going with this???). Ultimately, the creature was intelligent, articulate, and trying to create circumstances to feel heard, supported, and cared for. I truly believe that the same holds true for the parents we serve. If you would allow me to indulge in a bit of poetic license, I’m going to outline what I consider to be the “choice parts” to building your very own “Perfect Parent Partnership”.

Call Your Mom (Communicate)

No seriously, call your mom, or your grandma, or favorite aunt. Listen to the first thing they typically say: “it’s been too long”, “it’s so good to hear from you”. You know why they say that? Because they mean it. Our student’s parents mean it too. Your mom loves to hear from you because you are an interesting person full of thoughts, ideas, anecdotes, grows and glows; and to parents you represent the same things.

You are the expert, friend, and confidant when it comes to their little human.

You spend more time, on average, with their child than they do. It’s only natural that they’d want to hear from you as often as your mom would. So first, call your mom, then work out a weekly or biweekly schedule for connecting with your parents. Something more personal than a Remind 101 text, but less consuming than 15 minute conference calls. This could be a note/email following a specific format (e.g. what’s happening, what’s ahead, what’s working, what’s improving), or an email sent containing a link to a calendar app like Calend.ly which allows people to sign up for time with you (where you set the dates, increments, and methods — texting, virtual call, etc.).

Give it a Name (Admit Mistakes)

When Dr. Frankenstein finished his creature it was so hideous he refused to name it. Sometimes we unintentionally make a mistake. We forget to send a notice home, we fall behind on grading, we miss a make up assignment; we’re human. When this happens, I’ve found the best way to deal with it is to simply name it. Admit it and move forward. I recognize that this is often easier said than done; especially when there’s a very belligerent parent making accusations and calling for your head on a platter. Even so, it’s still best to admit whatever the issue was, seek support if it’s a doozy, and maintain a focus on moving forward. Transparency builds trust, and parents respect integrity when they’re informed and allowed to be active participants in finding solutions for their children.

Give the People What They Want (Choose Your Battles)

Even as I type this line I have to resist the urge to delete it. Why? Because I am a teacher and “the bell doesn’t dismiss you, I dismiss you”. Simply put, we all have a little dictator inside of us. We need this inner dictator in order to be effective in what we do (read: classroom management). This tendency towards grandeur may manifest as pride and inflexibility and it can be our greatest downfall when it comes to parent/teacher interactions. Every angry email doesn’t warrant an equally curt reply. Every repeat request doesn’t warrant your pointing out that you’d already provided that rubric; a 2nd, 3rd or 4th copy of the handout, or that the information is on your classroom website (even when all those things are true). Sure it can be tiresome to get the same requests over and over, but it can be equally tiresome to have a disgruntled parent lurking around every exchange and encounter you have for the remainder of the year. The Golden Rule helps cover a multitude of misunderstandings and goes a long way towards that parent partnership we all want.

Don’t Fabricate Creatures (Know Your Limitations)

Dr. Frankenstein would have benefitted from the wisdom in TLC’s hit single, Waterfalls:

Don’t go chasing waterfalls
Please stick to the rivers and the lakes that you’re used to
I know that you’re gonna have it your way or nothing at all
But I think you’re moving too fast

Simply put, don’t create new problems via the over-promise and under-deliver method. Teachers have GIANT hearts, and an intrinsic willingness to go the extra mile. This can create unintended problems when we get busy (as we often do). If you know in your heart that you’re not the expert when it comes to differentiation, admit it — and find someone who is. If you know that you really can’t stay late on Thursday afternoons to provide remediation support, don’t say yes just to stop the frequent requests; ask for support in finding an alternative solution.

Too often, unnecessary friction arises as the result of a well-intentioned promise made by an over-worked or overwhelmed teacher. We tell our students to “make good choices”; the same applies to teachers when it comes to setting positive boundaries and maintaining a healthy work-life balance. Go ahead. Take the cape off. We won’t judge.

I began by referring to this list as an outline for building the “Perfect Parent Partnership”. While I realize that there is no such thing as perfect when it comes to relationships, it is my sincere belief that these steps will help when you’re dreading the next open house or parent/teacher interaction. Remember, in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Dr. Frankenstein wasn’t the monster and neither are our student’s parents. The “monster” was created out of misguided beliefs and negative perceptions.

If we as teachers can work to establish positive beliefs and reframe any negative perceptions we can set the foundation for a strong relationship, and ultimately, gain a powerful partner in accomplishing our number one mission: to educate our students.

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