Navigating the Bermuda Triangle of School Communication

This article first appeared in the 2009 Edition of The Parents League Review. ©2009. The Parents League of New York (212) 737-7385 www.parentsleague.org.

At a meeting last year of the Professional Development Committee of the New York State Association of Independent Schools (NYSAIS), committee members agreed that, at one point or another in our careers, we each had said something along the lines of, “I love the kids, but I can’t stand some of their parents.” Our feeling was that most of our colleagues in the independent school world had doubtless done so, too — probably adding that things were only getting worse every year. 

Could it be, we wondered, there was something going on here that had to do with teachers and administrators as much as with parents? Instead of making the parents convenient scapegoats by tagging them with some sort of inherent predisposition to be horrible, might we do better to investigate systemic tensions among parents, teachers, and administrators — and then talk about what schools could do to deal with them?

Within the committee, the idea was an instant hit. So we planned a day-long workshop on the topic and invited child psychologist Michael Thompson to kick off the event with a two-hour exploration of the tensions involved. Afterwards, we followed up with teams of educators from participating schools, discussing potential and actual solutions to these tensions.

The Rational and Irrational Currents

At Allen-Stevenson School (New York) one morning in April 2008, committee chair Dane Peters introduced Michael Thompson and teams of parents, administrators, and teachers from 30 or so New York schools. 

Thompson began by agreeing with our essential premise. We were all in the same boat, he said, tossed together on the high seas of the Bermuda Triangle. It’s not just one corner that causes all the problems. It’s the fact that, in all three corners, there are human beings with rational and irrational motives, hopes, demands, and fears. “Exposure to children is exposure to one’s own unresolved past,” he said. Freud was right in pointing out that we’re all engaged in the impossible quest to get back to the blissful state, real or imagined, of “those early days when every need was met and all was love and happiness.” 

There are many different strategies employed in this deeply irrational quest — but at one level or another the quest itself is universal. The fact is that, at each corner of the triangle, all the players have to settle for far less than they want from the other two. Powerful tensions are inevitable, even when everyone involved is behaving as reasonably as can be expected. In resolving these tensions, understanding one’s own irrational needs is likely to help much more than simply concluding that it’s all the fault of the folks at one or both of the other corners being unreasonable and selfish. 

While parents, teachers, and administrators are alike in having deeply irrational wants and needs, their precise expression varies based as much on the different roles as on individual personalities and experiences. Thompson went on to visit each corner of the triangle and comment on the specific agendas of its occupants. 

Parents

“Independent School parents are above average in everything, including anxiety,” he said. “And New York City parents are way above average!” Despite this, he went on to say that 95 percent of parents are great partners with schools, and very few are serious creators of problems. Teachers have to understand that disliking parents in general is simply not an option. The trick is to work pleasurably with the huge and highly supportive majority and recognize and then seek administrative help with the infamous “5 percenters.”

Parents want various things that are rational: 

• For their children to have great teachers who will care about them, develop real relationships with them, and contribute to their future success; and 

• To have their child be part of a moral community with a coherent mission. 

Some may also want various things that are irrational: 

• To have teachers and administrators approve of their parenting, even to act as substitute therapists; 

• To have teachers regard them as full partners in educating their child (sometimes even as managing partner, with the teacher acting as parental employee), and to have administrators collude in special accommodations for their child, to the point of firing teachers they don’t like or counseling out students whom the parents perceive to be spoiling their own child’s experience; and 

• To have the school watch over their children continuously, and report on them exhaustively, while also paradoxically nurturing in them the independence and initiative needed for future success and fulfillment.

Teachers

Teachers are also caught in the crossfire of rational and irrational wishes, hopes, and fears. Quite reasonably, teachers: 

• Want parents to see and respect them as professionals, support the decisions they make about curriculum and classroom management, send children to school ready to learn (fed and awake), and provide timely information on home upheavals impacting their child’s experience in school; and 

• Want administrators to provide a safe environment in which they can teach, to honor their autonomy within the classroom as well as visiting frequently enough to know well what goes on there, and also to provide support and protection from the “5 percenter” parents.

Less reasonably, some teachers may occasionally:

• Want parents to understand how truly hard teaching is, to appreciate the huge sacrifices teachers make, and to offer unstinting support and total lack of criticism, no matter what the circumstances; and 

• Want administrators to provide a very narrow range of easy-to-teach students (previous administrators are typically recalled more favorably in this respect), to indulge their eccentricities and guarantee their full autonomy, and to offer unquestioning support with all parents at all times, no matter what. 

Administrators

Administrators are often called upon to play the role of mediator, but they do so from the vantage point of having exactly the same kinds of rational and irrational needs as the occupants of the two other corners of the triangle. Rationally, administrators:

• Want teachers to be excellent in the classroom, professional in behavior, and good colleagues; and 

• Want the school to enjoy the earned trust and support of parents. 

Less rationally, they: 

• May want teachers to love them and make them look good — and also to be passionate, autonomous, and deeply collegial, all at the same time; and 

• May want parents to suspend all disbelief and offer uncritical trust and support of all the school’s decisions, even when their own children are adversely affected.

Because schools are human institutions, Thompson concluded, they generate powerful emotions in a way that inevitably causes high anxiety and high seas in the Bermuda Triangle. It is well to be aware of the deep irrationality of both self and other in charting one’s course! 

Toward Calmer Waters

With Thompson’s analysis in mind, we set about seeking ways of achieving clear sailing. We first brainstormed in school-specific groups, then shared thoughts and findings with those from other schools. What follows is a summary of the shared wisdom of the room. 

Keeping Mission Front and Center

First, there was consensus that the school’s mission, not parental opinion, must drive a school’s decision-making. Parents and students need schools to make decisions based not on parental opinions — even those that are expressed with real urgency — but on the fundamental principles stated in the school’s mission. When parents believe that administrators react to “5 percenters” or big-donor parents, they become more likely to make unreasonable demands of their own. And teachers with the same belief simply lose trust in the school. 

In order to establish an understanding within the community that mission drives decisions, it was suggested that each school’s administration state clearly that it will welcome and listen actively and attentively to parent comments and questions, but, at the end of the day, will always act according to its own careful assessment of the best interests of all the school’s students. 

Often, schools educate prospective parents about the mission and policies of a school, but then forget to follow through with current parents; this can lead to confusion or mistrust. Schools need to state, restate, and then restate again their most deeply held values, processes, and procedures — and be completely committed and consistent to having their actions be congruent with them, and thus with the overall mission. 

Communicating About Communication

There was strong support for the notion that each school head should make an unequivocal statement about the rules and protocols for communication within a school, clarifying to all constituencies their roles, rights, and responsibilities to one another. A head might consider including some of the following elements: 

• When parents have concerns about their child’s schooling, the first line of communication must be between parent and teacher. If a parent goes to a school administrator without first communicating with a teacher, that administrator must insist that the parent go back to the classroom to try to solve the problem. Even a single exception to this rule is destructive. 

• All should bear in mind that everyone is “on the same side” — that of the child. Meetings are dialogues in which all involved listen and learn from each other. They are not debates. Whatever happens, it is always wrong for any two sides of the triangle to gang up on the third. 

• That said, should conflict arise, the administration’s default assumption will be that the professional involved is right. This gives teachers some comfort, in that they have the initial benefit of the doubt, and also sets clear (and, surprisingly, not at all unwelcome) parameters for parents. 

• A school should ask parents to avoid unnecessary communication that takes time away from teachers or administrators meeting their primary responsibilities. (For example, parents should be expected to check the school’s calendar or website rather than ask teachers for easily available information.) 

• Parents also need to avoid over-communication based on anxiety rather than need. It is unreasonable to expect or even ask teachers to communicate about children daily. For teachers to confer with parents or tutors is admittedly important, but communication needs to be efficient, and not preempt time needed for primary responsibilities. 

• On the other hand, once a teacher has committed to a particular level of communication, he or she should follow through with this commitment. 

• In a nutshell, clarity of expectation all around is important. Faculty and administration must remember that parents have real and legitimate needs and are valuable resources for the school in meeting the needs of their children. Parents have the right to offer input, to criticize, and to complain, but to enroll a child in the school is ultimately to cede control of educational decisions to the professional educators. At the end of the day, there are only two things parents can do when they find decisions objectionable: agree to disagree or withdraw their child. 

When and How to Communicate

Clear, regular communication builds trust between families and schools, which then creates the conditions for better communication in the future. 

• Information should be clear and consistent, so that all constituencies hear the same things. 

• Schools can use many modes effectively, ranging from low-tech ones such as face-to-face meetings and invitations to special projects in classrooms, to higher-tech approaches including blogs (there was a lot of support for heads and division heads to have their own blogs), wikis, e-mail blasts, Moodle, Blackboard, podcasts, and who knows what tomorrow. 

• Hold workshop meetings about school protocols for both teachers and parents early each year. Focus on how to communicate with one another and with administrators. The parent association can help enormously with parent education. And administrators need to work carefully with teachers on good communication with parents, particularly regarding how to share difficult information directly and gracefully. 

• All constituencies should know how the others operate — how trustees, administrators, parent-association members, teachers, and even students contribute to the school’s decision-making process. 

The Importance of Meetings

While good written communications and clear policies are essential, they are no replacement for essential meetings among teachers, administrators, and parents — not just one-on-one conferences, but also public discussions among groups of parents, teachers, and administrators on topics that truly matter to the life and mission of the school. 

• Regularly held parent-association meetings and regular open meetings between parent-association representatives and administrators build trust and make sure that concerns and problems do not fester. 

• Cross-constituency meetings also build trust; there is value, for instance, in the parent association inviting teachers to its meetings. 

• In many schools, parent reps meet monthly with division heads to pass along concerns that have been communicated to them and to hear what is going on at school. Parent reps can then send minutes to the rest of their cohort, and solicit questions or concerns. 

• Schools can develop a priority system to make sure the issues discussed at a parent association meeting are core rather than peripheral. For example, a school might stipulate that, if 10 parents or more are concerned about an issue, it will always be taken up at an open meeting. 

• Administrators can create a safe environment by being open to both positive and negative views without being defensive, and by making sure meetings give voice to the whole range of opinion on issues about which people feel strongly. 

Difficult Issues? Grab that Nettle!

When a concern does arise suddenly, or causes great emotion for families, it is important for the school to respond swiftly and clearly, taking the time to hold open, honest parent meetings as part of the process of developing an organized and cogent response. Parents, teachers, and administrators need to take on, rather than shy away from, topics that seem risky or uncomfortable. Without open communication, issues remain submerged and end up contributing to greater anxiety for all involved. 

Think Twice Before You Send that E-mail!

E-mail has had a great impact on speeding up communication, but it is also a medium that makes it easy to be abusive first and think later. For that reason, each school needs a clear protocol for e-mail, agreed upon and enforced. Here’s one version of such protocol: 

• The more direct the communication, the better, especially when emotions are running high. Face-to-face beats the telephone, the telephone beats the voice message, and the voice message beats the e-mail. Some schools do not allow any e-mail messages between teacher and parents (sighs of envy were heard in response to this). Others encourage parents to e-mail, but require teachers to reply to all but the most banal matters with a telephone call. There are many variations on this theme, and each school needs its own clear guidelines. 

• All agreed, however, that e-mail is good for scheduling meetings or addressing neutral business matters, but highly destructive when used as a means to vent, to attack, to drum up alliances, or to settle scores. Schools do not want backstairs gossip to be digitally enhanced! 

• E-mail is so efficient that everyone e-mails all the time — which means that teachers run the risk of spending vast amounts of time reading and answering e-mail, when they should be teaching, planning, and being with children. Schools have to set up systems to avoid this. 

• One good idea is to establish a policy that teachers should not respond to e-mails during the school day, particularly when they teach at the elementary level. Stipulate that parents can expect a reply to either e-mails or telephone calls within 24 hours, but during the day teachers are expected to teach. 

Author
Launa Schweizer

Launa Schweizer has lived at all three corners of the triangle, first as a teacher, and currently as lower school division head and parent of two students at Poly Prep Country Day School (New York). Special thanks to Mindy Sandomir from Abraham Joshua Heschel School (New York) and Gina Sardi of Caedmon School (New York) for their careful note-taking during the workshop.