What do the following human interactions have in common? A simple disagreement between two individuals, an intellectual property lawsuit, road rage, marital strife, military conflict.
In some context, each is typically an outgrowth of misunderstanding. Some may argue that the problems are related to poor communication. But what is miscommunication, if not confusion between what we intend to say and how others perceive it.
An employee and his supervisor reach an impasse regarding a special project, so the employee seeks other work opportunities. Best girlfriends are unable to agree upon whether a former boyfriend should be off limits for dating, so the camaraderie hits a cold spell. Rival nations disagree over whether one should be able to declare sovereignty over a third country, so an elevated level of military tension emerges. A husband and wife are unable to reach common ground regarding how to address a disrespectful adult stepchild, so the marriage drifts toward instability.
So much calamity in our lives, our society and our world can be attributed to an insufficiency of understanding. And as complex as it is to imagine, understanding and misunderstanding coexist within a wide-ranging continuum of deliberateness.
“So much calamity in our lives, our society and our world can be attributed to an insufficiency of understanding.”
This is especially the case in the strange new political world of “alternative facts,” a phenomenon most are understandably reluctant to embrace. Misinformation, on the other hand, is unfortunately on the fast track to becoming a respectable option for advancing one’s views and devaluing those of others.
The dispute over what is within bounds or fair play and what should not be accepted as ethically or morally tolerable rages on with no end in sight.
Schools after COVID
Since our schools returned to face-to-face learning after the initial COVID-19 episode in early 2020, most schools experienced a substantial escalation in serious student misbehavior. This has been and continues to be a nationwide development as schools and districts maintain efforts to address this matter.
Although most schools continued resorting to exclusionary disciplinary consequences — such as in-school and out-of-school suspension and alternative campus re-assignments — this is not a sustainable pathway to pursuing positive change in the long term. Certainly, an element of the key lies in exploring options to enlist the support of parents in addressing the disruptive and unsafe behavior of their children, which loops us back to our original focus — rebuilding the home-school partnership.
When I reflect on how my parents related with our teachers, principals and other school staff, I see the relationships always centered upon mutual respect. It also was tied firmly to the spirituality that existed within our home.
I recall a rare and embarrassing instance of a teacher in kindergarten restricting me from going to the restroom on time. The outcome was not a pleasant one for me. Although I was never privy (no pun intended) to how the conversation unfolded, my mother recounted the experience for me later when I was a young parent. Conversations between adults were considered off limits to children during those times.
My mother admitted she was displeased with the teacher’s decision to restrict me from the restroom, because the experience embarrassed me and caused me not to want to return to school. She expressed to the teacher that I was not accustomed to being denied access to the bathroom at home and that I was intelligent and mature enough to know when I needed to go. She requested that the teacher please not restrict me from restroom access in the future. Knowing who my mother is spiritually, I am convinced the conversation always remained courteous and respectful.
“There appears to be no end in sight as it relates to the brokenness of the relationship between homes and schools.”
Years later, as I became a teacher, principal and school superintendent, I witnessed from a distinctly first-person point of view the immense deterioration in how schools and homes relate and interact on matters of student discipline. There appears to be no end in sight as it relates to the brokenness of the relationship between homes and schools.
A shared responsibility
But the responsibility must be reciprocally shared if we ever hope to restore the school-home relationship as one of mutually respectful understanding. We must understand this partnership is one we cannot afford to allow to remain unrepaired. It is important to clarify here that the home-school relationship never was a perfect one, even in the “good old days.”
Matters of trust and the required involvement of adult human beings with conflicting points of view guarantee that we never have and never shall achieve optimum precision in this realm. Many parents understand the critical importance of how the relationship must be navigated, especially if school staff and the home are pursuing the same outcome — a student who possesses the capacity to make wise social and behavioral choices.
“Parents and other caregivers must understand how to advocate for their children without overstepping.”
Parents and other caregivers must understand how to advocate for their children without overstepping as well as grasp the importance of how to build and maintain trust with school staff as a jointly shared responsibility.
Maintaining healthy relationships between our schools and homes always has been a fundamental focus in properly educating our students. We must acknowledge with genuine transparency that during the last couple of years, getting on the same page with our community has taken on even greater significance.
Carefully treading the delicate balance that often exists between the home and school can be particularly problematic in matters related to administering student disciplinary consequences.
I am forced to reflect upon my years as a high school principal in Houston and how we viewed the challenges related to student behavior and discipline management. As we addressed the issue of gang involvement, some parents felt we were not doing enough to get students who were affiliated with gangs out of our school.
Trying to thoughtfully clarify to all parents that gang-involved students had the same rights to an education as other students never was a simple undertaking. We went to great lengths to explain all we were doing to build relationships between our school and the homes of these students. We also made crystal clear that we held all students accountable once they disrupted the educational learning environment.
A small percentage of parents, even in those days, struggled to successfully steer through the home-school relationship process, as did some administrators to understand the parental perspective.
Parents who don’t trust ‘the system’
Parents whose own personal educational experiences were anything but perfect often remain frustrated and distrustful of “the system.” This is even more the case as they begin interacting with school staff, this time as parents on their children’s behalf.
Some cling to the unpleasant school experiences they had as students — experiences that remain etched deeply and painfully into their consciousness — experiences in which they believed they or their family members were treated poorly, if not disrespectfully by the school. They had felt voiceless during those times, and the balance of power in their estimation never was an equitable one. Now, however, that power dynamic has shifted, and they are the adults at the table with the teacher on equal footing to express their views, however distorted they may have been by those experiences from long ago.
The intent of such parents, of course, is to ensure that their child never emerges from a school experience feeling their view was ignored or voice was unheard. Now, they have access to confronting the teacher, the principal, the superintendent or school board member to express what they never could when they were students.
“If we view feedback as a gift, payback is the gift that keeps on giving.”
If we view feedback as a gift, payback is the gift that keeps on giving. Now the time has come to set the record straight for all the transgressions they experienced as students. In extreme cases, unfortunately, their emotional expressions regrettably encompass extreme levels of anger toward teachers, principals and other school staff for the situations involving their children.
This is the perspective they bring to the table, which compromises their understanding of how to relate with school staff. Fortunately, this is what schools expect and experience with only a small proportion of parents. But let us be clear: This disconnect is not all on the disgruntled parent.
Teachers may also have baggage
Let us briefly examine where our schools fall short.
Educators have a distinct advantage when it comes to helping build and maintain trusting relationships with our homes. They were formally trained to act in their leadership roles as consensus builders. They understand that the burden of taking the first steps to establish a trusting relationship with the home rests with them.
Some educators themselves are products of home environments in which the experience with schools was never an easy one. Now, however, we are expected to go the extra mile to allay the fears and reservations of parents and caregivers who believe they never received a fair shake back in the day.
“Some educators themselves are products of home environments in which the experience with schools was never an easy one.”
We cannot ever afford to allow our work to overburden us in such a way that we allow an “us against them” mentality to take root in minds, our hearts or our schools.
Everyone assumed this past school year would be a breeze after the uncertainty and struggle that was 2020-21. Boy, were we ever off track!
The explosion this school year in experiences with student misbehavior and disgruntled parents seeking reassurance that schools are getting it right with their kids seemed to be unending. But we, as professionals, still have the responsibility, indeed the obligation, to dig deep and not to lean to our own understanding as we continue to lead and educate.
We must understand that we will not get it done without our most important partners, our parents. We must continue to strive to build that alliance, no matter how challenging it becomes. Is it possible for us to make deeper and more intentional investments in enhancing our skills around structuring a better understanding between schools and homes?
Encouragement from the Bible
When we look toward God’s word for insight on the significance of understanding, we encounter much food for spiritual reflection. Scripture helps us grasp the distinction between wisdom and understanding in Proverbs 4:7, which reads, “Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore, get wisdom. And in all your getting, get understanding.”
Clearly, understanding is beneficial when we struggle with our emotions. “He who is slow to wrath has great understanding”, states Proverbs 14:29. The coupling of wisdom with understanding is the key to improving relationships between teachers and school leaders and parents and other caregivers.
As one who struggled mightily in this area during my younger years, only spiritual maturity has enabled me to bridge this daunting chasm and emerge with greater self-assurance around looking to our Lord and Savior to develop the will to comprehend more thoroughly. It allows me to start out “presuming positive intent” in considering the perspective of others whose views may not necessarily align with my own.
God’s word also cautions us about holding our own understanding in too high a regard when it advises, “And lean not to your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct your paths.”
As an educator who spends a great deal of time speaking with parents who are displeased or confused about how we — the school — handled (or mishandled) a situation involving their child, I believe we must stop, step back for a moment, reflect and rebuild our capacity in working with our parents. We must intentionally move away from excessively punitive and exclusionary disciplinary consequences and toward more restorative practices that require an investment in repairing the harm that occurs when students have conflicts with other students and with staff.
Most of us believe we do not have the time to stop and reflect on our current practices. I would suggest we have no choice but to make the time if our profession is to advance and reclaim our homes as partners.
Stanton Eugene Lawrence is a career educator, husband and father of six who currently serves as assistant superintendent of administration in the Victoria Independent School District in Texas. While prison ministry and supporting the education of struggling students are two of his passions, he also enjoys reading, writing and watching historical documentaries. Lawrence completed a bachelor at arts degree in English at Prairie View A&M University and a master of education and doctor of education degrees at the University of Texas at Austin.
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