5 Lessons From a Diplomat for Bridging the Parent-Teacher Divide

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5 Lessons From a Diplomat for Bridging the Parent-Teacher Divide
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Recently, I’ve been using globally tested advocacy and solution-building strategies to help smooth a critical friction point close to home: the parent-teacher conference.

“Gosh, those teachers were defensive,” I said to my husband, Luca, as we walked out of a grade school parent-teacher conference for our son.

“Well …” he hesitated, and then cut to the chase. “Your question about spelling was a trap.”

I was indignant. “I was asking for their side of the story before I gave my observations.”

He shrugged. “You already had your opinion. It wouldn’t have mattered what they said.”

Maybe Luca was right. Based on the tense way the meeting had ended, my approach wasn’t the best one for getting the teachers to see my point of view.

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My husband is a career diplomat with the United Nations. Advocacy and solution-building are critical skills in his daily work. After he — diplomatically, of course — pointed out that my bridge-building skills needed work, I started paying closer attention and picked up a few lessons on diplomacy that have helped me to be a more effective ambassador for my children.

1. Don’t skip the niceties. Living outside of the United States for the past 13 years, I was struck by the importance other cultures place on pleasantries and formalities. Americans pride ourselves on getting straight to the point. But a diplomat would never skip protocol, and the truth is, no parent should either. There isn’t a teacher in the world who doesn’t appreciate being acknowledged as a human being before being bombarded by a concern.

2. Find common ground. All negotiations have to start somewhere, so look for something you can agree on. (Perhaps you think 20 spelling words a week is too much pressure. Can you first establish a common respect for the importance of good spelling?) Or is there something positive you can mention before getting to the hard stuff? (Maybe spelling is a disaster, but before getting to that, can you let the teacher know how well you think math or science is going?)

3. Choose your words carefully. Diplomats plan the message they want to convey before entering the negotiation room. Think through what you want to say before you go, state your perspective without attacking or accusing, and frame your concerns so that it is clear you are seeking a solution.

4. Seek input and be ready to listen. A successful negotiation is never one-sided. You may have a clearly defined end goal, but diplomats look for innovation on how to get there. While you’re the expert on and ambassador for your child, your child’s teacher is the expert on and president of their classroom. Not to mention that, unless you are a teacher too, he or she is likely to have far more experience with a range of child behaviors, personalities, learning styles and strategies. Ask for the teacher’s perspective on the concern you are raising. If you have ideas on how to address it, that’s great. But maybe he or she will come up with a few ideas that are even better. Pick the teacher’s brain for solutions; don’t just try to dictate your own.

5. Watch your body as well as your words. Effective diplomats tune in to nonverbal cues to help them read a situation. Perhaps it’s because I’m an introvert by nature, or maybe it’s just habit, but I’ve noticed that I often sit with both my arms and legs crossed. When meeting with teachers, I make a conscious effort to uncross, so that I don’t inadvertently send a message that I’m not open to listening. When I feel strongly about something, I sometimes furrow my brow — it is a sign of my passion for what I am saying, but can come across as irritation or anger. No need to grin your way through a meeting, but a friendly expression can go a long way in establishing rapport.

A couple of months later I went back in for another meeting with my son’s teacher. I was worried because my son seemed bored by school. (This was at an international school in Beirut, Lebanon; our family has since moved to New York.)

I made an effort to smile and choose my words carefully to be sure to avoid implying that the teacher was boring. I asked for her observations from the classroom. I asked if she had ideas on how I could help at home. The teacher’s defenses went down, and we were able to brainstorm together some solutions to the issue I was raising. The teacher became as open to hearing my ideas about ways to engage my son as I was to hers.

By the time we got up from the negotiating table, we’d done more than arrive at a solution. We’d declared a truce, and transitioned from adversaries into allies.

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