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Wounded But Not Weakened

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parent teacher conference

And with a broken wing
She still sings
She keeps an eye on the sky
With a broken wing
She carries her dreams
Man you ought to see her fly

Martina McBride

Confession: I have a love/hate relationship with the first parent, student, teacher conferences of the year. Ninety-nine percent of the time, these meetings come and go without incident, and I genuinely enjoy the conversations that I have with parents. It is rewarding to celebrate their child’s progress and to set new goals. However, occasionally preparing for those first conferences is a little more stressful than usual as I anticipate some difficult conversations. I've usually had several discussions with more difficult parents, but I never quite know what to expect. Even one or two upset parents can feel like a full-scale attack. It’s hard not to take criticism personally. It’s hard not to fall into the trap of “we against them.” It’s hard to listen, understand their point of view, and to learn from the feedback. Criticism hurts us deeply because we are so passionate about education and our students. After the recent conferences that I had this year, I feel like a bird with a wounded wing. I’ve cried. I’ve rationalized my thinking and played the blame game. But mostly, I’ve done a lot of reflecting.

Over the span of my career, I’ve worked with some of the most amazing parents! The last five years have been more than I could ever dream of as a teacher. Parents were in my classroom every day, and I felt like we were indeed partners with common goals. They were engaged and often empowered as we made instructional decisions together. The timing couldn’t have been better. I was trying many new things, and the parents thoroughly trusted and supported me. But, I changed schools and went to an entirely different community. Problems started to develop because I failed to build strong relationships with my new parents. I didn’t bank enough trust but continued to implement practices that were entirely new. I thought my reputation would follow me and I didn't put in the work. I failed to build from the ground up. I made assumptions. And so now, I have to back up, slow down, and hopefully, develop some credibility and move forward. I think I’ve learned some things that can help other teachers and leaders.

Use critical feedback as a chance to reflect on your practices and grow. This is hard! We have to be careful not to be defensive rather than listening to understand. There usually is a little nugget of truth behind every complaint. And, we shouldn’t feel defensive if we are making our decisions based on what’s best for the students. Every parent wants to feel listened to and understood. Listen and clarify your understanding. Apologize if you make a mistake. Be open and honest. Language such as, “I am sorry that happened,” allows you to keep your dignity while demonstrating to the parents that you are empathetic and want to be an educational partner. Being reflective is a chance to ask yourself some hard questions and define your “Why.” Ask yourself if you’ve communicated your vision to your parents. In my case, I failed to explain my “Why” of blended learning, no homework, flexible seating, standards-based grading, etc. I had good intentions and plans and thought I was sending out plenty of information. My failure was not making it a priority to teach parents more.

Traditional practices are what parents know. As teachers make the shift from more traditional methods to different ways of doing things, it’s important to keep parents in the loop. For the past eight years, I’ve used a learning management system with my students, and they’ve loved it. I’ve had a 1:1 Chromebook classroom environment for the last four years. Being paperless is not new to me. I forget that this is a new concept for many people. The transition for parents is sometimes challenging. I was caught a little off-guard that parents complained about not seeing worksheets and worksheet packets especially in the community where I’m currently teaching. I’ve had to find some compromises to meet parents where they are at and move forward from there. It’s not about giving in to a parent’s every demand. It’s about helping parents to feel like I’m on their side and that I’m attempting to understand their point of view. I’m still very confident in the direction that I’m moving and in my abilities as a teacher. I just need to show parents effective ways to support their children’s learning without depending on a worksheet.

Communicate! Communicate! Communicate! I’ve heard it said a million times that you can never communicate enough. Most problems arise because of a lack of communication and misunderstandings. Even when you think you’ve sent out a lot of information and used many platforms, you can always communicate on a more consistent and regular basis. I also think it’s important for teachers to communicate with simple language absent of educational jargon and buzzwords. I love the idea recently shared with me by a great mentor about the 7-11 principle. The local corner convenience store will have a mix of people with varying backgrounds in the store at any one time. Are you communicating in such a way that the people in the convenience store clearly understand your vision? Another mistake of mine that I’m trying to remedy is that I need to do better at two-way communication. Sometimes we educators think it’s enough to send out information, but fail to provide ways that parents can give us regular feedback. Parents who feel listened to will be much more likely to trust you.

Build trust and strong relationships with parents. An ounce of prevention goes a long way. I’m glad that I made “deposits” in parent bank accounts at the first of the year with positive phone calls home, notes, and emails. My epic fail was that I neglected to send home consistent positive communication. I let my priority of cultivating trust and positive relationships take a back seat as the school year jumped into full speed, and I got busier. I allowed myself to be distracted and lost focus. This is a mistake that I hope I never repeat! I knew better. Communicating in good times was precisely when I should have been doing more to make sure that parents were informed. I know that sometimes you have to go slow to go fast when implementing change. But, I’m not always very patient. I want to innovate, to feel like I’m changing the status quo, and to be on the cutting edge. But by not going slow, I nearly fell off the edge! I’ve learned. It’s easy for me to respect the journey that teachers are making. Everyone is at a different place. I also need to appreciate the journey that parents are taking as shifts happen in education.

I feel a little wounded, but I will heal. I can still sing (figuratively, not in real life), hop around, flap my good wing and dream of where I want to be. Parents are not an enemy of teachers. In fact, I’ve found that I soar the highest when parents are my partners. I’m looking forward to implementing some tweaks to what I’m doing. I’m looking forward to building stronger relationships with the parents in my new school community. Although I’m not entirely there yet, I think that I’ll look forward to the next parent, student, teacher conferences. I've learned a lot. 

Most birds take shelter from a storm. An eagle stretches its wings, leans into the wind current, and uses adversity for an opportunity for lift and leverage. The greater the opposing wind, the higher the eagle flies!

I will fly again.

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Guest Friday, 22 February 2019