Thursday, in one of my last spring conferences, one of my moms was pretty tense. That was unusual. After all, she and I had known each other for three years now, after two children in my 4/5 class, and we got along well. Eventually she came out with the cause. A few days earlier I had sent her an email that upset her. She proceeded to tell me that I had handled things completely wrong and how I should have done it.
My first instinct was to explain the circumstances from my point of view and tell her in some detail why I had done what I did. Then I bit my tongue. I said simply, “You are right. I am so sorry. I should have done that better. I apologize.”
She continued to talk about why she was upset, explaining what had happened to her in the past—incidents at another school with another staff member—to make her so emotional in her response. I told her I understood. After a few minutes we got back to her child’s conference.
At the end of the conference, as she stood up to leave, I asked, “Do you forgive me?”
She said, “Of course!”
We hugged, and she left smiling.
Let’s be clear here. I botched the communication I sent to her. (Emails have the advantage of providing brief and rapid communication. The disadvantage? They can more easily cause miscommunication!) I am completely comfortable with acknowledging the fact that I made a mistake and apologizing.
Friday I was at the Washington State Science and Engineering Fair with the students from my class who entered the fair this year and their moms. While the students were in the auditorium with the judges, the moms and I sat around a table and talked.
One mom asked if there was a time the two of us could get together so I could give her advice for how to handle an issue with a colleague in my district. I told her, “After I retire.” She said that wouldn’t be very timely.
Then a parent who’s a doctor asked if I’d ever done teacher training. Yes. I’ve done in-service training on subjects from classroom management to science to social studies to all areas of language arts. I’m a regional trainer for Highly Capable. I’ve done a lot of teacher training.
That wasn’t what she was interested in. She wanted to know if I’d ever taught a class to teachers on how to interact with parents.
I said no. I must have looked surprised.
“Don’t you take classes like that?” she asked. “Isn’t that part of your regular teacher training courses?”
“Not that I know of,” I said—it certainly wasn’t a part of mine. At most I’ve seen a few handouts over the years about how to talk to parents put in my box around conference time.
Apparently learning how to interact with adult clients was part of her training to be a doctor. She roleplayed meeting with patients while a psych observed. The interaction was videotaped. She and the psych watched the tape later and discussed what they saw. She says she learned a lot from what she did well and even more from what she didn’t do well.
As a teacher leader, I’ve taken classes on how to train adults and how to communicate with peers. The Center for Strengthening the Teaching Profession has helpful material on their leadership framework. However, all the materials I’ve seen and all the classes I’ve taken are geared towards making teacher leaders effective at providing professional development to their peers. While the materials and classes have crossover applications, I haven’t seen any classes specifically designed to help new teachers learn how to interact well with parents. And how helpful would that kind of training be?
There have been times in my career when I knew I was headed into a difficult conference, and I asked the school counselor to join me. Having the counselor there helped, but I believe now that at least one particular difficult conference would have gone so much better if she and I had role-played the conference ahead of time, practicing for the real thing. I never considered doing that with her, and she never suggested it to me.
There were other times, like this week, when I had no idea there was a problem coming at me in the conference. I wouldn’t have known to role-play in advance. But what if practicing before conferences was part of my routine? What if our team used one PLC time before each set of conferences to get ready by role-playing some possible scenarios?
All teachers have to learn how to teach our subjects areas. We have to learn how to teach our students with all their social and emotional needs. We take classes to learn how to do those things.
Teachers need to know how to interact with parents as well. Maybe we need some classes—pre-service, in-service, or just practice training sessions—to learn how to do that too.