I’m writing this blog whilst preparing for a 50 minute undergraduate lecture on relationships in primary and secondary school education. Let me repeat that… a 50 minute lecture on relationships in primary and secondary school education. Not much time, hey?

I began the slides with a plan that my lecture would have 3 Acts:

  • Act I: Teacher-Student Relationships
  • Act II: Teacher-Parent Relationships
  • Act III: Teacher-Teacher Relationships

All three are important. And they affect each other. Teacher-student relationships won out though, because when I got to 43 slides and was nowhere near finished, well… something’s gotta go, right?

I suppose I *could* have spent 15 minutes (about 5 slides) on each. In the end, however, my decision to cover only one of these three topics in the lecture was based on the belief that covering something as important as teacher-student relationships inadequately is just as bad as not covering it at all.

So what to do?

Well, this morning I will give my lecture on teacher-student relationships*, but I will cover the other two topics via this blog. In this current post, I shall have a say about teacher-parent relationships and, within the next week, I’ll say something about teacher-teacher relationships. Hopefully with the input of some of my teacher friends… 😉

Teacher-parent relationships

I’ve already made some of my thoughts known on teacher-parent relationships and the impact that staff room chatter can have. I wrote that post in despair after reading yet another click-bait article on “bad parents” at the beginning of this school year and my aim was to implore teachers to dismiss the “us vs them” thinking that such articles promote.

However, neither my post nor the article I was responding to provide any advice on how to approach parents to discuss their child but it’s a critically important skill. Here are my thoughts on it – both as a parent with 13 years of school education and 4 years of ECE experience under my belt and as a researcher who has conducted research with parents of children with disability and severely disruptive behaviour.

Approach is a biggie.

Parents love their kids and the vast majority are doing the very best they can. It is true that parents are not perfect, but I’ve never met anyone who is. We all have our own beliefs about parenting and what the best approaches are. I often have to tell myself that when I see my kids’ friends Facebook/Instagram feeds and catch myself thinking, “Where on earth are their parents??”

It’s very easy to feel superior at times, but I’m sure there are things that those parents are better at than I am. Put it this way, we don’t have a swear jar in our house… I’d be broke if we did. And I’ve made my share of mistakes, if dropping my kid off to school on a pupil free day is any indication. But, if I had to sum up one thing I’ve learnt in my 17 chequered years of parenting, it would be that what works with one of my kids doesn’t necessarily work with the other.

Let me explain…

Pretty much every time I leave town I receive a phone call from my son’s school. I’d like to think that’s because I’m a stabilising influence but in reality it’s probably just timing. For example, a few months ago when I was in Sydney, I received a call from my son’s Design Tech teacher and it was a great call. I mean that!

The subject matter was serious (like, if my son didn’t get organised and write/submit his written assessment he’d fail the subject), but his DT teacher was so down to earth and friendly that we had a bit of a laugh and agreed that together we’d do our best to sort it out.

Early in the call, it became apparent that my son’s DT teacher is also my daughter’s Graphics teacher. It was a great ice-breaker because my two kids are like chalk and cheese. Perhaps if all of my son’s teachers had my daughter before him they’d begin our phone conversations a little differently…

The point I’m making here is that parents can be a teacher’s strongest ally – or not – depending on how they are brought into the conversation and how that conversation positions them. A call or an email that is imbued with subtle blame is just about the most unproductive thing anyone can do. And that is the same whether the blame is directed towards the child or the parent (or the teacher, take note, parents!)

Constructive teacher-parent communication is positive, solution-oriented and respectful – on both sides. It should be informed by the recognition that parents may be fearful for their child and any communication should avoid raising their protective instincts.

Similarly, teachers should take great care to not come across as though they are talking down to parents. I’ve had many occasions to think about this over the years because I suspect that the difficulty some schools have engaging parent communities in disadvantaged areas may be partly affected by this issue.

That said, there are so many teachers and principals who do an outstanding job in this regard and I’m fortunate to have interviewed many who have worked hard to develop inclusive school communities.

But, my research with parents suggests that this is not as widespread or uniform as it should be. In 2012, I spoke with parents of boys from my behaviour school project and was struck by how desperate they were to get help for their child, but also how frustrated they were by the difficulties they experienced in successfully advocating for that child. In their view, this was because they were perceived as the problem and rarely as part of the solution.

Each spoke of only being contacted when there was a problem and of never receiving any positive feedback, until their child began attending the behaviour school. At the National Summit on Student Engagement, Learning and Behaviour last year, presenters talked about making a deliberate effort to catch kids being good and to make positive reports back to those kids’ parents. Morayfield State School in Queensland was one of those schools and their presentation is well worth watching.

wad of pound notes

I have had SO many phone calls from my kids’ schools and I’m glad to say that the ones that stick most in my mind are the positive. The subject of the call wasn’t positive, rather it was the manner in which the contact was made.

It’s not everyday (thank goodness!) that you receive a phone call to politely inquire whether you’re missing any money because your 8 year old daughter has just tried to purchase carob drops at the school canteen with a wad of notes totalling £85.00!!

Or when you receive an email from your son’s Year 4 teacher with a screenshot of his self-chosen Mathletics account name “F**kanator”(you can fill in the blanks) under the subject heading “Your son’s behaviour today ;)”.

Or when you receive an email from your son with the subject heading “I’ve been very bad today and I’m going straight to bed when I get home”, learning only when you reply, “What did you do?” that your son accepted a dare to do a nudie run around the school and then ran full-tilt into the Principal.

These are some of my most cherished memories of my kids being at school over the last 13 years, and much of that is because they involved moments of genuine warmth and affection between me and my kids’ principals and teachers.

On those days I truly felt like we were part of a team, that my husband and I weren’t in this alone, and that these intelligent, thoughtful, warm and caring adults cared about our children, could see past that particular brain explosion to who our children are, as well as who they could be — albeit, with a little (or in some cases, a lot) of guidance from their parents and teachers.

In fact, the best part about these spectacular brain explosions is that they explained so much about other less amusing actions. They provided opportunities for dialogue, for conversations about the future, and what we could all do to make sure that future was as good as it could possibly be.

The school’s response to each of these events could have been stern and reactive. It could have been punitive (there have been a few of those, trust me), it could have been tinged with parent-blame, but it wasn’t.

Instead the response was supportive, my husband and I weren’t treated as progenitors of the devil’s spawn, and it meant that the next time there was a brain explosion, neither party picked up the phone with gritted teeth or bated breath.

I’m grateful to each and every one of those teachers and principals because they’ve enriched mine and my kids’ lives. And I know that they’ll never forget my kids. 😉

Speaking of which, I just received two texts while I’ve been writing this: one about an after-school detention, and the other about a missed after-school detention.

Sigh… better go!


* BTW, I prefer to say T-S rather than S-T relationships because adults have more power to set the tone of a relationship than kids do — and that incidentally is what my most recent research with Penny Van Bergen and Naomi Sweller suggests kids may think too.