Dr. Gereboff's Head Notes
Boundaries and Bridges
Parents and teachers are allies and partners – both engaged in the important work of raising, guiding and teaching children. Professionally, I sit at the nexus of this relationship watching the many interactions between and among parents and teachers as they steer their charges through an often-frightening world. The alliance can be stretched, distorted and challenged as the adults bring to their encounters not only different goals but also layers of past experiences and emotions.
Harvard professor Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot has written an important book entitled The Essential Conversation: What parents and Teachers can Learn from Each Other that unpacks the psychological and sociological factors that impact this relationship. She provides helpful insight about how “families and schools are overlapping spheres of socialization, and that successful learning and development of children depends, in part, on building productive boundaries between and bridges across them.” (p. xxiii)
I received two interesting phone calls this week from my adult children that drove this home for me. It was one of the first times where I wasn’t considering the parent teacher relationship within the context of my own school and thus didn’t sit in the middle of the relationship. Each call involved a parent teacher interaction – one from a parent to my daughter who is a teacher and the other from a teacher to my son and daughter-in-law as parents. Both sets of interactions illustrate how the parent-teacher alliance can be challenged and challenging; yet, with some careful thought and awareness of the factors that impact this relationship the alliance can be built.
The first call came from my daughter who has been a middle school and high school teacher for several years. She had sent an email to the parents of her high school students listing some of the topics that had been discussed that week in a history survey class she teaches. Her intent was for parents to use this information to spark conversation with their children during dinner. The next morning, she received an email from the father of a student. The father wrote a long “sermon-like” note questioning the logic of the teaching of the particular topics and discussed how he thought the subject should be taught. My daughter, somewhat indignant, called to ask for advice about how best to respond to the email. She noted that the father had made many assumptions about how she was teaching the material based on four sentences. If I were to attach emotions to both sides of the equation – my daughter was indignant and insulted and the parents appeared to be worried that their child was being misguided by the class.
The second call I received was from my son and daughter-in-law about a call they had gotten that day about the behavior of one of their children in class (during indoor recess). The teacher said to my daughter-in-law that their son and a little girl scratched each other in anger. She said that if he were to repeat this behavior, he would be suspended. My son and daughter were frightened and angry, and called for advice about how to respond to the information they received. The teacher who called them appeared bothered and overwhelmed.
Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot would rightly note that in each of these cases, the parties were feeling vulnerable and exposed, and they were all reacting to their vulnerabilities with very little information to help them understand the events. The communications that lead to each encounter would do little to relieve their respective anxieties. Each party had developed assumptions and reactions on very slim evidence. More importantly, neither initial communication would help build the understanding and the learning that they all desired for the students in question.
Channeling Lawrence-Lightfoot, I guided each of my children in how to conduct the next conversations. Before they could have the conversations, they needed to understand the context of the communications – how the parent could have reached the conclusions he did in the first case and how the teacher would have felt so beleaguered to have made the statement she did to my son. They needed to understand their own reasons for reacting as they did as well. Finally they needed to invite conversations with the other parties where mutual understanding and goals could be reached.
A day later, each child checked in with me to let me know the outcomes. In both cases there were the beginnings of successful resolution. While I was an outsider in these two encounters, they were familiar interactions. Over the course of a long career, I’ve seen each of these many times. Our school proudly sees one of its purposes as that of helping shape these relationships in reflective ways such that parents and teachers can truly be allies for the sake of the children that we are rearing together.
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