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Engage Parents by Acting With Empathy

This is the third of a five-part conversation on how teachers can communicate effectively with parents.

John M. Holland

In the urban education environment in which I work, the relationship between parents and schools are problematic at best. In order for teachers to enter into productive relationships with school community members, they need an ability to cross boundaries into a state of empathy with their students and parents. Making this transition requires some attitudes that are not traditionally found in teacher preparation programs: including risk-taking, perspective taking, and caring.

Teacher preparation programs can support an attitude of risk-taking by designing classes where right answers are not the goal. This is easier said than done. In my Foundations of Education class, I can often be heard saying, "Say something. It doesn't have to be right. It doesn't even have to make sense. Just engage." Then I wait.

Usually the seven-second wait time rule will get students to speak up in class, but sometimes even this won't work. That is why, especially when I have a large class, I set up opportunities for anonymous participation. By separating students' identities from their contributions, they seem to be more willing to take the risk of participating.  

Finally, I create situations in which collaborative group work takes place under compressed time lines. This process seems to shift the focus of students from finding and sharing the right answer to sharing an answer, and finally the best answer under the circumstances. I find this process shares some commonalities with the experiences teachers face every day—in which they must make their best professional decisions without the luxury of an hour or two.

Secondly, I have found that perspective taking is critical to my own ability to relate to my Head Start students and parents. I've found a great deal of success in putting parents in the driver's seat in our relationship. In our Head Start program, during our required home visits to develop student learning goals, I ask parents, "What are you teaching your child at home?" This occasionally comes as a surprise, as my parents aren't expecting me to acknowledge their perspective as caring adults in their childrens' lives. I often follow this conversation with simple suggestions to help parents teach a skill to their children.

More important still is the idea of empathy. I believe that the practice of empathy is a radical interruption of existing power structures. Teachers operate at the focal point of the culture of power represented by schools. I try to approach relationships with parents by serving as a bridge, not an expert. Learning how to listen and act with empathy is radically different from assuming traditional roles of teachers as experts.

Finally, open mindedness and caring has created more opportunities for me to be successful with children and parents than any other practice. This practice builds on experiences with the first two attitudes. By combining risk-taking and empathy to approach parents with care, trust is built between both parties.

In my public school setting, parents are sometimes quick to attack an authority figure who they believe doesn't have their child's best interests in mind. I've been on the receiving end of this many times. But it has only been through listening to the care the parent is expressing in their anger, and acknowledging the intensity of their love for their child, that we are able to move beyond traditional boundaries of teacher/parent relationships to caring relationships.

This looks different in different settings. Sometimes it means calling a parent back on a day off, doing a home visit, or just asking about a parent's efforts to find a job or attend school. Years ago I had a student who was progressing in reading very quickly. Her mother was so proud of her. The girl, Brittany (a pseudonym) was beginning to read full words and short sentences.

Years before, Brittany's mom had lost her ability to read due to a brain injury. I made sure to keep checking in with her about her own reading skills and helped her find an adult reading program. She eventually regained her ability to read and started attending community college. By demonstrating caring and open mindedness, I was able to bridge the fear Brittany's mom had about school and help her find success in a culture where literacy holds power. Now, in the education courses I teach, I try to nurture students to become active listeners and move beyond the receiving of knowledge. I want them relate their personal experiences to the social, cultural, and ethical contexts of education we explore.

Each of the attitudes I've described can be nurtured in clinical placements and teacher preparation. However, sometimes this doesn't happen because we forget we are preparing future teachers, not future students. It is only through making learning about teaching personal, instead of technocratic or procedural, that these types of attitudes can be developed. I would encourage teachers, administrators, and professors to make learning to be a teacher a personal(ized) experience for every future educator.

John M. Holland, Ph.D. has dedicated his career to serving the neediest and youngest school children as a National Board Certified Teacher of three and four year-olds in Richmond, Virginia's toughest neighborhoods. He writes about pre-K issues on the CTQ blog "The Learning Studio" and his personal blog Emergent Learner. His research interests include educational policy, teacher leadership, creativity, and 21st-century learning. John is a coauthor of Teaching 2030.

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