I was in the bathroom about a half hour before our school’s Christmas concert was about to start. It’s a small bathroom so there was no way to not notice the stressed out mom that was in there too. She was trying to get her somewhat resistant child to change her clothes for the concert as she, the child, would be singing with her class. I walked in right behind them. The little girl was dressed in pajamas. In the bathroom the mom was muttering about having to deal with all of this coming straight from work. The girl wasn’t very interested in changing out of her pajamas. Another woman walked in which upped the mom’s stress because her stubborn daughter was taking up one of the two stalls. Seconds later her 4th grade son was yelling through the door that he needed help with his clothes.
Mom became pretty snappy with both kids and it would have been easy for me to feel very self-righteous in the moment. “I would never be so snappy with my precious babies!” However, I’ve been that mom (and teacher) – overly stressing about something actually trivial because in the moment it feels like it’s extremely important. So I did something better than being all judgy – after washing my hands, I turned to the mom and said, “How can I help you?” At first she brushed aside my offer, but then said, “You could help my son with his bow tie.” No problem! It took a bit of work for me to get the tie out of the package and correctly onto the kid, but he and I accomplished it. He was a little trooper about my fumbling around with it. At one point he asked, me, “You’re the science teacher, right?”. He got a cheerful, “Yup”, from me. Some passing 8th graders admired his fancy look and then he ran off to tell his mom that he was ready. I walked off to go back to my 6th grade underlings that I was there to supervise. Maybe 10 minutes later, while standing around chatting with some other teachers, the mom came up to me and, while still seeming a bit rushed, put her hand on my shoulder and said, “Thank you”.
As a natural introvert and social wallflower, stepping outside the little box the weaker side of my personality wants me to stay in can be hard. But I’ve learned over the years that I have to put myself out there and make personal connections with the families in our school. The 4th grader had a positive interaction with me which will affect how he sees me when he comes up to the middle school in a few years. The mom, hopefully, sees me as a kind person whose willing to lend a hand and will be more trusting of me as her child’s teacher.
I wasn’t thinking about any of this when I offered to help, but I’m now thinking about what a difference offering help can make with your teacher-family relationships. It’s really difficult to be a no-nonsense teacher with truly high academic expectations in the current culture. The stress brought on by parents that want their kids to earn easy A’s can really drag me down and weaken my resolve to do what’s right. I know that today’s parents aren’t going to change and my administrators aren’t going to stop siding with the parents anytime soon. I’ve come to see that my best path to maintaining my professional standards is to reach out and connect with the families.
This strategy has made my job a lot easier! I’ve got parents backing me that would have fought for grade changing in the past because they know me personally and see me as a partner in their child’s life, not as an enemy. This isn’t easy because I have to fight my inner (cowardly) urge to keep a “safe” distance from other people. But experience has taught me that this distance was not safe at all and it kept me from forming the relationships that I have to forge to be successful and happy in this job.
This seemingly tiny encounter has opened my eyes even more to the power of connection. I hope it will inspire you to connect with your school’s families as well. I’d love to hear about your own experiences connecting with families. Please leave a comment below.