Imagine this exchange in a family conference. The parent says, “I mean, I’m in danger of losing my job next week.” Rather than engaging with the parent as a fellow human who is likely experiencing stress and anxiety, the teacher focuses solely on the child, saying, “Well, I think that the best thing that we should do is…let [your child] know how much we care for her and support her… if we’re both there for her, she won’t even realize any of this negative energy.” Or the teacher responds by assuming the parent does not wish to engage with their child, saying, “So, that’s something that we, as teachers, completely respect and understand, so I will not ask you to have too much of a burden with regards to [your child].” While well-intended, these responses miss the mark.
The pandemic has brought home how much we need strong partnerships between families and schools for our students to succeed. Getting to those strong partnerships, however, requires teachers who are prepared to engage with parents human-to-human, not just teacher-to-parent; who have opportunities to build relationships; and who have resources to draw on when parents disclose challenges. What we have found in our work is that without training and resources, even well-intentioned novices may respond to disclosures of family challenges in ways likely to harm the teacher-parent relationship– but with training and resources, they can respond in ways likely to strengthen that relationship.
To create the strong partnerships our students need, we need to start with our teachers. We need to provide teachers with guidance on how to engage with parents human-to-human, not just teacher-to-parent. We need to give teachers opportunities to build relationships and their skills through family-centered interactions, like relationship-building home visits. Finally, we need to ensure teachers know where to direct families for more support and the types of resources available to families. Ultimately, for strong partnerships, we need school leaders who are willing to support each of these relationship moves with guidance and resources.