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From body image to bullying, academic pressure to addiction, learn to build bridges using the stories your teen is already reading.
Connection Not Perfection with The Ish Girl navigateright Episode
One of the things that has struck me in this coronavirus-affected world, is that parent-teacher communication has shifted drastically in the past month and a half. It’s something we’ve all experienced, with teachers and school districts making heroic efforts to get learning back on track while everyone is quarantined.
If you’re a teacher, huge kudos to you. I know the shift to teaching online, coupled with the new levels of communication that are required has been challenging.
If you’re a parent like me, you may have scrambled to keep up with the sheer number of emails coming at you – if you have multiple kids who have multiple teachers, you just have to do the math to get an idea of the communication onslaught – with my 2 kids and their 8 teachers each, that’s 16 emails plus any that are coming from the school district regarding event cancelations and other pertinent announcements.
Add in the working-from-home component, and, well, it’s a lot.
And that’s coming from me – who has 2 kids who are completely autonomous when it comes to their school work.
Don’t get me wrong. I LOVE that there is this transition to collaborating, even if it’s under duress. Because “collaborating” isn’t a word I would have used to describe the relationship between secondary schools and parents until now.
I’ve been on both sides of the equation and I get it. As a teacher, I often dreaded communicating with parents (more on that to follow.) As a parent, it takes some intentionality to keep from defaulting to defensiveness when I hear from my kids' teachers – especially in the first few seconds when I don’t know why they’re reaching out.
When we take a hard, honest look at the parent-teacher COMMUNICATION dynamic, it’s safe to say that it’s not an assume-the-best situation. In fact, it’s easy to see that many – if not most – are characterized by walls built by both sides.
And it makes sense – both sides have some degree of mistrust that is probably valid, given past experiences. But my question is: is that what’s best for kids?
The answers to that question are very different as we all pivot in this season of quarantining and social distancing. My speculation is that nothing will ever look like it used to, even in a post-pandemic world. Teachers and parents need to be prepared for a different dynamic when it comes to school.
In the case of communication, it’s a beautiful opportunity to shift the defensive dynamic and grow into a new way of collaborating. When I imagine what the fall will look like, I think about rolling quarantines, creative scheduling to allow for smaller classes (and social distancing), and a continuation of virtual learning. And all of those things? They require a different model of communication than the one we’ve used in the past.
The one thing that remains the same is this: we all – schools, teachers, parents - agree that our kids need a supportive community of adults who are focused on what’s best for them.
And THAT’S what I want for middle school students everywhere – a place where the adults in their lives are both/and. They’re united and relentless in their goal to love and serve their teens well.
My knee-jerk here is to tell a story about the “good ole days” and how when I was a kid what happened at school was reinforced at home. BUT. I think that’s part of the problem. We have to walk in the here and now if we’re going to address this. And the here and now can be REALLY hard.
Finding ways to move past the distrust and find common ground takes not only new frameworks and systems but also addressing past experiences.
Remember when I confessed earlier that as a teacher, I dreaded talking to parents? There was a reason for that – and I’m sharing to show you just exactly how past experiences influence us.
In my second year of teaching, I had a student whose mother worked in the school office. He was belligerent and disrespectful and disrupted class pretty much every day. I tried for a long time to deal with it on my own – I was embarrassed and I didn’t want anyone to know that I couldn’t manage my classroom. Unfortunately, the situation took a turn for the worse when his mother became seriously ill. I continued to try to deal with the classroom situation on my own until it got to the point where it was seriously affecting other students. I wasn’t providing them a safe space to learn.
I finally talked to the school counselor and the other teachers on our team, and they confirmed what I already knew: I needed to call home.
And I did. And it wasn’t pretty. I talked to the student’s father, and he proceeded to BLAST me. I got off the phone without any resolution, feeling personally attacked. The situation was never really resolved – I just tried to ride it out as graciously as I could for the rest of the year.
As you might imagine, that event influenced how I felt about contacting parents. I DREADED it. It wasn’t until I had an incredibly positive experience a couple of years later that my mindset shifted.
Looking back, there are so many things I wish I’d done differently. So many places I could have made a better choice. And that Dad? He could have made better choices too.
But at the moment, I could only see how earnestly I was trying to do the right thing, and he was being unbelievably cruel and antagonistic.
As a parent myself now, I can imagine that in his eyes, I was being insensitive and ridiculous, taking attention away from the real crisis his family was dealing with, and adding to their burden.
Hindsight, of course, is 20/20. And the unfortunate result of that incident is that it profoundly influenced how I felt about contacting parents. I DREADED it, because my feelings around it were a tangled ball of shame, fear, and self-doubt. It wasn’t until I had an incredibly positive experience a couple of years later that my mindset shifted.
That positive experience happened when 2 Moms (who happened to be best friends) kindly and persistently pursued all the teachers on my team, in order to volunteer and provide support wherever we needed it. I think we were all super uncomfortable with it at first – that knee-jerk defensiveness was at play. “What’s the ulterior motive? Why are they doing this?”
But they consistently showed up and supported us not only in practical tasks like making copies, organizing our conference room, coordinating chaperones for field trips; they also supported us with encouragement and positive feedback.
Over time, it opened my eyes to how powerful it was to have strong relationships with students’ parents. It gave me the boost I needed to be more proactive in reaching out to parents. I learned that we all wanted the same thing – the best for these kids we shared.
Armed with that knowledge, I began to contact parents in a positive context as soon as possible during the school year – with something specific about each teen. Doing that meant that they were much more likely to be receptive to communicating about any challenges later on.
I also realized something else – if I stood back and looked at the whole of my interchanges with parents, the majority were NOT negative. Most were at least neutral if not positive.
My next story may seem like a tangent, but stick with me – there’s a lot of relevance here.
When my daughter was around 12, we were in Target one day and she made a very disparaging comment about herself. We were waiting in line to check out, and I remember telling her, “NO. WAY. That’s not going to fly here. I don’t let ANYONE talk to my kids that way – not even you. Give me 10 things you really like about yourself. Go.” She pushed back, but eventually, she listed out 10 things. She started out grudgingly, but by the time she got to 10, she was giggling and more than a little surprised at how her mindset had shifted.
So why did I share that?
The whole reason I had her list out those positives about herself is that I know it takes 7 positive experiences/thoughts to counteract one bad one. That, and I had seen one of Maria Shriver’s daughters talking about how her Mom made her do it. But the 7-to-1 ratio is real. You can check out this article to see the research behind it.
So what does that mean for you?
First, if dread and defensiveness are part of the dynamic in your school/home relationships, take an inventory of why that is. Literally list out any negative experiences you’ve had, negative stories you’ve heard from others, or negative messaging you’ve gotten.
Then, flip it. List out the neutral and positive experiences, stories, and messaging you’ve had.
The next step in this process is to look at each thing you listed and decide what was under your umbrella – where do you hold any responsibility? Where could you have done something differently? Where do you do something well?
Once you’ve compiled that evaluation, take it and decide what you want to carry forward, and what you want to leave behind. You can circle or highlight in 2 different colors, make a new list with two columns, use the free template I made, however you want to do it.
To give you an example of how this might work, let’s use my own story of that student from my 2nd year of teaching. For that experience, for what was under my umbrella, I’d put: not contacting the parents sooner, not asking for help from the beginning, and letting my ego get in the way and convince me I could handle the situation on my own. What I did well was staying calm and respectful during my conversation with the Dad.
What I’d carry forward? Addressing the issue immediately, asking for help
What I’d leave behind? Trying to do it by myself; procrastinating
Doing this exercise is not for the faint of heart. It means stepping into responsibility and out of a place that might feel easier – playing the role of a martyr. Believe, me, in that situation with the student and his Dad, I played the martyr for a long time before I owned my part in it. The Dad was mean to me. The kid was disrespectful. I was doing my best. All true, but not helpful to park there and stay. It takes humility to own your part in things – but isn’t that what we want to model for our teens?
What better place to start owning your stuff than in your school/home relationships?
The last thing I want to mention is that when adults unite around supporting their teens, amazing things happen.
The gap that exists when there’s a disconnect between school and home is closed, and a safety net is created that helps keep kids from falling through the cracks.
Resources open up for all the parties involved – teachers are gifted with volunteers, donations, and encouragement, parents with information, counseling, and feedback about their kids.
It prevents teens from playing the two ends against the middle (something that is developmentally appropriate, by the way.) What I used to say at Meet the Teacher night was: if you’ll believe half of what you hear about me at home then I’ll believe half of what I hear about you in the classroom. It was tongue in cheek but it got the point across. While we want to validate and support our kids, they are not fully developed or equipped to understand all the nuances in a situation.
I’m going to continue this conversation in Episode 79 of In the Middle of It, when I’ll share strategies to use to communicate with clarity, in a way that produces the results you want. Be sure to tune in!