Spring 2010

Culture

Nurturing Positive Relationships with Parents

Nurturing Positive Relationships with Parents

At Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, the boarding school featured in the Harry Potter series, “teachers reign supreme and parents stay away, safely on the other side of the solid brick wall at Platform 9¾... no e-mail, no Internet, only owls to carry the rare letter back and forth,” notes Carolyn Hines, director of communications at Aspen Country Day School in Aspen, Colorado. “To many educators (and children) today, this would seem the perfect universe.”

At Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, the boarding school featured in the Harry Potter series, “teachers reign supreme and parents stay away, safely on the other side of the solid brick wall at Platform 9¾... no e-mail, no Internet, only owls to carry the rare letter back and forth,” notes Carolyn Hines, director of communications at Aspen Country Day School in Aspen, Colorado. “To many educators (and children) today, this would seem the perfect universe.”

Indeed, teachers, many of whom chose the profession because they enjoy working with children, are sometimes disheartened to learn how much they must work with parents in order to support their students. The “2005 MetLife Survey of the American Teacher” corroborates this: The survey found that 68 percent of public school teachers were satisfied working with students, but only 25 percent were satisfied working with parents.

Our business is educating children, but parents are a vital part of the equation. Educators who form partnerships with parents are among the most successful in their work with children. Why? Because when parents and teachers work together, children receive consistent messages about the value of an education, and they feel supported and encouraged in their pursuits.

Forming partnerships with parents requires effort on the behalf of the school. Here are eight tips schools should follow to nurture positive relationships with parents.

  • Establish strong communications with parents from the beginning. Communicating with parents helps ease their anxieties and validates their decision to enroll their children in your school. A monthly or quarterly letter from the school head or principal creates a personal connection to the school for families. It also enables the school leader to reinforce the value that the school is adding to students’ lives.
  • Model parental involvement. Creating a parent ambassadors program, where each current parent ambassador is the contact for five new parents in the same class, can also help new parents feel more comfortable in the community. Ambassadors are excellent examples of engaged parents, modeling involvement for new families. A special event for new parents in the spring or summer before the school year begins also provides an opportunity to forge new partnerships and impart valuable information about the way the school works and how families can be involved.
  • Encourage the faculty to see the parent, and not just the student, as a customer. In “the good old days,” meeting the needs of one’s primary charge (the student) meant that the needs of the parents were met. Now, parents as well as students are consumers of educational services. While many educators bemoan the fact that education has become a commodity, it can be helpful to think of constituents as customers with whom you can build strong, professional relationships. And those relationships require nurturing! Patience, skill in problem-solving at the most direct level, powers of observation, and the ability to defuse anger and anxiety are all part of the professional repertoire now required and valued in teachers.
  • Outline mutual expectations. Developing a “contract” for parents and school personnel can articulate behavior expectations and establish the baseline for professional and courteous exchanges between parents and staff
  • Educate parents to deal with dissatisfaction directly. The first avenue of recourse should always be the person with whom they disagree (parent to teacher or coach). If the conflict cannot be resolved, it is then appropriate to move up the ladder of authority as necessary (next stop is typically division head, athletic director, etc.).
  • Develop a strong parent association. The association or committee can host occasional “town meetings” with parents, faculty, and school leaders to share ideas. Scheduling meetings of the parent association at times when parents are likely to be at the school already—such as on back to school night or before a recital—can increase participation.
  • Host small group meetings to solicit feedback. Involve a cross-section of new parents and returning parents in meetings with the principal or school head. The leader can ask the group questions such as: “What are we doing well?” “Where do we need to improve?” The “testimonials” will build loyalty and enthusiasm among the newest members of the family. Some schools regularly survey their whole parent body to ask specific questions about satisfaction and expectations. These surveys can be springboards for improvement.
  • Attend to the needs of parents whose children are graduating from the school. Produce a letter or a brochure that outlines the predictable anxieties both parents and children will feel as they move from one comfortable setting (your school) to another, often an initially more forbidding setting by virtue of newness. Host a meeting or event for these families (parents and students) describing how to manage the transition. Have recent graduates who survived the transition speak at these events. You will be able to highlight the areas where your school excels and gather information about areas that could be improved.

Developing a partnership with parents involves a multi-faceted approach, but continual nourishment of relationships with parents will reap great rewards. At the end of the day, children prosper when all the important adults in their lives line up on the same sideline, encouraging them on and keeping them from crossing the boundaries. The trick is in getting all the players to agree on the direction of the goal and to work together to get there.

Patrick F. Bassett is president of the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS). NAIS provides information, statistics, professional development, and financial aid services to private schools. Bassett received his Bachelors’ degree from Williams College and Masters from Northwestern University. He is the recipient of the Educational Leadership Award from The Klingenstein Center of Teachers College from Columbia University. He has authored many commentary articles published in Education Week and other media outlets. He is the co-author of several books, including “Looking Ahead: Independent School Issues and Answers.”