As an educator for the past 20 years, I have been afforded a unique view of the parent- student-teacher relationship. As a parent myself I have been on two sides of this triangle. At times, I can honestly say, it has not been easy. I always wanted the best for my child and believed that as a parent I knew what was best. After all, most parents know intimately their child’s likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses, reactions to positives and negatives, and most importantly we persist in the belief that we know what our children need. How could a classroom teacher know some facet of my child that I don’t? Surely parents know best, don’t they? It’s when this question arises that I need to remind myself of the varied roles I play as an individual in the many components of my life and how differently I operate in each.
Parents are keenly aware of how children act inside the home, but in situations outside the home, including school, children behave differently. At home a child may be argumentative with a parent or exhibit negative behaviors, while at a friend’s home the same child is never disrespectful of authority. This, most psychologists will tell you, is quite normal, and signifies a healthy parent/child relationship. The child knows the rules and the limits at home. The child knows the parent. The child knows what will be tolerated but feels safe enough to test those limits. But a friend’s home or the classroom is a different place with different expectations and limits. During my children’s education, I only knew second-hand what occurred at school. I knew because they told me. Perhaps it is children’s nature to exaggerate the truth of a situation to make themselves appear less complicit, or more in control of their actions. Perhaps not, but a child’s perspective and recollection of events must always be appreciated for what it is. On occasion, a teacher may express an alternate view of a situation, and that view might be in sharp contrast to what the child recounts. The initial and natural reaction of most parents is to believe their child and suggest that the teacher misunderstood the student’s action or explanation in any particular circumstance. This may result in what amounts to a double image, a kind of perceptual dissonance, a blurred appreciation. Short of accompanying their children to school, how are parents to know the truth?
This dilemma is compounded when dealing with a special needs student who may not be able to make a viable decision or whose emotions color judgment calls. When placed in a situation where one’s peers are pronouncing their friendship or enmity if one doesn’t conform, it’s easy for emotions to unduly influence a decision. For parents the results can be frustrating if not downright maddening. Situated between the child and the professional, a parent must appreciate rather than rue the paradoxical nature of the position. When seen this way, the strong response is to be empathic, to understand where each party is coming from, and to assist in working together to correct the situation. Ideally, both teacher and parent working together can convert a disciplinary instance into a learning experience for the student. Empathy involves taking the perspective of another person, inferring his or her thoughts and feelings (Ickes, 1997). Empathy on an affective level involves experiencing emotions such as sympathy and compassion (Batson & Shaw, 1991). When both parent and teacher work together to make one another feel understood, the consequent openness vitiates most problems and strengthens the relationship between the adults who both place paramount importance upon the child’s best interests.
Citing an example of a situation in a post-secondary program for students with special needs, a student took the ATM/debit card she was being taught to use effectively and went on a shopping spree, incurring overdraft expenses. The student is impulsive and has emotional issues and poor math comprehension and judgment skills. The teacher is aware of and can empathize with this, but needs to make the parent see the importance of having the student take responsibility for their actions. Having dealt with this predicament before, the professional educator has had firsthand experience, not just theoretical textbook practice with this problem. If a parent continually bails the child out by sending more money and paying the overdraft fees, what has the child learned? Perhaps she’s learned the power of parental manipulation, rather than the life skill necessary to survive on her own. If the child suffers a consequence of not being able to go to the movies on the weekend or not going to the concert with friends she’s been looking forward to because she wasn’t bailed out, then perhaps she learns something. Perhaps she’s now learning that certain actions have a consequence. More importantly, she’s understanding that her parents and her teachers are powerful allies. Manipulation becomes a less effective choice in the future. The student must accept responsibility. Is it uncomfortable? Sometimes. And sometimes more for the parent than the child. But by working together, as a team, the teacher and parent help turn the child into an adult that can become self-reliant.
When parents and teachers form home-school partnerships, children are more likely to see a unified front….When school and family unite in a partnership for children, their overlapping spheres of influence (Epstein, 1995) foster a positive attitude…that help children learn…at School (Ford, Follmer & Litz, 1998, p.312).
If we always make our children’s beds, do their laundry, make their appointments, or run interference for them, are they learning how to take care of themselves? Are we really doing the best for them when we constantly assist and don’t let them learn by making mistakes, or perhaps failing at something?
Cognitive psychologists have shown how central failure is to learning. For example, Collins and Brown (Engines for Education, 1989), have found that errors are essential to the creation of mental strategies in problem solving. Van Lehn (1999), has shown that real learning only occurs at an impasse during a problem-solving episode. Research by Foss (1996), has shown that not only do students learn when they encounter errors, but they also improve their ability to “detect errant solution strategies.” In other words, when faced with errors, students learn not only about the subject at hand but also more generally how to plan solutions to similar problems.
This teacher/parent partnership is not always easy and it’s always important to maintain a professional tone when communicating. It is never purposeful to place blame or show anger when trying to work as a cohesive unit. Inevitably it is the student who suffers from flared tempers and emotional outbursts. As students progress in their education, parents find themselves dealing with a different teacher each year and new relationships need to be developed. By the time a student has graduated high school, most parents have had contact with numerous educators in their child’s academic life.
When a child reaches 18 years of age, parents now become a third party to their educational records according to FERPA (Family Education Rights and Privacy Act). A teacher is no longer allowed to share information about the student without her consent. The student with a special need is strongly encouraged to allow contact between the teacher and the parent and most often this is agreed to without consequence. The student needs to understand that without cooperation of those involved with him, he cannot reach his full potential.
Communication is an art that takes practice, as many married couples will attest. The key ingredient to an effective teacher-parent association is the ability to listen and really hear what the other party is saying. Understanding each other’s points of view is imperative if there is to be positive growth in the student.
Sheree Incorvaia is the Director of Recruitment for New York Institute of Technology’s Vocational Independence Program and has worked with special needs students for the past 20 years.