What Parents Should Hear From Day School Leaders

Jill Kessler

We want the children we pour our hearts and souls into to thrive! And what Jewish parent doesn’t want the same? We must take the time to remind parents we are in this together.

Unfortunately, hasty responses are often what get teachers and administrators into trouble. Over the years, I have come to conclude that school leadership must lay the groundwork for positive parent relationships and state some hard truths at the beginning of each school year. We need to tell parents not only what we will do for them but what they must do for us. Being proactive, confronting difficult topics head on, setting clear expectations for open communication, and adhering to the guidelines that we set, will ultimately save time and, more importantly, lead to better relationships with families in our schools.

So, why is it that in many schools we are not telling parents what they need to hear? Is it possible to set appropriate boundaries while showing we truly care about the children we teach? Can we model respectful communication so parents, in turn, will speak to us in an acceptable manner? And finally, can we build trusting relationships with families that will lead to mutual respect?

E-mail, wonderful as it may be, can be a dangerous tool in which to communicate anything other than easy factual information such as the girl’s soccer schedule and the time of the boy’s basketball tryouts. When you e-mail about a child’s social or academic difficulties, the e-mail is subject to the parent’s interpretation. Parents can’t hear compassion in your voice or see sympathetic facial expression. They read into the e-mail what they want which can lead to all sorts of trouble—not to mention, a continuous stream of back and forth communication stemming from the original e-mail. This can cause undue stress to faculty and administration.

E-mail can be downloaded and used as documentation in lawsuits against the school. Every employee needs to be reminded of this so nothing of great importance is put in an e-mail. This too, however, runs both ways. I tell faculty to print inappropriate e-mails from parents, and file them in their locked cabinets.

How do we avoid the endless stream of back and forth e-mails and the stress that comes with the constant demand for a quick and immediate response? First, if the response to the e-mail is anything other than factual, it is best to be proactive and call the parent. Initially, faculty may complain because it’s less easy and takes longer to reach someone if they aren’t home, but they come to see that more often than not, the situation can be resolved with a phone call or meeting and be put to rest. Because the stage was set with the initial phone call, follow up can often be done via e-mail. This is because both parent and teacher understand the action plan for the student subsequent to the discussion. In addition, I tell faculty to check their e-mail before they leave for the day. They are not obligated to answer school e-mail in the evening. This is one way of setting a boundary for parents. They come to learn, or we tell them, that e-mails are answered during the work day and not in the evenings. Hard-working faculty and administration need to spend quality time with their families.

It is human nature that we want to avoid conflict, and calling our most challenging parents can be scary and hard. I learned a wonderful statement from a coach that frames difficult conversations. It is simply: “We share the same goals that your child be successful, academically, socially, and emotionally.” It is easy to say because we genuinely feel this way. I want every student in my school to be successful and so do my faculty and leadership. You too, I’m sure, want your students to succeed. We would not devote the endless hours to our craft if not for this simple fact. We want the children we pour our hearts and souls into to thrive! And what Jewish parent doesn’t want the same? This is our common goal and we must take the time to remind parents we are in this together.

This powerful statement aligns parents and teachers as well as parents and administration, and weakens the defensiveness of parents. The real issue to be discussed can then be addressed. This is where coaching teachers on the importance of how information is conveyed is critical. If teachers and administrators convey their caring and concern without giving parents potential solutions to the problems, parents leave frustrated and unhappy. They feel dumped upon. In truth, they are correct. The problem has been dumped into their lap and they often don’t have the intellectual resources (not that they aren’t smart, they aren’t educators) to come up with a solution. This is why it is so important that every teacher or administrator has a game plan before going into a meeting. Parents are paying for private Jewish day school and expect that we will help them resolve issues in a mentsch-like way.

Building trust is essential for maintaining positive relationships with parents. One of my first grade teachers sums up what so many teachers think when she says, “I am in a career of nurturing young children to be competent thinkers who listen, who can think analytically and creatively, solve problems, and make decisions, shaping children to be inquirers who negotiate, inventors who collaborate and can work successfully with diverse individuals and groups; and yet we still have parents who question educator’s techniques, challenge our decisions and oppose our very quest to strengthen and enrich their child’s educational journey. I wish more parents could trust in the educators that surround their child and believe we also have their child’s best interest at heart.”

Some parents believe they too can teach since they have been through school. It takes patience and understanding in dealing with parents who want to tell you how to do your job. We have to try and remember that it is often emotional baggage from their own school days which they unknowingly bring to us. Fear of failure drives their concerns.

On the other hand, trust needs to be earned. We have to give parents clear expectations, explanations, and an understanding of the theory or philosophy behind what we do. This can be done in newsletters, teacher letters, electronic publications, in back-to-school nights and teacher conferences. For some, it will be done one-on-one in a meeting with teacher, parent, and administrator.

We need to tell parents that we want their trust. We need to tell parents that respectful communication is mutual. We need to tell parents that appropriate boundaries must be adhered to for the well being of the faculty and administration. Burnt out, stressed out teachers/administrators are not good role models for their children. Our policies and communication both orally, and in writing, must let parents know this is what we need from them in order for us to be most successful with their children. We have an obligation to speak the truth with kindness and concern, clarity and strength. ♦

Jill Kessler is head of school at Pardes Jewish Day School in Phoenix, Arizona. She can be reached at jkessler@pardesschool.org.

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HaYidion Parents Autumn 2009
Fall 2009