During new parent orientation, I ask parents to pray for us because we need the wisdom of Solomon in making good decisions. After all, as I tell them, “We only deal with people’s children, money, and religion: what could possibly go wrong?” This lighthearted acknowledgment elicits hearty laughter, creates a relaxed atmosphere, and conveys an important truth. As school leaders, we deal with three of the most important things in parents’ lives—their children, their religion, and their money. And depending on what is going on around us and what might be said in a classroom, we can throw politics into the mix. What could go wrong?!
Indeed, things do go wrong or are perceived to have gone wrong. Either way, too often parents, teachers, and administrators find themselves at odds and engaged in tension and conflict. My purpose in this blog post is not to address the reasons for the tensions, which are many. Instead, I will focus on practical things we can do to promote positive partnerships with parents.
Benjamin Franklin said that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” That axiom is true for most things in life. It is certainly true when it comes to fostering positive relationships with parents. A great deal of pain and frustration can be avoided if we will make time to prevent tension from building in the first place. Here are six practical suggestions for doing just that.
Be authentic and engaging with parents.
Healthy relationships take work. This is no less true in a school than in a marriage. One of the most effective ways to foster positive relationships and partnership with parents is to relax, let down your guard (not your prudence), and be authentic and engaging with people. Drop any pretense, and don’t be self-focused and self-serving. Be genuine, warm, and friendly—even when you don’t feel like it. Focus on getting to know them and being a blessing—a source of encouragement, engagement, and enjoyment. A hearty handshake, a pat on the back, a smile, a little well-timed humor, and a kind word go a long way to fostering congenial relationships and lay the foundation for promoting a partnership with the school. Remember, parents are people before they are parents. Treat each one as a person made in God’s image.
Engage the expertise and passion of parents.
Invite parents to share their expertise in developing new programs and formulating school policies. An effective and well-received way to engage and partner with parents is to invite them to participate in ad hoc committees or task forces or to provide leadership for specific initiatives or programs. The possibilities are nearly endless, ranging from reviewing the school’s dress code to developing a STEM program. Parents are far more likely to embrace and engage with the school when they have an active voice in developing substantive programs, rather than their involvement being limited to parent-run service organizations such as the PTF.
Establish expectations early.
Unrealized expectations are often the source of conflict. We contribute to this when we “over-sell” parents or fail to be clear about the commitments we are making to them and what we are asking in return. During parent orientation, I make it a practice to outline our commitments to parents and what we expect of them. Following the Matthew 18 principle for dealing with concerns is one of those expectations. I explain how the principle is worked out in practice at school, interweaving the explanation with humor and illustrations. We also enforce the principle when concerns arise. Over time—and it takes time—following the Matthew 18 principle becomes enculturated in the fabric of school life.
Don’t confuse policy with principle.
Sometimes teachers and administrators shoot themselves in the foot. They become so focused on consistently enforcing a policy that they forget why the policy exists in the first place. School policy is designed to promote the school’s mission by providing a framework to guide, not dictate, how we interact with each other. While equity and consistency are important, policies should never be a straitjacket. In the final analysis, we are striving to transform lives. Sometimes, strict adherence to a particular rule or policy is contrary to that goal. Being wise and flexible in determining if and how a particular policy will be applied to a particular situation goes a long way to fostering understanding, positive relationships, strong partnerships, and ultimately to lives that are transformed by both grace and truth.
Maintain alligator skin but a tender heart.
Nearly always when a parent “attacks,” it is not personal. Don’t take it personally, and never become cynical. As servants of Christ, it is essential that we maintain a tender heart toward everyone while having an “alligator skin” so that the inevitable criticism does not discourage us from filling the roles to which God has called us.
Emphasize high-touch communication.
Good communication fosters confidence, trust, and positive relationships. Poor communication does the opposite. In my follow-up blog post later this week, I will outline specific suggestions for engaging in high-touch communication with parents, as well as how to get off the “email treadmill” on which we so often find ourselves.
Promoting a positive partnership with parents is ultimately not about the programs we put in place, though those are valuable. It is about fostering positive relationships. Such relationships are best nourished by consistently and warmly engaging with parents. When strong relationships are encouraged, a strong partnership with the school forms. This is honoring to the Lord, life-on-life transforming, and ultimately enhances the school’s ability to fulfill its mission.
About the Author
Dr. Barrett Mosbacker is head of school for Westminster Christian Academy (Saint Louis, MO). He is also an adjunct professor at Covenant College, teaching school business management in the graduate program. Prior to his work in Christian education, Dr. Mosbacker worked for several U.S. corporations and as a management consultant to the Legal Services Corp. (Washington, D.C.). Dr. Mosbacker received his doctorate in educational leadership from the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. You can find his blog and other resources for Christian school leaders at www.barrettmosbacker.com.