A good school is a conversation school
By Linda Stade
I’ve worked in a lot of different schools; private, government, city, country, single-sex, and co-educational. What I have learnt along the way, apart from how to make a farewell speech, is what makes a good school.
I’ve found that a good school is a conversation school. It is a school that encourages open, honest conversations between all members of its community: parents, students, and staff.
A good school is able to ask and answer difficult questions. There are respectful ongoing conversations that build and grow the culture. These conversations foster trust and trust allows for courageous, innovative, and powerful education.
Parents and schools form a powerful partnership
Some schools like to keep parents on the outside of the school gates. There is an attitude of ‘We’re the experts, just let us do our job and we’ll talk to you on Parents’ Night’. That attitude ignores the expertise of parents and the fact that parents are a child’s first and most important educators.
When it comes to educating young people, we are in partnership. Research shows that when a school and parents work together, the educational, wellbeing and social outcomes for children improve. When we work together, education is better.
Parents and teachers hold very different, but equally powerful banks of knowledge. Generally, a parent has the relational knowledge and teachers have expert knowledge.
Parents know the way their child learns best. They recognise what is most likely to cause fear or pain and shut down their child’s learning. They are also intimate with the cultural and familial nuances that will affect both academic and social learning. Most of all they give their child the confidence and support that comes with unconditional love.
Teachers have expert knowledge in education and curriculum. They also have experience with the developmental stages children travel through. They have literally seen it all hundreds of times in hundreds of kids. And they view that development with the wonder of someone who has decided that working with kids and education is how they want to spend their lives. It’s their calling.
It’s a noble and powerful collaboration that is facilitated by open, honest, and respectful communication.
When things go wrong
Unless you were born under a particularly lucky star, there are going to be times when things go awry for your child at school. They might start underperforming or land themselves in trouble. They might act in ways that are counter to the values and expectations of the community.
Young people are not socially or emotionally skilled, so challenges will inevitably arise. When this happens, the best advice I can give is, have open conversations with the school; work together with them.
Sometimes, parents go into tiger mode. They instinctively come out roaring at anyone who speaks ill of their child. It’s understandable as children are the most important thing in a parent’s world.
Similarly, when teachers are challenged, they take it very personally. Teachers aren’t there for the money…trust me on this! They’re there because teaching is a vocation. It matters to them. When you criticise their teaching, you’re calling into question a big part of who they are.
In poorly developed school cultures, this could be the making of a perfect storm. In a conversation school, it doesn’t have to be.
A time for leaning in
When challenges arise, that is when all parties need to check-in instead of checking-out. We need to communicate, even when instinct may say, it’s time to build a wall and defend.
Principal of Lourdes Hill College, Robyn Anderson says, “There seems to be an out-dated sense of how schools operate. Parents often believe that approaching the school when there’s a problem will make things worse instead of better. That may be how it was in the past, but things have changed. We want to engage in quiet, dignified, respectful conversations before any action is taken by the school or home.
That said, some essential conversations are uncomfortable, and it is counter-cultural to invite discomfort into our lives. Ms Anderson says, “Sometimes parents would rather change schools than have a difficult conversation and that’s a shame. Parenting in today’s world is a tough gig, we are here to journey it with parents, not isolate them.
Part of home-school conversations is recognising our own responsibilities. Just talking is not enough. Deep reflection and a plan forward are usually required. Sometimes it will be the family who needs to take the lead and sometimes it will be the school, depending on the nature of the issue. In a conversation school, each party will be sure they have the support of the other. This is how the partnership becomes powerful and our kids achieve the very best possible academic and wellbeing outcomes.
Is your child’s school a conversation school?
At this point, you may be wondering whether your child’s school is truly a conversation school? You will recognise it by these characteristics:
1. Everyone understands the power of collaboration in education and values the home-school partnership
2. All children, parents, and staff feel as though their voice is valued
3. The school gates are wide open to parents and there is a friendly, respectful atmosphere
4. Everyone understands the mission and priorities of the school community
5. There is a shared language about academics and wellbeing
6. There is time devoted to sharing and discussing big ideas about education
7. Important conversations happen face to face and not by email
8. When there is conflict or discomfort, it is recognised and acknowledged, and conversation is the tool used to move forward. Equally, when there is a success it is recognised, acknowledged, and celebrated
9. Decision making is transparent and well communicated
10. The separate expertise of parents and the school are both acknowledged, valued, and utilised
There is no doubt that home-school partnerships improve education. Respect on both sides is key, and a willingness to have all sorts of conversations…even the most uncomfortable ones. In this way, our noble collaboration is no different from any other important relationship in our lives.