I've always maintained that true success can only happen in school if you can manage to work in partnership with all of your families. Some will be easier to connect with than others, but it can certainly be done. From my experience, your families want to see some very specific behaviours from their children's head teacher. Humility, transparency, fairness, competency and availability can all help to create likability. If these characteristics can permeate through everything that you do, then you can secure confidence and trust.
This is the time of the year when we start hosting our parents evenings. On one of my first ever parents evenings as a teacher, I had a pretty bad experience. I can remember standing in a grubby hall, surrounded by concerned parents, in a school in special measures. This in itself would be a suitable anecdote, but I have another to share that celebrates and contrasts.
After this experience I had learned an awful lot. I was able to consider the purpose of parents evenings and what we could achieve. As a head teacher I could greet every family and enjoy very positive conversations. I could also help with concerns. This was no longer the forum for complaints, but an opportunity for collaboration.
'I could talk about the disputes and the fallouts from those early days, but there's little mileage in doing this. For this article to be useful, it would be more interesting to consider what we actually learned from these situations.'
Every morning and every afternoon, I would stand outside school without fail. There was one particular chat that I looked forwards to. This was a family from the Ivory Coast and a Dad that enabled me to reflect and learn.
As the children left for home, we would often be seen standing on the yard, sharing views and ideas. Our conversation always started in French. I've never been good at it, but I was comfortable in giving it a go, even with a lovely Yorkshire accent. I had actually been using a CD in the car to help me revisit and learn the basics. 'Salut' we would call as we greeted each other with handshakes. He had explained that I must not worry about words and grammar, I must be willing to give it a go. And he never made me feel unsure or inept.
During these interactions I learned about Africa, civil wars, different cultures, language and most importantly the pursuit of dreams. What it would mean to leave your home, to travel with such uncertainty and to take the biggest risk for your family. To relocate to a very different country, with the belief that you can be safe, happy, healthy and better. Unimaginable differences. This whole narrative resonated and intrigued me, and I found myself not only learning, but working harder for our families.
'When you develop a personal relationship with your families, it can serve to motivate. You're much more inclined to go the extra mile when there's a sound underlying relationship.'
On the day that I left, I was incredibly emotional. Our families expressed their sadness and I felt the same. The phone rang from reception as I sat for a moment at the end of the day. It was my French speaking friend. I went down to see him, knowing that this would be a sad exchange. But it was far from it.
As I entered reception, he was standing there, with his family, with a big smile and his hand outstretched. 'Mr Rushby, I am happy for you.' His words took me back. I had expected a conversation about moving on, missing our playground philosophy and the uncertainty of change. He explained that he was proud of me and that this was a significant and brave life decision. A highly positive one. One all about risk, reward and the prospect of an exciting new chapter.
As I stood there listening to him, I felt like a 10 year old. His words overwhelmed, reassured and inspired. This was my opportunity to grow and achieve, and it felt good to be told. And throughout all of these years, I had assumed that I was the one who was supposed to be the teacher.
And so this little chapter concludes with two very different bookends. I could understand the concerns from those parents on that dismal first parent evening, but I was yet to have a relationship with them that could stoke trust. It soon began to occur the next school day because this situation had made me very aware of what I needed to do. Sometimes this kind of adversity can inspire the most profound plans, which is what can happen in many ways when a school hits rock bottom. This had been an exercise in creating whole school self-awareness. By the time that I had left the school, I had been dedicated to pro-actively building relationships. I became very good at it, it was rewarding, and it became an integral part of how the whole school operated.
'I was explicit to our families that we were on the same team. There had been a history of 'the institution' always being right, which would only serve to create tension and resentment.'
The WIN / WIN
Working with families is a privilege. If you can manage to achieve a swell of positive relationships, then you can then take care of anything else when it arrives. This is all about reputation. If the consensus can be that you are seen to make a big effort to connect, that you have the children's best interests at heart and that you're competent, then you're well placed to deal with the journey ahead.
There's nothing nicer than a silent phone at the end of the school day. If I had been on the yard and had no concerns presented, waved goodbye to the children and then been able to work on my own agenda, then this would be satisfying. This was the result of the staff team taking the same approaches and collectively doing the same things. On the other hand, if I was aware of a concern, I would call straight away to take the heat out of the situation. There's nothing worse that a problem manifesting at home, poised to be discharged.
When a concern did arise, we were able to work together to resolve the issue. Confrontation is not conducive to a positive outcome. Sometimes parents would say 'I know that you won't agree with me but...' before sharing their view. This tells me that they knew and could understand and respect my decisions but felt comfortable enough to offer their opinion. As you would imagine, this line was fitting for term-time holiday requests or the classic, 'I've told you if he hits you, you hit him back.'