Parent involvement starts with trust

One of the lessons of my career as a community activist is that when people trust each other they can accomplish amazing things. Because of this, it is a wise use of organizational resources to invest in building trust with the people who need to be on your team.

This is especially true in education. If we want our schools to succeed, we need to create trusting relationships among parents, educators and children. This cannot be mandated but makes a profound difference!

Instead of harping on the need for parent involvement we should focus on something more basic: trust. With trust comes a respectful environment where everyone feels responsible and empowered to contribute. Without trust, the power of collaboration is diminished. Much less is accomplished.

Trust does not come easily. We are all vulnerable. And in the field of education, the stakes are high and the temptation to blame others strong. The situation is ripe for mistrust.

Parents turn over their precious children to strangers. Will the powerful teacher like their children? Treat them fairly? Understand the ways they are unique? Honor and support them fully? Abandon stereotypes and have high expectations? Class and racial differences can heighten the potential for misunderstanding. If a parent had a bad school experience as a child, it can also throw cold water on the dynamic, and parents aren’t always skilled at navigating a bureaucracy, especially one that has such power over their lives.

Teachers worry too. Will parents value their work and see how demanding it is? Will they appreciate the teacher’s commitment and effort? Will they honor them as professionals? What kind of stereotypes will the parent bring to the situation that will skew how they experience the teacher? Is it possible to talk openly about problems? What happens when teachers and parents have different values and ways of working with their children? Teachers may not be skilled at negotiating the power differences and vulnerability of parents. The current public discourse that disrespects teachers makes them even more wary of parents and outsider appreciation for their efforts.

The significance of trust was brought home to me in a grocery store conversation with an upset mom who I’ve known since she was a student. She had recently moved out of our neighborhood, and, after a very positive experience raising her first child in the trusting world of her alma mater, she was in the uncomfortable position of getting to know her second child’s new school. She wanted to feel confident that her daughter would be treated well, and her own interest welcomed. But that comfort did not exist. She was distressed.

When parents trust teachers and their school, and when that respect is reciprocated, it opens the door to constructive engagement. It motivates everyone to push themselves and creates an environment that supports student success.

But trust is not automatic. Teachers, principals and parents all have roles to play in building it. Experienced parents can help new parents overcome the jitters, understand the need to forge relationships with teachers, and navigate school concerns effectively. Volunteerism and visibility at school events demonstrate commitment – a building block for trust. The teacher and school can reach out and find ways to forge personal connections, acknowledge that parents know their children best, demonstrate respect and inclusion, and build a sense of mutual support and common goals.

Trust is fundamental to creating community. And when a school is experienced as supportive and respectful, it becomes a safe place for learning and working, and the kind of place where people want to engage – parents, children and teachers.

It’s as simple and challenging as building trust.

Susie Kaeser

Susie Kaeser is a longtime resident of Cleveland Heights, former director of Reaching Heights, and serves on the national board of Parents for Public Schools.

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Volume 6, Issue 2, Posted 12:09 PM, 01.31.2013