How open and honest should the lines of communications be?

The way it was and isn't

There was a time, not so long ago, when schools and school officials enjoyed a unique form of respect from parents. If the teacher said so, that's the way it was because the teacher always knew best and the principal was seen as the ultimate pedagogic authority. When I was growing up (at least a century ago) I was afraid to tell my parents I was punished in school, however uncalled for I felt the punishment was, because what I could look forward to was another punishment. My parents naturally accepted the teacher's/principal's perspective. Those times have vanished along with home delivery of glass bottled milk.

School officials want open and positive communication lines with their children's parents, but they want parental support for their policies and educational philosophy.

During my school years, when schools communicated with parents it was, more often that not, an administrative directive or a report card. When school will be open; when it will close. What you need to send to school with your child. If a parent was ever called to school the news wasn't good. Danny had misbehaved and the parents were going to get the blame and accept the onus of disciplining him. And they followed up.

Today's parents expect and demand a lot more from their schools than their parents ever did. Neither the teacher nor the principal is held in the same esteem, nor will the parent naturally take the side of the school where the child's perspective differs. Parents want to be informed about everything going on in school so that they can make their own judgments about what's best for their child. Naturally there is ambivalence on the part of school officials about what kind of communication is necessary or appropriate.

A School's Perspective

Everyone acknowledges that parents today are, more often than not, better educated and informed than their parents were, and that they have a positive contribution to make to their child's school. Some school officials are skeptical about sharing with parents for that very reason. These officials believe that no parent, as intelligent as they are, can fully appreciate the challenge of today's classroom, unless they've been there.

School officials want open and positive communication lines with their children's parents, but they want parental support for their policies and educational philosophy. Very often principals and teachers feel that parents' demands are excessive and unreasonable, and that the parents do not fully appreciate the difficulties with which the school officials are struggling.

In the course of more than three decades as school principal and professional consultant, many a principal confided in me about how challenging effective communication with parents could be for them. Afraid of being misunderstood, they were too often reluctant to share information or to involve parents at all. Some even felt that telling parents more than they needed to know would surely result in the words coming back to haunt them. At times there did, in fact, seem to be enough evidence to suggest that they were not mistaken.

From the Parent's Perspective

Intelligent parents want to be involved in their children's education; they want to know about every facet of the school's operation. They want to understand school policies and how they will affect their own child. They want to understand why things are done the way they are and feel free to offer their opinions and criticism. Parents want to know how Danny or Rivkah are doing and what is being done to assure their success. They expect schools to be accountable and do not accept the idea that school officials know best.

Parents expect educators to hear their concerns and to be responsive to them. They see it as their role to make school officials aware of problems, and the role of the schools to fix them. Parents do not accept the premise that they are being unnecessarily meddlesome; to the contrary, they believe that they are protecting their children and keeping the school honest.

The fact is that many a child's needs may very likely have been overlooked were it not for the involvement of his or her parent. Parents will cite you chapter and verse of where children of their generation fell between the cracks because parents were unaware and uninvolved.

Naturally, most schools today struggle to find a happy medium; a way to foster communication without generating unnecessary pressure or criticism. I would like to chime in with a few observations as well.

A middle ground (or, bringing the two together)

Things are never going to go back to the way it used to be, thank heavens for that.

In one of my books, I compared school and home to parallel railroad tracks. They run apart from one another but always parallel. If they were to go off in different directions the train would derail. Similarly home and school have their independent roles. They need to compliment one another, to share the same objectives and to be heading in the same direction but the role of each is distinct let's not blur them.

Parents need to believe that their child's school has his best interests at heart. The only function of the school is to service children and their education. Parental input can be very helpful in helping schools fulfill their mandate. Frequently information from a parent will help a teacher understand the child better and in a different light, but it is the teacher, as a professional, who is the one who needs to decide how to help the child maximize his potential.

When a parent feels that the school may have erred, it is his obligation to bring new information and to discuss the issue with school officials. He must trust that the school will do what is appropriate and not question or challenge every decision. If a parent cannot develop such a basic trust, then his child has no business being in that school (I can hear the cry of 'foul' from school officials and 'ouch' from some parents).

It is incumbent upon a school to explain its philosophies and policies and not to talk down to the parents; today's parents wont stand for it. The school is, however, not obligated to make adjustments to suit the particular needs of any set of parents, and parents must understand that. The fact is that the more clearly a school policies are enunciated, the more detailed and specific they are, the more readily parents tend to trust the officials who developed them. When a teacher or principal can point out the reasoning behind the policy and why it was developed, it is the obligation of parents to either accept it or vote with their feet.

So, what should be expected?

The school has a right to expect that:

  • Parents will support its policies and help carry them out.
  • Parents will voice their concerns and suggestions about the school in an appropriate and timely manner.
  • Parents will keep the school informed about their child, both his strengths and challenges.
  • Parents work cooperatively and provide the help and assistance which the child needs to make him successful (as directed by the school), and communicate honestly about their efforts and concerns.

Parents have a right to expect that:

  • The school will clearly communicate its policies and curriculum objectives to the parent body.
  • The school will take the concerns and input from parents seriously when establishing those policies.
  • The school will keep parents informed about their child's progress and his challenges.
  • The school will make every effort possible to help a child overcome and/or deal with his challenges and communicate with parents about what they are doing.
  • The school will be considerate of, and of help to, parents who need to deal with a child who is struggling with his challenges and communicate honestly with them about they expect.

All of us involved with education need to make a greater effort to understand and communicate with each other. The children will be the beneficiaries.