By Brian P. Gatens
I once had a veteran colleague who would turn to me in June, the most hectic time of our school year, and say, “You see, Gatens, they don’t pay us for February (when things are relatively quiet). They pay us for June.”
His point — that we earn our pay when times are tough — also applies to working with students and their families. Some students arrive at school every morning well prepared, ready to learn and equipped with fresh-faced smiles, wonderful attitudes and all homework meticulously prepared.
And then there are some students who don’t arrive like that.
I’ve worked in a wide swath of schools and communities: Urban, suburban, public, private, kindergarten through 12th grade. One thing I’ve learned is that all communities have families that struggle mightily to offer basic emotional care and home stability to their children. It is folly to think that emotionally and structurally challenging families exist only within a single geographic area or a specific demographic group.
Working with these families is never easy. It obliges teachers and administrators to access our deepest reserves of kindness and patience, counterbalanced with our need to maintain high expectations, support teachers and offer families opportunities to growth. It’s an incredibly complex dynamic for administrators and teachers to navigate — families struggle with parental approaches to learning and their ability to support the child, while schools try to assist as much as necessary.
It’s important to keep our focus on the families when trying to help the students; the two cannot be separated. When working with challenging families, I want my words and deeds (and those of the staff) to be driven by three questions:
1. Are We Being Helpful?
Conversations with students and their families need to be solution-based. That doesn’t mean that you begin the conversation by telling the family what they need to do. Rather, you want to focus on the end results, so parents get the ideas, skills and support they need to deal with the issues the the child is facing.
It’s counterproductive for faculty and administration to repeatedly lecture the family about what needs to be changed at home. Don’t get me wrong, there may be opportunities to offer direct guidance and help, but that should occur only after a relationship has developed. Challenging families have already been told (repeatedly) what they’re doing wrong; they need solutions for the future, not reminders of the past.
2. Are We Being True?
It is important that the school rely on factual data to show the family the reason for the concern. Challenging families, and especially those in high-income areas, tend to dismiss a school’s concerns out of hand. It is best if you can bring information to the table that supports and strengthens your concern.
Anecdotal or secondhand information may be easy to gather and might be true, but works it against this concept. Absence rates, student work completion, disciplinary records and observable teacher data are all good data points to bring to your work with challenging families. Addressing the accuracy and truthfulness of your concerns is a big step in helping to effect change.
3. Are We Being Kind?
Challenging families can seem combative, ungrateful and blind to their own roles in their situations, so they do not exactly engender a desire to show them kindness and patience. That’s all the more reason why we, as professionals, need to dig deep and be kind to them anyway.
It’s essential to avoid the instinct to argue or become emotional in these situations, and to always strive for the highest levels of calm, kind and supportive behavior. I try to think of challenging families as people with chronic conditions like diabetes or high blood pressure. I wouldn’t grow angry with somebody who suffered from one of these ailments, and I try to show the same kindness I’d show to anybody who was in pain. Trust me, it’s easier said than done, but it’s what we have to do.
Helpfulness, truthfulness and kindness will do far more for challenging families than any lecturing, judgment and derision will ever do. Stay on your best behavior with challenging families and you’ll be amazed at the improvements, both with them and their children.
An educator for two decades, Brian P. Gatens is superintendent/principal at Norwood Public School in Norwood, N.J. Gatens has worked at the K-12 level in public and private school settings in urban and suburban districts. He has been a classroom teacher, vice principal, principal and now superintendent/principal.