From the Desk of a School Administratorby Rachel Eden July 27, 2017
Fluorescent light streamed down on the man talking. The listener appeared captivated but it just wasn’t that interesting. Did he really care?
I was 21 years old and elated to aid in a documentary’s production. The interviewer was also the director, executive producer and essentially the film’s crew. I asked if he enjoyed listening to people talk incessantly about their backgrounds and perspectives, or if he was just a talented actor. He smiled and answered, “I sure hope I love listening to people or I wouldn’t like my job.” His response flipped my opinion immediately and has forever changed my attitude about relating to others.
That exchange is one I have revisited repeatedly in the past 13 years. He really did like his job and his enthusiasm for connecting with people was contagious. I was left with a newfound appreciation for people – how they look, how they sound. I grew curious about each one’s story and struggle.
Now, here I am, sitting in my office for the sixth consecutive hour-long meeting with parents. My inbox has yet to be checked, progress reports are waiting to be mailed and my to-do list is growing rapidly. As a school administrator, I have the good fortune of working closely with parents. I thoroughly enjoy these chats and while they require a commitment of time, attention, and effort, I prioritize them.
We discuss the significance of teacher-to-parent communication often in staff meetings, and point out that most parents are happy with their experience in our school. But every teacher has a weakest link and that weak link is a platform to build a better relationship. Meetings with parents construct a foundation by providing a listening, sympathetic ear and following up with an action plan. While we speak, I think about who I’m listening to and what experiences brought them to me. If I do it correctly, I can figure out what the parent means but is not saying and, on a really good day, formulate a meaningful response.
The parent-school relationship is much like a marriage – two separate and different entities connecting to raise a child. It can be magical and stressful for both parties. Some marriages develop into long-lasting, strong partnerships while others break apart. When differences emerge, and they always do, the parties must work together to resolve them by communicating effectively, investing in one another, and sometimes compromising. So too, in an education environment there may be times when a parent doesn’t share the same perspective as the school.
During these times, I wonder if I am in the customer service business. I want to surpass my parents’ expectations. I want parents discussing how their children are being challenged cognitively, growing socially and emotionally, and are inspired creatively in the classroom and outdoors. I want parents happy with their child’s playmates in school and pleased with the teachers. But my true customers are the children, and I never want to lose that focus.
Parents see but a small window of time in the beginning of the day when arriving and at the end of the day when departing. They see the morning tabletop activities in the classroom, the teacher’s face when offering a morning greeting, and the way other kids wave to their child. This is often not an accurate indicator of a child’s full day.
When parents are worried about their child, we meet to dissect the matter. But we don’t always see eye to eye. Sometimes we differ in our perception of the child’s experience in school. If we diverge on how to best address a child’s needs, I listen, seek advice from other experienced staff, research, and return to the parents with my findings. We talk for hours over several days, or weeks, to hash out our differing views. Ultimately, it’s up to me to determine the best course of action and up to the parents to decide if they accept it.
My hope is that the teachers and I can build our parents’ trust consistently and deeply. That way, if we reach an impasse, parents are reassured that our recommendations for their children are made lovingly and competently. Even when parents struggle with a school’s decision, the goal is for everyone to keep communicating positively, with warmth and respect. This union is for the good of our children and therefore worth every effort.
Rachel Eden is Preschool Director for Soille Hebrew Day.