I have always known that the school-home connection was an important piece in my teaching. But then one day I had a challenging conversation with a parent. They felt that they had not been heard, that their values were not honored, and they questioned if I had their child’s best interest in mind when working with them. This conversation made me realize that I had to gain a deeper connection with my students’ families.
My first step was gathering information through professional development. I attended Responsive Classroom workshops and the Reggio North American Conference in spring 2018. I took away two key elements from these: empathy and the teacher-parent-child triangle. Through the lens of empathy, I realized that my job as a teacher is not about changing parents but rather partnering with them so we can together support their child. Even though an educator may have different values than the parent, our role is not to try to change them. From the teacher-parent-child triangle, I came to understand that if any connection point falters, the academic success of the child can be affected. This information was thought-changing for me, and I carried it with me into the next school year as I worked toward my Responsive Classroom Teacher Certification. My commitment to the certification during that school year helped push me beyond my comfort zone to reach out to parents in a more authentic way. I wanted parents to know that I see them not only as parents but also as people who have their own challenges. I could best help the child by helping the family more holistically. Teachers and parents supporting each other and creating a genuine connection translates into a better educational experience for the children.
I started the 2019–2020 school year teaching pre-kindergarten with the intention of building strong relationships not only with the students but also with the parents. I focused on being fully present in conversations with parents, sometimes having to home in on the small, subtle cues that indicated that they wanted to share something with me but were hesitant—for example, when they stopped mid-conversation, or they would pause and say “Never mind” or “We’ll see what happens.” I used simple phrases such as “Tell me more” or “It seems like you want to share something” to help them to open up. By January 2020, I felt that I had built a strong foundation of relationships with the families.
Enter the coronavirus. In the first few days of the quarantine, I was fortunate enough to connect online with educators from around the world. Everyone was in a similar situation—communities had closed down and we were all concerned about our school families. There were five important takeaways from these meetings:
- Caring is our greatest power
- There is power in focusing on what I can do, not on the circumstance
- Look at this as a pause and reconnect
- WIN (what’s important now?)
- We are better together
Even though it was spring break, I reached out to my students’ parents to ask three simple questions: How are you? What do you need? How can I help? I wanted to create a safe (virtual) space where parents could talk with one another about what support they needed. To prompt conversations at our weekly virtual gatherings I again asked, “What do you need?” and “How can we help?” and then asked “What have you been doing for self-care?” I shared these questions with families ahead of time to set parameters for conversations so that they would be more focused, positive, and productive. I started each meeting with these questions to establish the structure of the meeting.
Not all parents attended the meetings each week. Many of those who did not come would email or text me to share why they were not able to attend, which opened a new door for me to check in with them individually. For those parents that I did not hear from, I reached out to let them know I was there for them. I wanted all families to know that they mattered to me and that we were truly working together for the betterment of the children.
During our nine weeks of virtual learning, I was surprised by the number of parents who voiced insecurities about how their child was behaving during synchronous learning and would text or send emails apologizing. I took this as a time to support parents and help them understand the developmental characteristics of four- and five-year-olds. I assured them that everything was all right. Even though we were far apart physically and connecting only virtually during those nine weeks, these were some of the closest relationships with families I had formed in my teaching career.
As I begin a new journey in the 2020–2021 school year as a learning specialist in a high school, I bring with me the empathy I developed for families and my commitment to building authentic relationships with parents. I know that no matter a child’s age, every family simply wants the best for their child. Every parent wants to know that there is someone who values their child as they do. I used to worry that if I tried to build deeper relationships with families it might feel too personal. Now I know that showing empathy, being fully present and staying curious during conversations, and demonstrating my full compassion for the overall well-being of each child and their family fosters powerful partnerships that help me and students’ families serve their children more effectively. Everyone wants to feel connection, and know that what they say matters.