The Kappan recently included an article about how educators could communicate more effectively with parents of color whose experiences with racism might make them wary of teacher intervention. The article offered some great suggestions, but what really resonated for me was how they framed the core issue of trust between teachers and parents.
The authors cited a pair of studies that should be required reading for all teachers. The first, from 2002, found that economic class was a huge factor — bigger even than race — when it came to communication between parents and teachers. Affluent parents had few issues or misunderstandings with teacher communication largely because their communication styles were similar. Low-income parents, though, had many more problems — mostly misunderstandings on the teacher’s part, believing that the parents were disinterested in their child’s progress when in fact the parents assumed they shouldn’t interfere with the teacher. Parents from other groups — marginalized backgrounds, immigrants, and parents of children with learning disabilities — also reported more difficulty communicating with their children’s schools.
The second study, from 2016, found that teachers were more likely to reach out to Black and Latinx families if their children misbehaved but less likely to communicate about good things their kids had done than they were with white families. And they were less likely to offer feedback of any kind to Asian parents.
So for marginalized parents, the teacher communication options look like this:
- Don’t reach out at all.
- Only reach out if it’s something negative.
- Misconstrue parent’s reactions as lack of care for their child.
What followed is even more interesting. The authors cited a phenomenon, dubbed the “Pollyanna Effect,” that occurs when white educators contact Black parents. The teacher essentially overcorrects for the above behaviors but because they are afraid of resistance to negative messages, the teacher presents it in such an upbeat, sugar-coated way that the parent comes away from the interaction believing the situation isn’t very serious. Predictably, the parent doesn’t follow up or follow through and the teacher believes they don’t care. All of this further undermines the sense of trust the parents have in the teacher and the school as a whole.
In light of this, here are some next steps for improving communication:
Assume positive intent. In some ways it is utterly illogical to assume that parents don’t want their kids to be successful in school, or that they don’t love them or want the best for them. Projecting all of that onto a parent because of a less-than-optimal interaction doesn’t make sense. Starting with an assumption of positive intent is a good way to frame your understanding. This is not our knee-jerk response; we have to practice it.
Assume the responsibility for communication, but listen as much as you talk. As the teacher, the ball starts in your court. Start by asking the parents about their goals, hopes, dreams for their student. Listen carefully and take notes. Then communicate information about the class or what kids are learning. If there’s a breakdown, it’s up to the teacher to find out why and fix it. It’s also up to the teacher to be self aware and self reflective in order to recognize where attitudes or assumptions might be landing wrong and to be mature enough to make it right.
Build trust by celebrating the good. Parents deserve to hear from their child’s teacher regularly and that teacher-parent interaction needs to encompass more than the child’s mistakes. Parents shouldn’t fear a call from their child’s teacher. A pattern of positive communication helps build a foundation that can sustain more serious situations. The goal is to contact every parent of every child to share something positive about the student, well before the need to discuss something difficult arises.
Discuss and document. Nothing is more terrifying than a person in authority reeling off 5 or 6 things we’re supposed to remember to do or assuming that we can repeat verbatim the content of a conversation. Parents are no different than anyone else. The documenting here is for their benefit, not as a legal measure. Put issues, expectations, suggestions and strategies in writing for the parent to refer to later. Keep it short, make it clear, write it down.
Allow for a variety of reactions. Teachers overwhelmingly report that they liked school and were good students. Many parents come to the table with much less rosy attitudes about school and teachers; they may be belligerent, fearful, overawed, tongue-tied, confused, and so on. If they are immigrants, their educational experiences may not resemble American school at all and their cultural reactions to teachers may be completely different. Some may highly revere teachers to the point that they will never question what the teacher says even if it’s wrong or unfair, or they may agree with the teacher even if they don’t fully understand. In some cultures, direct eye contact is rude and a sign of disrespect — a teacher’s repeated attempts to make eye contact with someone from that type of culture are going to produce frustration and discomfort on both sides. Move gently, with compassion, and seek to understand, clarify, and affirm.
Treat parents like experts on their child. Asking questions, getting their input on their child’s progress or behavior, seeking partnership with them in helping their child achieve — there’s no downside to any of that and lots of potential for good for everyone involved.
Learning always — always — works better when there’s a community around each child working to help them do well in school. Making sure we’re all on the same side and on the same page is critical in helping the most vulnerable kids succeed.