There was a quote on my mind a lot during parent-teacher conferences this year: “They may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel.” It’s been attributed to many authors. (You can check out the history here.) I think these are great words of wisdom for building relationships with families.
I consider myself very fortunate to work with preschool students who have developmental delays. Over the years, I’ve learned that the world says mean things to families of kids with developmental delays. For example, a parent recently told me that her three-year old sons have delays because she “didn’t hold them enough when they were babies.” A doctor told her that! (Yeah, I know. Mythical nonsense!) I think professionals should tread more carefully with their words. Seeing the pain in that mom’s eyes and feeling the weight of her guilt about this belief really got to me. With sincerity I promised, “I will never say mean things like that to you.” Later, I thought about how words affect families—how parents hold on to the things we say. As teachers, I think we should be mindful of the words we speak to parents, especially how the words make them feel about their child and the school system as a whole.
I learned about “deficit thinking” in my grad program, and I’m really on the lookout for these (mis)beliefs in our school system today. As defined by Richard Valencia, deficit thinking “refers to the notion that students (particularly low income, minority students) fail in school because such students and their families experience deficiencies that obstruct the learning process (e.g. limited intelligence, lack of motivation and inadequate home socialization).” This model of thinking leads the school system to try and “help” parents work with their kids rather than celebrating the skills and knowledge that families already possess.
Last year, my school participated in a parent-teacher conferences program that reminded me of the deficit thinking model. During APTT meetings, parents attended large group trainings where teachers “taught” them how to work with their kids and track their educational progress. Parents sat in desks like they were students while the teachers stood at the front. (Talk about underlying messages of power!) Unless parents requested an individual conference, there was not time for parents to share how things were going at home or contribute ideas. The APTT idea bothered me so much that I asked my principal to be excused from participating. I couldn’t give up the conversations and connections I get from individual conferences. To me, the time talking with families is so priceless!
Frankly speaking, I think that parents know a whole lot more about their kids than I do. I treat them as the expert when they come for conferences. I have met some of the hardest working families on the planet—true warriors for their kids. When I’m lucky enough to get a few minutes of their time, my goal is to restock their “supplies” (tips/strategies that have been working for me), give them a pat on the back, and send them back out there to fight for their kids. But more importantly, I hope to gain some wisdom, insight, and strategies that work at home so I can be a more effective teacher for their child at school. When parents share, I take notes. Detailed notes. Parents have a wealth of knowledge.
Now that I’m thinking more carefully about my interactions with families at conferences, I say little and open my ears wide. At conferences in February, I tried to get parents talking as much as possible. I asked about how things were going at home. I asked about tips that might help at school. I asked about things they wanted me to work on with their child. When they shared struggles from home, I asked reflective questions instead of jumping in with answers. I let them solve their own problems while I listened. I thought really carefully about my words—making sure they were words of life, love, and encouragement. I’m not saying that I don’t have some students with challenging issues or behaviors—I’m just saying that I used conferences to invest in the relationships with families so that I can call about those behaviors in the future as needed. You know what? I had awesome conferences and I got some good ideas, too.
Thinking back to the quote, parents might forget the things we said during conferences, and that’s fine with me. I’m far more concerned about the way they felt. When it comes to conferences, I want parents to feel GREAT about our time collaborating and motivated to bring their child to school.