Why not be the educator who changes how a parent views school?
*This video contains graphic language*
For a variety of reasons parents can be weary of schools, teachers, and principals. Maybe their educational experience was less than ideal. Perhaps, they have been taken advantage of as parents. Possibly, their child did not receive the opportunities they should have. Parents carry these negative experiences with them to teacher conferences, email conversations, and grocery store run-ins.
Helen Hunt (Carol) in As Good as It Gets has a son who suffers from a variety of medical issues. As a single, low-income earning mother, she receives the constant run around from doctors and healthcare providers. In this scene, Jack Nicholson (Melvin) , a wealthy author, sends his publisher’s husband, a doctor played by Harold Ramis (Dr. Bettes), to personally take care of Carol’s son.
Carol has a hard time comprehending the situation. She goes from nervous to angry to shocked in a matter of moments. She is unable to believe that this type of care is possible for her son. The years of neglect from the medical field has left her jaded and untrusting, rightfully so. Towards the end of the scene Dr. Bettes says, “Whatever I find out, I promise you, at the very least, from now on your son is going to feel a great deal better.” Following this comment, the camera pauses on Carol for a long time. She does not say a word. But, you can tell by her face that for the first time she has hope. Hope that her son will live the normal life every parent imagines for their child.
As educators we can get into a rhythm of making sweeping generalizations about students and parents. We can assume that we know everything about a family situation before meeting them. A 12:30 conference can be seen as a 30 minute inconvenience or an obstacle standing in the way of lunch. I ask that you stop treating that conference like a time and start treating it like a parent’s hope. Get to know your families. Learn how they got there. Gaining the perspective of the child’s greatest advocate can unlock additional pieces of the puzzle. I challenge you to be the one who tells a parent that no matter what experiences they have had in the past, “from now on your child is going to feel a great deal better.”
There are many lessons that can be learned from the late great Patrick Swayze, but none may be more important than “Rule 3” from his famous Road House speech. What may come across as obvious is frequently overlooked in education.
*The video contains graphic language*
If the choice was between being nice and being mean every educator would choose nice. The association between being nice and relinquishing control is where the the problem arises. I don’t know many teachers or administrators who will vocalize how they enjoy the power that comes with running a classroom or school, but they do. A common misstep is that educators will say being nice leads to an unruly classroom. Teachers will dig their heels in, stand firm, and refuse to give in out of fear that they will no longer be able to maintain control of their classroom.
As a teacher I found that I had received less concerned phone calls and emails from parents than my colleagues. There are many factors that played a role in that, but the most important one was that I was nice.
Being nice does not mean having low standards and letting students get away with things. It means greeting your students at the door, attending their after school activities, taking the time to listen to them when they have a concern, praising their participation, not letting having a bad day dictate how you respond to misbehavior in the classroom, admitting to mistakes you make (yes, apologizing to students), and smiling.
There is nothing Earth shattering in the previous paragraph. However, the more teachers I observe and the more classrooms I walk into, the more surprised I am to see that the practices are not always being put into place. What should be a collaboration between teacher and students becomes a power struggle between adult and child. There is a common sentiment that if a teacher apologies to a class or redirects a student with a conversation instead of a consequence they will lose control of the classroom. The exact opposite is true. Students work harder for you if they know that you care about them…………………and if they like you.
A student will go home and complain about a teacher if they feel like the teacher is targeting, controlling, or mean. Students will go out of their way to find a fault in a teacher that they don’t like. You might be reading this and saying that you do not care what parents or students think. I think that is exactly the wrong attitude. You should not let parents dictate how you run a classroom, but you should very much care about how students perceive you as a teacher. There are enough non-instructional elements that monopolize a teacher’s time. Why not remove dealing with frustrated parents from that list?
As a principal being nice applies the same way. Unlike teachers, a lot of my interactions are with parents instead of students. I make sure to respond to emails and phone calls promptly. When a parent is upset with a decision I made I don’t get defensive. I actively listen and give credence to their feelings. I greet them in carpool or the hallways with a smile and a kind word. Parents trust me with their children for eight hours each day. People are far more trusting and supportive of people they like.
At the end of the day teachers and principals are going to make mistakes. People are far more likely to forgive when they like you. “Being nice” is like purchasing insurance for those challenging times down the road. Eventually, it pays for itself.