I am currently on a professional enhancement leave. My leave revolves around me visiting schools, each of which is known for some area of expertise I would like to learn more about.
In some of the schools I also met with the PA to chat. It became clear to me that there is often a divide between parents and teachers. There need not be: parents are just people who chose different professions than you! And, speaking with teachers and administrators, it was also clear to me that there is often a divide between teachers and administrators. There need not be, as administrators are just one step ahead in the same career path, a path that you as a teacher could follow in the future.
But, parents are not teachers or school administrators. They don't have the same understanding of what is going on, and communication can often be both too much, and too little: the parents get overloaded with detailed information about a world they don't really comprehend.
Communication and trust can only happen if the foundation is built properly. It can't be rushed. People need time to absorb and process information. Trust cannot be built when you overwhelm someone with information: they begin to feel you are hiding something, and they feel that you are trying to move quickly so they do not have time to respond with their input. They feel ignored, even before knowing what they think about what you are telling them.
Consider the change management process we often see at schools. The administration decides on a new (fill the blank) system, perhaps. The decision is made on the basis of a consultant’s presentation, or the insistence of a parent with strong opinions, or on the basis of a conference presentation, perhaps. A consultant comes in to explain the new system. Some teachers ask questions or raise objections, but their questions are dismissed or – worse – treated as indications that the teachers are “difficult” or “unwilling to change”. No-one talks to the parents in advance, at all. The materials arrive just days before implementation is to begin, and then the teachers find themselves trying to adapt in real time to material they don’t understand and haven’t bought into, and whose benefits and methodologies they may not understand. When parents ask about the change they discover the teachers don’t really understand as they answer questions without depth/confidence/understanding, and then parents start to make a fuss. Meanwhile, many teachers learn the new buzzwords, but make minimal modifications to how they have always done things, telling themselves that this fad, too, shall pass; or they adapt the innovation a lot. In the end, the administration doesn’t trust the teachers to implement the program correctly (rightly so), the teachers don’t trust the administration to make good decisions (rightly so), and the parents don’t trust anything they hear (also rightly so): it’s a fiasco.
Building communication and trust takes planning and a willingness to listen and accept feedback.
So the first thing I believe should happen is a school-wide activity, which can be done by year group (parents, admin, teachers involved), by school (elementary, middle, high school) in any way - but it must involve all stakeholders! The activity would be for ALL: why did you choose to be at this particular school? A teacher applied for a job in that school because there was something in particular about it that drew her/his attention. Admins chose to lead at that school for specific reasons; parents also chose the school for specific reasons; and often the students had input on the decision too, and felt something when there. When all stakeholders understand why they picked that school, and define it, they can begin to understand their shared values and vision. Establishing a shared understanding of the school's mission and priorities can be the basis for establishing trust: when everyone knows there is a shared vision, there is more openness.
Afterwards one of the paths I brainstormed would be with implementation.
What I have seen, that seems to work, is a change management process that builds on itself over time. For example, suppose the administration feels the _____ curriculum is not as good as it could be. It studies some of the new approaches, identifies their strengths and challenges, and compares and contrasts them to the current system. It then holds meetings with the (relevant) teachers to discuss the gaps and opportunities in the current system, and describes some of the new ideas that could be tried. It may bring in people with expertise in some of the new methods being considered. The teachers will provide their input, from helpful ideas for improvement, to direct objections to one aspect or another. The administration accepts that input as well-informed and well-intended (and not, for example, as “obstructionist” or “negative”). Soon after, the same is presented to the parents, describing what the school has noticed as the limitations of the current approach, and what the administration and teachers believe could be ways to improve, showing the path they have in mind and the research done. Parents will have opinions, which must be taken as being constructive and well-intended, too.
When you have both sides you can build on the road ahead. The teachers feel ownership, the parents feel ownership, all stakeholders have a shared vision, so the broader parent community can be engaged, with workshops or breakfasts or coffee meetings where administrators, teachers and parents describe how the new system will work and how the parents can best help their children and the teachers to implement it. Teachers can answer questions easily, as they have full understanding.
It is important to say that the parents that attend the meetings are often the ones whose buy-in the school needs, because they tend to be influencers .
The following year, when the program is put into action, parents and teachers will have a better understanding, a shared vision on what is happening, and a shared vision of the outcome expected - and everyone has ownership of the learning.
Soon enough the trust solidifies the process as well and delivers happier teachers, happier students, happier parents, happier administration, successful school - loop learning, systems thinking, shared vision.
We must think now about system thinking: how to convert companies into learning organizations so this process becomes who we are as a school and students can have a successful, peaceful learning environment.
Want to join me?