Working with Advocates

Teachers, administrators and other school staff need to be cognizant of the fact that parents’ and caregivers’ tendency to defend their children is natural. While we may be tempted to label parents or guardians who advocate as “troublemakers”, or “difficult”, we need to resist this temptation. Their role in the school as advocates for their children’s wellbeing and best interests creates a useful and necessary counterbalance to the school’s professional power and authority. As such, we need to accept and even support and facilitate effective ways for them to fulfill this role. (See Providing the Tools.)

When responding to parents and guardians who are passionate and energetic advocates for their children, we can stretch ourselves by imagining how they may feel and how we might feel in their place. Such situations can provide an opportunity for us to remember and practice the information, tools and strategies presented in this module in order to remain open, present, aware and empathic. (See Understanding Parents and Caregivers, Sharing Power, Alliance-building, Problem-solving.)

Saying it

“Thank-you for taking the time to come to the school and share your concerns with me. If I understand correctly, you believe your child is afraid of another student in the class. I’d like to share a little about what I’ve observed in class. Let’s explore this a little more so we can figure out the best way to make sure all the students are in the very best possible learning environment.”

When parents and caregivers present themselves with emotional intensity, we can respond with empathy by listening carefully, and by normalizing and validating their feelings. (See Empowerment Listening.)

Saying it

“I can hear that you’re angry and upset. I understand it’s hard to hear that your child has been hurting another student. That’s not something any parent or caregiver wants to hear. I’m optimistic that if we work together with your child, we’ll be able to help her/him learn from this experience.”

In some cases, parents and guardians may have raised their child to express themselves and their needs without having set limits. Parents and caregivers, just like all citizens and human beings, do not have unlimited rights, nor do their children. All of our rights, including our right to be safe, strong and free, are limited by our responsibility to respect others’ right to be safe, strong and free. Furthermore, when considering the rights of one student, teachers have the responsibility to weigh this against the rights and wellbeing of all students.

Sometimes, parents and caregivers may need to be reminded about this basic principle which we may need to assert. We can do so in a way which recognizes a parent’s or caregiver’s concern and caring for their child.

Saying it

“I can see you are upset and angry that your child was mistreated by another student. This is completely valid, and bullying in all cases is unacceptable. We’ll be doing our best to work with you and your child to make sure she/he stays safe. At the same time, we’ll need to find strategies that help the other student change her/his behaviour and that don’t take away her/his right to an education."

Of course, not all parents and caregivers have the necessary skills, information, personality or perspective enabling them to advocate respectfully and constructively. If a parent or caregiver seems to lack balance and perspective, we can still capitalize on their caring and make that the focus of our intervention.

Saying it

“I can see how deeply concerned you are about your child. I hope you’ll believe that I’m also very concerned and committed to making sure she/he is safe and included at school. But I can’t do that on my own. I’ll need your help, and your child’s input as well.”

Parents and caregivers are naturally most concerned with their own children’s wellbeing. As teachers, we are aware of our professional responsibility to ensure the wellbeing of all our students. Though there is generally much that can be done to reconcile these two goals, sometimes they can come into conflict. If forced into a decision that pits the good of all against the needs of an individual student, we will need to opt for the former. Generally, we can facilitate a more respectful and constructive interaction by explaining our decisions, expressing empathy and reiterating our concern for the student involved.

A challenging situation for many of us occurs when accusations are made against us. Parents and caregivers may claim that we do not like their child or that we are taking another child’s side. They may tell us we are not doing our job properly. Particularly difficult and disturbing, especially for those of us who are committed to promoting equity and inclusive education, is to hear accusations of racism, homophobia or other forms of discrimination expressed.

Even in such a situation, when we are feeling attacked and unjustly accused, it is important to remain open and to avoid a defensive or hostile reaction. It can help to take a minute and breathe deeply, and set aside our personal reactions and self-protective feelings. As allies trying to integrate equity and inclusion into our work as teachers, it is important (though undeniably difficult) to consider the validity of the accusation and to be willing to question ourselves.

Saying it

“I hear what you’re saying and I want you to know that I take this feedback very seriously. I’m very committed to treating all my students fairly, so it’s important to me to really understand your perspective. I’d like to hear a little more about how you arrived at this conclusion.”

At the same time, we need to take the necessary steps to ensure our own well-being and fair treatment. We may want to consider involving an objective third party, such as the principal, our union representative or another school staff member, in such a situation.

As human and social institutions, schools are of course imperfect. Given the reality of racism, sexism, homophobia and many other forms of social marginalization, schools can assume that there are barriers preventing equitable and inclusive school environments for all students. If a parent or caregiver presents a request for a change in school policy, procedures or practices that affect their child, it is important to fully and openly consider the request and to take the time to think about it. Parents and caregivers who advocate for policy changes are assisting us in our work by helping us to become aware of our assumptions and our biases.

Sound bite

A transgendered girl wants to use the girls’ washroom. The school has offered to create a gender-neutral washroom, but she and her parents want more than an accommodation. They are asking for the policy around washrooms to be changed. Their stance is that students should be allowed to use the washroom they want, and that those who are uncomfortable with this should be the ones to use the gender-neutral space. The school considers the parents’ and student’s request carefully and consults the parents’ council. While the school does not receive sufficient support to adopt the request, an official statement is produced recognizing that such a policy could be valuable in that it would result in full acceptance of students’ gender identity.