Out of the Helicopter, onto Common Ground

Intro: As parents seek more involvement in their child’s education, let us lay out the welcome mat and explore ways teachers and parents can build partnerships where everyone feels valued.

I fully understood the value of parent partnerships when I started working in a Christian school. A remarkable aspect of Christian education is that we, teachers and leaders, are commanded by Christ to love others as ourselves, a self-sacrificial posture that invites people into authentic relationship and, in respect to parents, a genuine partnership. Rightfully, developing these partnerships is complex when children are at the center, especially if we are all on different pages.

The management of parent-teacher relationships has become increasingly complex over the past twenty-five years, as parents have grown in their education around schooling (whether perceived or actual) and moved away from a passive acceptance of teacher advice. While having an educated partner can lead to positive outcomes, it can also become an Achilles’ heel if both parties feel they are the experts regarding the individual child.

When I became a teacher in 1996, parents rarely questioned their children’s progress. Now, as a principal in 2023, parents often question their child’s learning. Additionally, I am regularly asked by staff how best to manage parent “situations.” Heike Buhl observes that while parent-teacher conversations are essential, they can be dissatisfying for both parties. In my experience, teachers have become increasingly cautious about navigating complicated matters with parents, and the media labeling of “helicopter parents” has not helped. It is untenable to have teachers arriving at work anxious and parents feeling unwelcome in an environment where they leave their most precious gifts from God. Therefore, at the school I work in, Heathdale Christian College, I ask, “What strategies are essential for teachers to build successful, authentic parent-teacher partnerships in a welcoming primary school?”

Research indicates there is limited teacher training around constructive communication with parents, and that there is limited buy-in from teachers with available training (Seymour et al.). Tenure does not necessarily mean teachers do better in this area. However, the research shows that if teachers are open to learning how to use counseling and active listening skills, as well as practicing conversations using role play and exploring expectations on both sides, then there will likely be greater satisfaction for both parents and teachers. Additionally, it is more likely that student learning will increase, parents will feel welcome at the school, and teachers’ job satisfaction will rise (Buhl). At Heathdale, to continually improve parent-teacher partnerships, we have concentrated on training staff in the skills needed, which has enhanced the genuinely authentic partnerships we claim we offer in Christ. 

Experts on All Sides

Before we addressed these issues at Heathdale, we needed to find out what parents were thinking. A recent survey at our school unearthed a discrepancy between what teachers and parents view as genuine dialogue and mutual respect within parent-teacher relationships. The literature in this field indicates that this is not uncommon. 

Loizos Symeou and colleagues evaluated in-service training on teacher-parent communication. Their findings revealed that teachers view themselves as experts in school environments and that they sometimes consider parents’ contributions unwelcome. Unfortunately, this creates problems because, according to Debra Miretzky’s findings, parents want to be valued and can become frustrated when their expertise regarding their children is overlooked (Hale et al.). 

A central tenet of my school’s mission is to partner with parents in raising and educating children, acting as “parent delegates” during school hours. We say this is foundational to our core, yet some parents felt there were insufficient contact opportunities with teachers and that communication regarding their children’s progress was infrequent. Some parents worried about approaching staff, as they were always busy. 

For success in increasing a child’s learning growth, parents need to understand where the child is situated in their learning and how to support consequent goals. This can only be achieved if the parent and teacher trust each other and have an effective channel of dialogue. One of the College’s strategic directions is “Thriving Communities,” which aims to engage parents in school life. Naturally, engagement does not happen if parents do not feel welcome. 

The Value of Informality

One study by Hélène Leenders and colleagues of eighteen different schools in the Netherlands aimed to gain a deeper insight into the communication practices of teachers. This included how teachers build and sustain trust, encourage the partnership to be honest in expectations of each other, and support parents. It highlighted the importance of building trust before anything substantial is discussed and the value of informal conversations and unscheduled visits. 

But how do you make room for informal and unscheduled interactions in the day-to-day of a busy school? Experience has shown me that those unscheduled visits and parents’ frequent communication often unsettle teachers. Leender’s solution concentrates on the critical concept of two-way communication, further developed by Karmen Palts and Halliki Harro-Loit. Their findings suggest that if teachers take time to get to know parents better, they can identify and adapt communication patterns to assist the child.

Kevin Swick frames this as a need for teachers to be approachable so parents feel comfortable and secure. Learning to be approachable includes learning why approachability is needed, practicing active listening skills, addressing communication patterns and role expectations (Cheatham & Ostrosky), and increasing skills in counseling (Buhl et al.; Symeou et al.). 

The traditional view of teachers as experts and parents as passive observers is no longer a characteristic in today’s educational climate. This means teachers need to find a new way of relating to parents, and if they are not trained, it is imperative that their workplace adequately equips them. Buhl indicates positive personal effects for teachers who learn professional competence in talking to parents, including innovation, career advancement, and occupational wellbeing. But more crucial is how the parent-teacher relationship affects children. Their development is paramount, especially in a primary school, and it is clear that children benefit from high-quality parent-teacher relationships (Leenders).

Train to Avoid Derailing

At Heathdale, we see good communication as a foundation of thriving communities, and we aim to prioritize positive communication and collaboration. This is an abridged version of this article. To read more, subscribe to the print or digital edition of Christian Educators Journal.

Works Cited

Buhl, Heike M., and Johanna Hilkenmeier. “Professionalism in Parent-Teacher Conversations: Aspects, Determinants, and Consequences. A Competence-Oriented Discussion.” Journal for Educational Research Online, vol. 9, no. 3, 2017, pp. 102–13.

Cheatham, Gregory A., and Michaelene M. Ostrosky. “Whose Expertise? An Analysis of Advice Giving in Early Childhood Parent-Teacher Conferences.” Journal of Research in Childhood Education, vol. 25, no. 1, 2011, pp. 24–44.

Egan, G. The Skilled Helper. 2nd ed., Cengage Learning EMEA, 2017.

Grenny, Joseph, et al. Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High. McGraw-Hill Education, 2022.

Hale, Rebecca, Claire L. Fox, and Michael Murray. “‘As a Parent You Become a Tiger’: Parents Talking about Bullying at School.” Journal of Child and Family Studies, vol. 26, 2017, pp. 2000–15.

Leenders, Hélène, et al. “Building Strong Parent-Teacher Relationships in Primary Education: The Challenge of Two-Way Communication.” Cambridge Journal of Education, vol. 49, no. 4, 2019, pp. 519–33.

Miretzky, Debra. “The Communication Requirements of Democratic Schools: Parent-Teacher Perspectives on Their Relationships.” Teachers College Record, vol. 106, no. 4, 2004, pp. 814–51.

Palts, Karmen, and Halliki Harro-Loit. “Parent-Teacher Communication Patterns concerning Activity and Positive-Negative Attitudes.” TRAMES: A Journal of the Humanities & Social Sciences, vol. 19, no. 2, 2015, pp. 139–154.

Swick, Kevin J. “Communication Concepts for Strengthening Family-School-Community Partnerships.” Early Childhood Education Journal, vol. 30, no. 4, 2003, pp. 275–80.Symeou, Loizos, Eleni Roussounidou, and Michalis Michaelides. “‘I Feel Much More Confident Now to Talk with Parents’: An Evaluation of In-Service Training on Teacher-Parent Communication.” School Community Journal, vol. 22, no. 1, 2012, pp. 65–87.

Yvonne Harvey, principal of the primary school at Heathdale Christian College, Werribee Campus, is an experienced educator in both primary and secondary and state and independent schools in Australia and the United Kingdom. She is skilled in educational leadership, using data to inform learning, student wellbeing, and teacher development, and she has a passion for partnering with parents in the educational journey of their child.