Starting School in 2020

The 2020 school year is almost upon us and as we’re about to enter the challenges that we will face this year it’s time to remind everybody that parents and teachers must work together in a culture of trust, collaboration and enquiry so that all children can access the curriculum and have a great year but academically and socially. To that end I would like to offer a few tips which may support creating a culture of trust, collaboration and enquiry. Let me suggest that there are only five reasons why parents may engage with school once the school year has begun. And if parents understand why they are approaching the teacher or the principal then they will be able to articulate their message very clearly and the school be able to respond in an appropriate way, efficiently. 

I suggest there are five reasons, and only five reasons, why parents will engage with school once the school year starts. Number one: parents will engage with school to share a message (positive) or to vent (negative). This could be something as simple as “My child has been away for the last few days because they has been they have been sick”. They could simply be venting about something they’re not happy with, for example the car park is so frustrating. So parents will come to school to share information. 

The second reason why parents might come to school will be to seek context or history or information about a school topic. They will be there to try and understand the context of what’s happened. For example, they may simply be new to the community and want to ask “What are the origins of the tuckshop menu. Or they may want to know what the origins are of the car park procedures. That is simply coming to seek information context or history so they have a better understanding about the school in which they will be operating and working with the teachers and their children. 

Another reason why parents may come to school will be to seek advice from either the teacher or members of the school leadership team. Parents occasionally come to school to ask principals, deputies or teachers are for advice about all manner of things. For example this may include how to manage their child’s use of the internet or mobile phones at home. It maybe what they can do to provide support for their child learning. It maybe how they can encourage their child to read more or do more homework. It maybe how they can build their child’s confidence. Parents come to school to seek advice. 

The fourth reason, and one of the most optimistic reason why parents may engage with their child school is to offer advice and offer solutions. if there happens to be a civil engineer in the community and they can see a solution to that car parking problem then they may be willing to offer ideas. There may be an architect in the school who can suggest some modifications to a building which can improve children learning opportunities. There may be an accounting in the community who would like to support the Parent and Friends Association by being the treasurer. So parents who have certain skills base may be willing to share those enhance offer advice and solutions to the school. 

The final reason why parents will engage with school is to seek a solution to a problem or issue. This may be education related or it may be non-educational. It is where the parents are requesting that the school ‘do something’ to correct a perceived issue or problem. For example, if the parent believes there is a breakdown in communication then they may be asking the school staff to rectify the issue and improve communication. An example of an educational matter is the exceptional needs of individual children being met. It might be how the school addresses the needs of children who are gifted. Parents may like to see a resolution to this topic. 

I believe there are five reasons why parents engage with your school once school you has begun. Let me restate them for you. 

  1. Parents come to share (or vent) 
  2. Parents come to understand context or history
  3. Parents come to seek advice 
  4. Parents come to find (OFFER) solutions 
  5. Parents come to get a solution

If parents understand why they’re coming to school and can articulate the reasons why they are coming to school, then the school can respond in the appropriate manner. Now speaking of responses…. if and when a teacher or principal provides a response may I suggest there are two criteria which the principal and/or teacher should consider, in fact must consider, before committing to any long-term plans. 

The two criteria are: is what they’re offering as a solution sustainable and he is what they’re offering as a solution realistic. If it is not sustainable and is not realistic then a teacher or a principal should not commit to any outcome that the parent is requesting until those two criteria are met. Is it realistic and is it sustainable? What do I mean by that? Can a teacher or a principal continue to do it, if it is required? Any solution cannot be continued then the teacher  and / or principal should not commit to it. And is the solution actually possible – can it be done (and should it be done) without causing undue stress to the teacher, without setting an uncomfortable precedent, without breaking any school protocols? Let me give an example. A parent came to me and said that they would like daily written feedback on their child’s progress about every subject. I repeated what they were requesting of my staff. I said you’re asking my teachers to give you daily written feedback about all the subjects. Before I went on further they restated their desire and you could see them thinking that their request was not realistic. They already knew that it was not realistic and it certainly wasn’t sustainable because that would be very draining on a teacher to provide that for one (let alone if any more parents asked for a similar request). So the criteria in responding to a parents request is: is the teacher’s response going to be sustainable and is it realistic.

Now when parents engage with their child’s school, I believe there are only three questions they need to ask the teacher so that they can work with a teacher in creating a culture of trust, collaboration through enquiry by asking the appropriate questions. 

The first question that a parent may be asking a teacher about a school matter is “What happened at school?” Often a children has gone home and told the parents something or the parents would have heard a story from another source, another parent, another child and without wanting to discredit their original source, they need to get information from the school as well. So the first question that the parents need to ask the teacher or the deputy is “Can you tell me what happened at school today because I’ve heard this?” This means that the teachers or deputy principal can respond by just sharing information, without having get defensive, without having to justify their position. All they have to say is “This happened at school today.” 

Following on from that the parent can then follow up their first question with this question “What is the school’s policy, process or protocol on whatever the particular issue maybe?” It might be about reporting an injury to the families; it could be about homework; it could be about participation  in extracurricular activities. Whatever the matter maybe, then the parent simply asks the school “What is the school’s policy, process or philosophy on a particular topic.

The third question that’s the parents may ask the teacher is simply “How can we work together for the good of my child?” To elaborate further the parent may ask what can we do to ensure my child has a great learning experience this year

What happened at school?

What is the school’s policy, process or protocol on…?

How can we work together for the good of my child?

If the parents understand why they coming to school and if they understand the appropriate questions it will create a culture of trust and collaboration where by teachers and parents can work together so that child has a fantastic education.

Similarly I believe there are only three questions that teachers need to ask parents so that the child has a good education. And if the teachers ask these three questions and the parents understand these three questions, once again the cultural trust and collaboration will be created. The first question parents will be asked by the teacher’s is “What do you need?” That question simply prompts the parents to ask themselves why am I here and what am I hoping to get out of this conversation. It also proves that the teacher is valuing the parents input into the child’s educational journey. When the teacher asked the parent what do you need, the parent reflects why am I here and feels valued and see and understands that the teacher and the parent are working together.

The second question that the teacher may ask the parent will be “What do you think that would look like in our classroom?” Whatever the issue is that the parent has raised with the teacher, this question is giving the opportunity to the parents to reflect on what that would look like in their child’s class. Before the teacher responds, the criteria of is the response going to be sustainable and realistic is already being processed cognitively by the parents and the teachers. By asking the parent that question the parent can then determine is what they’re asking going to be possible and is it going to be realistic is it going to be sustainable by asking what is it going to look like in my classroom situation. 

The final question that the teacher should conclude any conversation with is something as simple as “Is there anything else you’d like to ask me or tell me?” This gives the parent the opportunity to simply reflect if there is anything on their agenda left unsaid. They believe they have been heard, they have said their piece. They may not have got the resolution they wanted but by the invitation to say to the parent “Is there anything else you’d like to offer, anything else you’d like to share?” the teacher is inviting the parent to the conversation before closing this specific engagement.

What do you need?

What do you think that would look like in our classroom?

Is there anything else you’d like to ask me or tell me?

These three questions are going to help create a culture of trust,  collaboration and enquiry. Once again there are only three questions that parents need to ask teachers. There are only three question that teachers need to ask parents and if we get on the same page then children will have a fantastic 2020. Good luck for the year ahead. 

Contributor: Andrew Oberthur

Andrew Oberthur is the father of two teenagers and a primary school principal with over 30 years experience teaching and leading primary schools in Brisbane.

In 2018 he published his first book “Are You Ready for Primary School This Year? which is about building a culture of trust, collaboration and enquiry between parents and teachers. His book is available from his website www.creativecollaborativesolutions.net

He has been on ABC Brisbane radio a few times this year, as well as doing podcasts for PakMag.

Author: Sim K