Communication and the Chain of Command

This is going to be short and sweet: Follow the Chain of Command. What does this mean when we are not in fatigues? It means that you should always start your communication with the teacher. Actually, you should start by remembering that your darling Pookie might get some of her facts wrong. So, begin with a grain of salt. Then, when you have ascertained that Parent-School communication needs to happen, start with the teacher. Yes, even if the issue is the teacher. You'll have to put your big-girl/boy pants on, practice the conversation in the mirror, breathe away any active anger, and then go for it. Hopefully, your intention will shine through the awkwardness.

Then, if that conversation with the teacher does not result in the desired outcome (and give it some time...) you go to the next step in the Chain of Command: the Grade-level Leader or Department Chair... After that, it's the Counselor, or Building-level Principal (or Head Teacher if you are in that kind of system.) Only on last resort do you communicate with the Director, Head of School, Superintendent, or Board of Directors. Their job is actually to work in the school's fiscal, legal, and personnel domain, much less focused on curriculum or student issues.

There are some hot issues that need to go right to the Counselor or Principal, after alerting the teacher, but not many --incessant bullying, is a prime example. FYI-- most Counselors work on the admin team or in a direct advisory capacity to the Principal so they are likely to loop the Principal in fairly quickly.

As a general rule of thumb -Curriculum issues, class management problems, and grading/assessment issues, should go to a Department Head or Grade-level Leader, after a solid meeting with the teacher. Concerns about learning differences, social-emotional issues, or mental illness, should go to the Counselor after ...say it with me... the T-E-A-C-H-E-R (*unless you are concerned about confidentiality.)

You get the point-- many parents leave the teacher out of the loop, yet they are the person with the most daily contact with students. You will not only waste time going over their head (because most of the other people in the chain will ask if you've already talked with the teacher) but you miss the opportunity to further build your P-T relationship by including the teacher respectfully on Team Pookie... the team of adults committed to actively supporting your child/their student.

Until next time...


David Brooks: The social animal | Video on TED.com

David Brooks: The social animal | Video on TED.com

Oh how I love TED

I posted a link to the very recent TED talk by David Brooks because it is a reminder that "we learn from those we love" ---crucial words from his talk. Why do we learn from those we love? This goes beyond teachers and students and parents and tangos. This is about human beings. We learn from those we love because we are more likely to have mindsight - the ability to get inside the mind of another and equipoise - the ability to have the serenity to get inside ourselves and learn from our actions and thoughts, including our failures and limits and metis - street smarts, the ability to get the gist of things, detect patterns in the environment and sense what is happening and sympathy - the ability to connect with others in a way that promotes group work and interaction.

Mindsight lets us learn from everyone. Equipoise lets us learn from ourselves. Metis lets us learn from intuition. Sympathy lets us learn from group interaction. Each of these is supported by love and the trust that develops from healthy attachment to those around us. If I trust another person, I will be open to what they have to teach me rather than putting up walls to protect myself from perceived threat. If I trust myself, I will be open to examining and learning from my experiences, rather than putting up walls to protect myself from esteem-slamming inner talk. If I trust my intuition, I can learn from the human ability to read subtle signs in the environment, rather than relying on a form of non-heuristic rationality. If I trust others, I will engage in group interaction that results in productive gestalt, rather than engaging in competition and offense/defense.

What Brooks' talk has to offer us with regard to the Parent/Teacher Tango is a recognition that going into this relationship with mindsight, equipoise, metis, and sympathy will result in learning for us, productive approaches to problems, and a better experience for our kids.

I've known a few people who approach the world this way. One set of parents was continually dealing with their son's aggressive behavior toward his peers. He would hit, kick, bite, yell, and generally explode without warning. The teacher was present, aware, and careful, and yet things happened over and over again. The other parents in class, while generally sympathetic, were worried about their own kids being hurt. The class climate was falling apart. The boy was sinking lower and lower into a behavior pattern pit and he didn't see himself getting out. Something had to be done right away.

The parents could have been defensive and attacking of the teacher or the school or the other kids but they remained open and trusting and loving. They approached each and every call about their son with thoughtful and heart-full intention. They knew we were all wanting to support this little guy in climbing out of the behavior pattern pit. They knew we would work best if we worked together. No time was wasted being angry although they were able to confront the situation and explore the role of the other kids in class (teasing) and the role of external issues (a recent move) to get a well-rounded view of the terrain. A stroke of great luck, the teacher and other parents also approached the situation in an open and trusting way.

Together, we enacted a plan for addressing class climate issues, working 1:1 with the little volcano to build his resilience and metis, and encourage equipoise, and slowly backing out of the rut in which everyone felt stuck. Over the course of a few weeks, things improved and everyone learned to trust again. There was an implicit understanding that this was a better way to be in the world. Remaining mindful, demonstrating mindsight, practicing equipoise and sympathy... worked.

Best of all, the focus remained on the kids and created a climate of trust and love and... learning (for all of us.)

Until next time...


So, Where have you Been?

I can give the excuse that my right wrist has been hurting a lot and I don't want to type any more than necessary. It still hurts but I want to get back on track with posting.

The truth is, although I have not been posting much, I have been thinking. A lot. About archetypes and topics. Parent archetypes and teacher archetypes and topics for bloggin. Here are my lists, so far:

Parent Archetypes
The Team Player (we love you!)
The Defender
The Attacker
The "My Kid is made of Crystal"
The Condescender
The Absent One
The "My Kid is a Mess"
The Pusher
The Yes-But

Teacher Archetypes:
The Senior English Teacher (subject not important)
The "Everyone's a Winner"
The Defender
The Attacker
The "Your Kid is a Mess"
The Condescender
The Team Player (yes, we love you, too)
The Low-Flier
The High-Flier
The Disgruntled

Who am I missing? Did you notice how many are duplicates? I did. I'm not sure what to do with the lists but they may guide future blogs.

Bullying - Defining it and Dealing with it Constructively
When Parents Behave Badly
Administrator's Role in the Parent-Teacher Tango
Dealing with "Bad-Kid" Meetings
Parent-Teacher Conferencing that isn't a CWT (Complete Waste of Time)
Supporting Special Needs
When Teachers Behave Badly
Parents in the Classroom
Dual-Role Challenges

What else?

Send me your thoughts and ideas on any of the above... I have the opposite of writer's block. Writer's flow-but-don't-know-where-to-begin....

Until next time,


A Twofer--- Magic of the PTT and Note on Word Choice

The new school year is here! Seriously, teachers get excited about this as much as parents. I was walking through Target at the beginning of this month and practically inhaled the new pencil smell as I walked through aisles of lined paper, pocket organizers, and ...intense breathing... colored pens. Crayon boxes may be all-that to some teachers but a new rainbow pack of fine-point Sharpies is my personal heroin.

In the last entry, I wrote of ways to help out in the classroom and I've thought about that a lot as I prepared my own classroom and office space. Dusting. That would help. Setting up non-dead-yet plants for the window sill, covering boards with colored paper and wavy border, proof-reading a first-day letter, being sure all books are marked with school (or my) bookplates. Not sexy but helpful.

This blog is a twofer because there are two thoughts bouncing around in my head. Blame it on beginning-of-the-school-year joy or muddle-headiness.

First, I am reminded of the magic of a truly coordinated Parent-Teacher Tango. One year, a parent sent a little note about their middle schooler: "Aiden is really excited about possibly going to Six Flags this autumn break. We've told him that he has to keep up with his homework, though, to earn it. Feel free to remind him. :-)" Bingo! Now, in class, I can do a casual CIA fly-by of his desk just as he's about to begin an agonizing procrastination stint. He's baffled by my insider information and gets the uncomfortable feeling that he has nothing to hide. In addition, he gets the supreme comfort of clear boundaries and an adult crew working as a well-oiled machine on his developmental behalf. It is teamwork at its best. That mother was hoping Aiden would have a good year, independently working, beating his procrastination devil, getting to go with his family on a fun vacation, and she knew I would not only be in complete agreement but that I would work in cahoots to help make this happen.

Second, and this is possibly just a pet peeve, but here goes. A father of two lovely and well-adjusted students has an annoying habit of stating everything in the negative and it just makes us (yes, I've checked with others) want to ignore him. Let's say he wants to have the Student Handbook printed on recycled paper. Fair enough. The problem is that he will state it this way in a large meeting, "Can we, uh, NOT have the Student Handbook printed on new paper this year?" If you don't see what I'm getting at, read that sentence out loud and take the attitude that the printing of the handbook on new paper was done because we were all too stupid to think of doing it otherwise. There you go. It's annoying! Teachers and administrators appreciate ideas and constructive criticism from parents (and students) because often we haven't thought of the idea or we had no idea how something was experienced by our community. Just try to state it in the positive. Imagine if he'd raised his hairy little arm and said, instead, "The Student Handbook is such an important document and I was wondering if we could have it both online and printed on recycled paper so it was available but also models the eco-friendly school that we are." Great! Love the idea.

There. I've said my piece and my peace.

September is around the corner. Crisp autumn leaves AND sharpies... I may faint!



Summer Lovin' Had me a Blaaasst...

Summer lovin' happened so fast! It's almost August and we are heading back to school in a week. Seriously. Yesterday, I bought some school supplies. It got me thinking about the idea of teacher gifts and I had a mini-Oprah-aha! moment-- a great gift for teachers, at any time of year, is little classroom-use items or hand-outs for the kids. Post-its in fun colors, borders for the noteboard, stickers, pens, fun pencils, bookmarks... these are the things teachers buy out-of-pocket (average amount quoted in one study was $300 per year, per teacher.)

Currently, we're working near Russia so we have been given a lot of vodka. Appreciated but not really appropriate in most places for a nine-year-old to hand over a nice Polish potato vodka as a "thanks for a great year" memento. A 14-year-old handed me a bottle of Johnny Walker Red Label this past June. Still, not appropriate. So, let's focus on school supplies or hand-outs. Also, Time is a great gift. If you don't know what's needed, just hand over a coupon with your name, eMail address and an amount of hours you'd be happy to put in helping. The teacher could contact you to cash in on the hours when he/she needs it. Simply. Better than "Joey Love" for those of you who know the show Friends as embarrassingly well as I do.

As the summer comes to an end, I must let you know, not to complain, that I had 18 days off (not including weekends) this summer. Conferences, work meetings, planning sessions and professional development took up the rest of the time. The next time someone says teachers and other school personnel are lucky because they have three months off every summer will get a look from me. Yessirree. A look. And, I might think mean thoughts. That's right. Mean thoughts.

To not end on a negative note, I will close this rambling post with the heartfelt statement that I am excited to get back to school and see the students and have morning welcomes and all of that... seeing school supplies at Target made me positively giddy.

Until next time...


The Fame and Money

In my first posting, I suggested "They don't do it for the fame and money" as the title of a future posting. The future is now, so here goes.

My thoughts ran along the lines of the many, many times I've said to a student or parent, "keep in mind, they don't..." (you know the rest) when they had a criticism of a teacher. Often, the criticism was warranted. We do make mistakes, exercise bad judgement, contribute to miscommunications.

My point, however, is that teachers do this work because they enjoy the energy of young people, they are passionate about education as a key to a better future, they are lifelong learners, want to pass that on, they think Chemistry is SO cool, or they simply want to be there for your kids. Yes, there are a few teachers who could think of no other profession or who thought the summers off were awesome (they aren't long enough and teachers are NOT paid for them, by the way) but those bozos are few and far between, they usually fry early on in the profession...and are easy to spot... so I'm not talking about them.

I am talking about the Senior English teacher (she'll be the topic of another post) who is "assigning way too much" and the 2nd-grade teacher who "insinuated that Pookie was ADD" and the Principal who "told me to just go talk to the teacher and isn't dealing with the issue at all."

As you struggle with the very human teachers working with your very human children, remember that the intentions are good and nobody is out to get anyone. Start with that premise and try to get behind and under the impeccable reasons for the teachers words or behavior. Impeccable Reasons is not my idea... it's a conceptual technique for getting out of your own way when you don't like or understand how someone is behaving or communicating and you want to see from their point of view.

Here is the challenging concept. Sit with it before you yell at me:
We all have impeccable reasons for our behavior.
A simply complex concept but one that, when applied, can change your relationships. I'll give you some examples from my own life. Not from a school, but an airport.

I was picking my husband up one day and had our four kids in various car-seat stages throughout the back of the minivan. At the airport, during rush hour, it was blocked up outside baggage. The minivan was pinned between two SUVs, and I was at a standstill, looking for him to come through the automatic doors at Carousel 6. While waiting, my cousin called me to describe his son's recent surgery and, being in park, I took the call. A woman with a blond bob, nordic sweater, and small rolly-bag came up toward my passenger-seat window and started screaming at me about not moving. Clearly, I couldn't move my vehicle. Apparently her husband's SUV was behind mine and she wanted him to be able to move up 26 feet so she could get in. Let me say now that this is Minnesota and, although we do have rush hour at the airport, we rarely have screaming Norse women. That was in our past. We've moved on. So, I'm listening to my cousin's harrowing tale of surgery and trying to calm the kids down as Helga continues to scream at me. I put my hands up to let her know that I couldn't go anywhere but that did not register. In the end I never found out what the problem was. The kids kept asking what was wrong with "that lady" and I said I didn't know but imagined that she saw the situation differently from us. Using impeccable reasons we came up with her back-story:
  1. She had just come from saying goodbye to her dying mother her emotions were raw and it frightened her. When she is emotionally scared, she turns to anger.
  2. Her leg hurt and she didn't want to walk any further to her husband's SUV.
  3. I reminded her of a girl she once knew who always talked on a cell phone and ignored her.
See how it works? Any of those reasons will explain her behavior logically because her behavior was logical, TO HER, and it wasn't as personally attacking when I imaginary-understood this. Just because there was heightened emotion, doesn't mean it wasn't logical. I don't normally yelp spontaneously but if I am frightened suddenly, I will. If you don't see that I was suddenly frightened, you'll just think I'm weird.

OK, another example-- I like this one because I learned the reason behind the unnerving behavior and because my behavior was bothersome to him as much as his was to me... A few years back, we had a Bernese Mountain Dog. They are as sweet as they are huge. Her name was Emma and I witnessed a mouse crawl over her snout one day as she simply watched. I also, on more than one occasion, saw her keep her mouth open so as not to bother the child who had stuck their hand in it to tap on her teeth. This was not a dangerous dog. She was smart, though, and she learned how to open the front door one day.

I was walking a group of children down to the local park and several had tricycled ahead, onto the wooded path, and out of my sight. Several were still with me and several were between me and the woods. I was not running a daycare, we just had a lot of kids in the neighborhood and they all wanted to go to the park. Anyway, a man and his wife approached with their black labrador, properly leashed. Just then, Emma came bounding down the hill, happy that she'd finally figured out the front door issue she'd been having. The woman stood there and the man started hollering at me about getting my dog on a leash.

His dog and Emma were, at this point, happily wagging hello and sniffing around one another, getting the weekly news. I quickly apologized and explained that she was completely safe and I could not go back to the house at that moment because I had kids up ahead in the woods. He escalated his upset until I had a quizzical look on my face -- my thoughts swirled around the large dog he had and the happy way the two dogs were behaving and what on earth was he freaking out about?? -- His wife brought the whole picture into focus-- "It's OK, I was bitten by an unleashed dog last year." OH, duh.

So, his impeccable reason was that he was afraid his wife would be hurt again. As soon as she said that, I said I understood and I reassured him that Emma was not Cujo (but excited to escape the house) and again explained the importance of toddlers on tricycles over dogs on leashes. Then, he mellowed. Uncovering the impeccable reason helped both of us-- he knew I was not behaving recklessly with my dog and I knew he was understandably protecting his wife. We understood one another! All was OK and the "what a jerk" factor evaporated on both sides.

In this case, I actually found out the reasons. With Airport Helga, we just had to imagine. Either way, when understanding arrived, the sting of the interaction was gone and we could move on without lasting negative feelings.

Back to school (although I think this works throughout life) - If we as parents and teachers practice finding impeccable reasons whenever we are stumped, upset, angered, or button-pushed by the behavior of another, we'll gain understanding and compassion. Most importantly, we'll level the emotional charge and be better able to focus on solutions or clarifications. This is a gift for our kids because they suffer from our negative assumptions, tense relationships, and misunderstandings. It is also a gift because, when we are truly teaming, we can keep them on track and better support their learning in school and their growth as a person.

This week has been a particularly tough one for me. I've had to say goodbye to many students, some moving from our school, some graduating. Witnessing the break of these bonds between students, staff, and families as the year ends is brutal. It doesn't get easier and this is year 20-something for me. The impeccable reason for the lump in my throat and the knot in my chest is the same for my colleagues, parents, and students... we grow to love one another and deeply care about one another as people.

There are no paparazzi, no piles of gold but this is worth SO MUCH MORE.

Next time... do I dare tackle the Senior English Teacher?? She scares me so I may chicken out... we'll see.

About Me

My photo
I've been working as an educator for more than twenty years. By "official" training, I'm a teacher, school counselor, and developmental psychologist (MAT, LSC, Ph.D.) With four, feisty school-aged children and a husband who is a teacher and Principal, I'm lucky to see many sides of the Parent/Teacher Tango. It can be a complicated dance! This blog intends to support you in being a positive participant in your child's educational experience.