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September 1, 2017
Vol. 75
No. 1

Principal Connection / Swimming with Your Shoes On

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For good communication with parents, plan, practice, and plan more.

LeadershipEngagement
Consider how these things are related: the requirement that Dutch children learn to swim fully clothed, the tendency of patients who feel a doctor treated them curtly to be litigious, and the elements of good parent-teacher interactions. Disparate as these things seem, they have much in common.

Building Sea Walls and Building Trust

In a recent New York Times article, Michael Kimmelman describes the accommodations that people living in the Netherlands routinely make because of the ever-present danger of the North Sea flooding. The Dutch have planned to avoid the worst—including by building the Maeslantkering, a giant sea gate of two arms, each as tall as the Eiffel Tower, that protects Rotterdam—but are prepared in case things go wrong. Reservoirs, dikes, and emergency procedures are simply part of life, as is teaching children to be able to swim with their clothes on (even their shoes).
Now hold on to that fact about Holland and consider another fact: According to Malcolm Gladwell, lawsuits against physicians aren't based only on the quality of medical care a patient receives and the outcome of that care. Our perceptions of how we are treated—Did the doctor listen? Did she take the time to get to know me?—play a big role in the trust we give a physician and how we react if that physician makes an error. Gladwell notes, "What comes up again and again in malpractice cases is that patients say they were rushed or ignored or treated poorly." That's not to discount the impact of medical misjudgments, but it suggests that patients are less likely to be understanding if they're not treated respectfully.

Give Communication Its Due

What does all this have to do with reaching families? Just as physicians need to take time to communicate respectfully with each patient—and to get to know that patient—educators need to develop trust and build relationships with students' parents. And school leaders need to emphasize how crucial this is. Most principals know the value of communication and building relationships with family members, yet we rarely give this area the focus it needs. Ask yourself:
  • When was the last time you focused a professional development session on parent-teacher conferences? Or led teachers in reflecting on the effectiveness of their parent conferences and what they might do differently?
  • Have you ever joined a teacher in a parent meeting with the intent of later giving the teacher feedback on his performance?
  • Do you facilitate discussion among teachers about effective techniques for sharing information with families, particularly information that may be difficult to accept?
Considering the importance of communicating with students' parents, it's inexcusable that we give so little attention to helping teachers prepare and practice both what they will say to parents and how they'll say it. The fact that teacher training programs devote little time to this area compounds the problem.
Why not devote a faculty meeting to exploring the best ways to communicate in teacher-family conferences? Model for teachers how they might frame the meeting ("We only have 20 minutes to chat, so I will begin by sharing what I see as your child's strengths and challenges. I'll be sure to leave time for your reactions and questions"). Remind everyone that it's easier for families to hear hard things if the conversation begins with a positive, particularly if their child is struggling. And it's valuable to remind teachers to take notes as they listen to parents, both for future reference and to demonstrate that they consider parents' comments important.
I've led faculty sessions on parent communication by demonstrating both a successful interaction and an interaction in which I intentionally make lots of mistakes. I may start off with a litany of negatives or begin talking about Johnny when their child is really Susie! The mistake-filled role-play elicits lots of laughter—and gets the point across. I've had teachers role-play their conferencing techniques in pairs, occasionally telling the teacher playing the parent to disagree or express disbelief. It's a lot easier to keep your cool in a difficult parent-teacher conference if you've practiced ahead of time.

Take Every Opportunity

Planning for communicating and building trust is a yearlong activity. Although we often focus on formal conferences—times when all families come to meet with teachers or individual meetings arranged to deal with pressing circumstances—we should also view less formal interactions as opportunities to develop trust and show that we care. Parent education sessions and back-to-school nights, for example, should be interesting, focused, and interactive (no one wants to be talked at, even if the information is relevant). Just as in planning a lesson, teachers must think about the objectives of their presentation (What do you want family members to understand? How do you hope to engage parents?) and how best to reach those objectives.
To get parents to come to school, be extra creative in the ways you communicate and invite. If you regularly send letters home, make sure they are interesting and relevant. As principal, I included a "quote of the week" to encourage families to read my letters. Do you offer meetings at various times during the day—and evening? Do students present what they've learned or perform in some way (a powerful lure) as part of family events?
Finally, just as the Dutch prepare to respond to adversity—they call it "resilience planning"—plan for what you'll do if an interaction goes wrong. How might you shift how you're presenting information if a parent becomes defensive? When a parent seems unreasonable, how will you avoid becoming defensive and keep the dialogue open? If you make a mistake and sense trust crumbling, how will you make amends?
As we see in the Netherlands and in hospitals, preparing well and establishing a relationship of trust are essential for success. We need to give our teachers the same opportunity to succeed by focusing on communication with students' parents. It's hard to swim while wearing shoes if you've never practiced doing so.
End Notes

1 Kimmelman, M. (2017, June 15). "The Dutch have solutions to rising seas. The world is watching." New York Times. Retrieved from www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/06/15/world/europe/climate-change-rotterdam.html

2 Gladwell, M. (2005). Blink: The power of thinking without thinking. New York: Little, Brown and Company.

Thomas R. Hoerr retired after leading the New City School in St. Louis, Missouri, for 34 years and is now the Emeritus Head of School. He teaches in the educational leadership program at the University of Missouri–St. Louis and holds a PhD from Washington University in St. Louis.

Hoerr has written six other books—Becoming a Multiple Intelligences School, The Art of School Leadership, School Leadership for the Future, Fostering Grit, The Formative Five, Taking Social-Emotional Learning Schoolwide—and more than 160 articles, including "The Principal Connection" column in Educational Leadership.

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