I began my career teaching sixth grade in a suburban US public school. As part of a team of three, I was the only male and the newest teacher to enter the team in at least a decade. This lack of seniority, plus my previous work in a residential facility for children with emotional difficulties, seemed to somehow put me in the position of receiving some of the more challenging students in the grade my first couple of years. One case in particular stands out in my mind as a classic example of developing a partnership with a parent to benefit student learning.
Before school even started I had begun to hear about a boy whom I’ll call Jay. This student had a reputation for being fairly active. However, the bigger issue with Jay was his mother. Every teacher who had him previously warned me to be aware as she, “always assumes the worst about the school, always takes her son’s side in things, and always is in attack mode.” Sure enough, they were right! Not more than two weeks passed before I received a phone call from Jay’s irate mother demanding to meet with me to tell me how I should be teaching her son. Wanting to get this over as quickly as possible, I nervously set an appointment for the following morning.
The next morning, after introductions, I asked Jay’s mother to share with me her concerns. She immediately began in a very aggressive tone, suggesting there was no way I could possibly be able to provide for her son’s learning needs. She described past experiences with the school, quoted excerpts from psychological testing her son had received, and went on to tell me her son’s rights and what she would do if his rights were not met. As she spoke, I began to realize what I was hearing was a woman clearly interested in what was best for her son, but frustrated because she felt powerless to provide it. As soon as there was a brief break in what she was saying, I interjected, saying, “I understand you want what’s best for your son. I want you to know I want what is best for him, too. I’m committed to working with you to make sure this happens, and invite you to work with me.” I’ll never forget the change in the mood in the room at that moment. Very quickly, we went from being adversaries, to being partners in Jay’s education, and went on to have a very successful working relationship through that school year.
I’ve hung on to that early experience working with parents. There have been times I’ve felt a knot in my stomach as I’ve walked into potentially abrasive meetings with parents. More times than not though, I’ve found that when I assume parents are there in the best interests of their children, and I state my commitment to that same outcome, the meetings tend to be more effective and productive. Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to gain exposure to a number of different ideas and theories. One model that has particular impressed me is the Adaptive Schools model I was introduced to by Robert Garmston. He speaks of the Norms of Collaboration. One of those norms is to assume positive presuppositions, with the idea being meetings will be more effective if we walk into the room with the belief we all have the best of intentions in mind. This clearly describes my experience, and what I believe is an effective means for dealing with difficult situations.