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Leading With Empathy: Parents Connect With Teachers

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Teaching is not for the fainthearted. During the current pandemic, this feels shockingly true. Teaching at this time involves a sharp pivot from the norm. Whether we’re teaching online, in person with masks and social distancing, or a combination of both, this year has required reenvisioning and addressing new realities.

Teaching is both a difficult and wonderful experience. We get the chance to build relationships with incredible students, helping them develop a sense of self-reliance and intrinsic motivation, supporting and challenging their curiosity, and watching them grasp new concepts with satisfaction. Of course, achieving these goals is not always easy, and it’s okay to realize that.

Being a parent is also not for the fainthearted. Like many of us, parents were blindsided when the pandemic forced schools to close, and the families of our students were suddenly thrust into a new world of virtual or hybrid learning. But many family members jumped into the role of teacher and facilitator with gusto. Parents were up to the challenge, and with anticipation and excitement, approached the circumstances with a “We’re all in this together—let’s flatten the curve” mentality.

After a few weeks, though, reality set in. Parents began to realize the challenges of working while at the same time supporting children who were now learning virtually from home or in a hybrid learning setup. This entirely new and different set of expectations began to wear families down.

One response was that gratitude and empathy for teachers was expressed. Thank-you articles began to appear on blogs and websites. Teacher appreciation trended on Twitter:

Yup. Being a doctor and teacher should be held in the same high regard.

@dcastillo414

Been homeschooling a 6-year-old and 8-yearold for one hour and 11 minutes. Teachers deserve to make a billion dollars a year. Or a week.

@shondarhimes

As we begin the new school year, with distance learning still in place for many of us, I’ve noticed that some of the emotions and phases of parenting during a pandemic seem to parallel some of the phases of teaching, particularly during a teacher’s first three years. Researchers and educators at the New Teacher Center describe the emotional phases a new teacher goes through during their first years of teaching: anticipation, survival, disillusionment, rejuvenation, reflection, and anticipation (New Teacher Center, 2017). In short, teachers start their first year of teaching excited and nervous, and then as the reality of the multiple aspects of teaching starts to set in, they can experience some very real and normal emotional fluctuations. I suspect many of our students’ families have moved through some of the very same emotional phases, with that initial anticipation and excitement being followed by a survival mode mindset
and possibly disillusionment as they wonder how much longer this new reality will last.

I taught kindergarten and first grade for 15 years. I understand how young children work: their motivation, their developmental trajectory, how to best engage them, and ways to support their inevitable big feelings. But I have recently stood on the parent’s side of the fence. My son is five years old and started virtual kindergarten this September. As his mother and a teacher of five-year-olds, I am in my wheelhouse. I know what to do. I’ve taught children his age for 15
years, after all. But my five-year-old is like any five-year-old: he still resists, still explodes with big feelings, still acts exactly like a five-year old will act. Even though I know young children and how to support them, this is still hard.

Now imagine how the families of our students are feeling, especially without the experience and wisdom of educators. One of the Responsive Classroom strategies is to have teachers set aside time each day to meet students’ needs for belonging, significance, and fun. Making sure these needs are met in positive ways allows students to direct their attention and energy into all parts of learning. Adults have the very same needs, and need to be recognized for
their contributions and efforts.

As teachers, we connect with parents very naturally: We share stories with them about things their children have done at school, and we recognize and honor their efforts. But it’s an entirely different story when we don’t have the same opportunities for socializing and connecting, and we now need to think creatively
about building social connections with families. For example, Zoom social hours for parents, scheduled after children are in bed, allow families to get to know each other and build camaraderie. One of my colleagues arranged a socially distanced outdoor gathering on a field where parents brought their own chairs.
Others have set up private Facebook or Google Meet groups with the goal of building a supportive adult community. All of these can help bridge the gap that social isolation creates.

Teaching truly is a difficult and wonderful experience. Educators have always known this, and now our students’ families are learning this more firsthand. Just as we need our colleagues to support us when things get hard, families need our support, empathy, and understanding at this time, to let them know that they are not alone. I think we could all use more of that right now.


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