“Parent work” – from the class teacher’s perspective

By Semjon Schmidt-Rüdt, March 2021

What actually is “parent work”? How does it become apparent and what role does the teacher play in it? An overview of this essential task is given by a class teacher of 20 years’ standing.

Photo: © Charlotte Fischer

Students, newcomers to the profession and also experienced colleagues who are class teachers very much look forward to teaching, to working with the children and to the social interaction in the college of teachers even before they take on a class. When asked how they feel about working with parents, the answers are much more mixed. Often, the answer includes a good portion of insecurity, or a teacher’s own bad experiences dominate their viewpoint.

Let’s start with the question of where there are encounters, points of contact with the parents. There are a number of things that can be listed here: parents’ evenings, meetings with parents, home visits, passing conversations, parent surgeries, meetings for joint committee work, telephone calls, email correspondence or social media, whereby we should consider carefully on which channels we really want to be accessible at any time of the day or night.

Which parent concerns take up the most time?

Right at the top of the list in the first years of school are seating arrangements and homework, closely followed by social issues. Regular changes in seating arrangements as well as manageable homework considerably reduce the number of meeting requests. Discussing conflicts that have arisen during the school day with the children before they go home is also a good idea. A simple principle: if the children are happy, the parents are happy too.

Aspects of collaboration

But what constitutes confidence-building collaboration? Let us briefly outline some important aspects. First of all, the inner basic attitude of the teacher is crucial. The core task of those engaged in Waldorf education is self-education! How do I deal with my weaknesses, work in progress, or anxieties? Do I leave them unaddressed or do I face up to them? For example, if you are afraid of pupils or parents, you should consider whether you have chosen the right profession. If I am rather sober, I might practise humour. Humour is a bridge-builder, not only with the children but also in working with the parents.

The teacher is a professional – after all, they have trained in their profession. But the parents are professionals too – after all, they have closely accompanied their children for at least six to seven years before we make our appearance as teachers. A lack of experience in newcomers to the profession can be compensated to some extent by thorough induction.

Another essential aspect is the subject of transparency. Parents need to be involved. They have a right to hear why, when and how we do what. Often they have chosen an alternative school form, but not necessarily a Waldorf school. Expecting parents to take the time to thoroughly work their way through the many literature references we give them is unrealistic. Topics and concerns relating to Waldorf education must therefore be set out and discussed at the parents’ evening.

Essential is the connection to something “higher”, something spiritual that sustains the community. Here Waldorf education and anthroposophy offer ample opportunities for research and experience. This connection – regularly cultivated – gives the class teachers the decisive strength to master their collaboration with children, colleagues and parents even in times of difficulty.

Taking a step back, all the aspects outlined above belong to the area of self-education of the class teacher – with corresponding positive effects on the relationship with the parents of the class. In addition, the phase of life we are in as a teacher should not be underestimated. Am I a young entrant, still influenced by my own school experiences, or can I perhaps already include my own experiences as a parent of my children’s classes? This is sometimes a helpful step when it comes to formulating demands on the parents of my class. What biographical situation am I in? Am I still profiting from my talents or have I had to work – sometimes painfully – to acquired my skills? Biographical research can give us key impulses here.

Our daily work is to keep the image of the children alive in us, to see what they could become, never to make a judgement. Do we also find aspects for the perception of the parents here?

Parents’ time as well as our own should be treated mindfully. This concerns the scheduling and frequency of meetings with parents as well as parents’ evenings. Is it really necessary in this day and age to invite parents to yet another parents’ evening when so many things can be organised electronically? Time is precious. For us and for the parents! It is better to have a few, well-prepared and structured parents’ evenings that parents and teachers leave with the impression that the evening was worthwhile.

If we look around us, we see people who work long hours, do countless other tasks, including on a voluntary basis, who simultaneously run their own household, help their children with their schoolwork, and also take on countless taxi services. It’s irrelevant what we think of this. It is not for us to judge! However, these people are often at the end of their tether, sometimes even beyond it. This must be taken into account in the work with parents!

A typical “beginner’s mistake” can be seen in highly motivated colleagues overstepping the mark with unasked-for parenting and behavioural tips for the families’ domestic situation. This is where mindfulness and respect are called for!

Contact with parents

Depending on type, there are colleagues who like to make phone calls and pick up the phone relatively quickly when a child has been difficult again. Should they be surprised if the parents do the same? Some things can be clarified quickly and positively by email as well as on the phone. Real conversations, in which the other person can be acknowledged, in which a trusting and, to a certain extent, protected space is created, are only possible when people sit in a room together. How good if the teachers have prepared for this – but also show an interest in how the child is doing from the parents’ perspective.

For more sensitive meetings – which there will always be – it can be helpful to have colleagues or parents present who make a record. It helps the teacher if they realise that they are speaking on behalf of the school. Then they don’t have to take any criticism personally – although in the spirit of self-education they may also draw lessons for themselves from such a conversation. In order to better understand the parents’ concerns – and the teacher’s own – it can be helpful to study, for example, the “communication square” by psychologist Friedemann Schulz von Thun, who vividly describes the different levels of communication in this model.

Parents’ evening

Parents’ evenings should be thoroughly prepared and preferably include an educational theme. In addition, a structured schedule and clear management of the meeting helps parents. It is all too easy for individual parents or teachers to embark on detailed reports. After a short time, others become impatient and probably start to think about whether they really need to take time off for the next parents’ evening. There are other formats for chats between parents.

But what to do if a question cannot be answered by the class teacher? Admit it! And let parents know that you care. In the best case scenario, answer the unanswered questions when sending out the minutes of the parents’ evening. It becomes clear that successful cooperation has a lot to do with ourselves. It is a lot of work, but it can also be a joy when you feel that to a certain extent you are actually shaping the education of the children together.

What a gift when a trusting relationship develops that endures even in critical moments and at critical times. When a child comes home once again and feels terribly unfairly treated; when complaining about the person sitting next to them is once again a topic at the dinner table; when the homework is simply not understood – not even by the parents. Or when an incomprehensible decision has been made at school. When parents do not identify with the conflict and quickly pick up the phone or write a corresponding email, but listen to their own child’s experience without immediately condemning the teacher’s behaviour and then turn to the teacher with friendly questions – knowing that they have only heard one side of the story so far. Then a resilient, trusting relationship between parents and teacher can develop. Then all the effort, all the commitment has been worthwhile. The parents don’t have to wear themselves out, the teachers can focus their energy on their teaching activities and the children are better off in the end. Because parents and teachers are then reliable, trust each other and together offer security.

About the author: Semjon Schmidt-Rüdt is a class teacher at the Silberwald Waldorf School in Stuttgart.

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