Saturday, November 8, 2008

Taming Families of Fury

Whenever I chat about my work with other school folks, particularly those having anything to with the college search-apply-choose process, I'm afraid that I rather smugly mention that I work in a school where families generally aren't crazy and where they already get the idea of a school matching their kids' needs; therefore, the large part of my role that involves college is not much fraught with angry or unrealistic parents and guardians.

I've been corresponding with a friend at another school who is ready to leave the chalk in the tray and walk away from it all; he calls himself burned out, a term that tears my heart out. Much of his frustration has to do with a steady onslaught of calls and communiques from truly angry parents who have lately been bedeviling his teachers and himself--something new, he says, that has reached an intolerable level. This is a really good guy whose ideas I have listened to and appreciated for 15 years, since the earliest days of something called "E-mail."

It's easy to find reasons to blame the current generation of parents for being entitled, self-absorbed, and over-involved. An article in the New York Times this July on summer camp parents presented a rogues gallery of unapologetically demanding adults who seemed to take delight in pushing camp directors and counselors around to ensure a "perfect" experience for their children: "helicopter parents" piloting Apache gunships. At my friend's genteel boarding school, it is likely that the wonders of email and cell phones have opened up channels of instant communication that are at best a mixed blessing and quite likely a shock to a system accustomed to distant parents and correspondence that proceeds at the stately pace of the U.S. Postal Service.

So the phenomenon is real. But the whole situation raises fundamental questions: Does this have to be? What are the sources of such parental fury? How can schools allay these anxieties and reduce emotionally destructive intrusions into the lives of their teachers and their students? In the most dire cases, how can a school protect its faculty from attack? (I will emphasize that I am presupposing here the absence of any significant or substantial issues of neglect, abuse, or professional failure.)

As I pondered my friend's case, it occurred to me that the answer may lie in institutional identity and mission and how clearly and proudly a school communicates these. In some way that surprises me a bit, it comes down to "brand," one of those marketing words that makes old teachers look for the exits but whose value matters most in situations like my friend's.

Most independent schools have had some ups and downs, and in some ways it's easy for schools in tough times to be over-accommodating to the customers. There's a temptation, possibly encouraged by development offices and anxious boards in hard economic times, for schools to try to present themselves as all things to all people; if admission numbers look shaky, then perhaps a little lowering of standards here and there might be necessary. After all, it's just temporary. A few compromises in the admission office, and a faculty may be teaching a few more kids with learning needs they aren't trained to meet or coping with students whose behavior leaves something to be desired. Morale dips, rumors fly, tempers fray. In the meantime, all students' needs are met less well, and academic and discipline decisions are made in greater haste. Things get a bit raggedy, and good students look on and report home. The spiral may be slow, but its direction is obvious.

I think schools' response must be precisely the opposite, and no school should wait until tough times to formulate it. Trying to be all things to all people is guaranteed to disappoint almost everyone in time. Instead, schools need to define themselves with simplicity and clarity and to be assertive in saying, "Here's who we are, and if you're not really looking for the kind of school we are, please go elsewhere." In an age when almost every other product and service occupies narrowly defined niches, parents and kids are actually likely to be craving schools that present themselves (and their "brands") in precise and even narrow terms.

A few years ago our school started asking applicant families to write a little essay on why they were looking for the kind of school we purport to be, actually giving them a couple of specifics to which they might make reference. The difference in the applicant pool after a couple of years of this is palpable, and it has even become fairly easy to recognize those essays in which a family is just telling us what they think they want us to hear. We also stress our "uniqueness" not only at admission events and accepted-student events but even at Back to School Night, where parents experience in-depth "demos" of a few classes and advisories rather than shuffling from class to class.

There is tremendous importance and value in letting families know as much about the school, its values, and its practices as possible. The essay our parents/guardians file with the application, the relentlessly on-message aspects of our admission and accepted-students events, and the mission-driven focus of our publications, paper and digital, all serve this purpose. (I guess I should add here that we're a progressive school, and proud of it.) Applicant and current families and students know what that means.

I'm not even sure that our whole faculty appreciates the degree to which these events help families understand what we do, probably forestalling any number of querulous emails and phone calls. Crudely put, every bit of authentic branding and mission-focused marketing we do helps "keep parents off our backs" and instead puts them in partnership with us (assuming of course that our practice matches what we preach, which we try like heck to make happen). As our head related to me when I was discussing this with him the other day, "The highest compliment we've ever had from a parent was when one of them told me, 'I don't always agree with what the school does, but I always understand it and why you do it.'" That's a parent whose conversations about his children's learning don't start with verbal attacks on some teacher or administrator.

As I think about my friend and the constant tension between what his school's families think they want in the moment and what they believe the school is giving them instead, it seems clear to me that a big part of the solution for his school--and for all schools--is not to hunker down in defensive agony but to treble their efforts to make clear to families from the moment of inquiry who they are, what they stand for, and what they do.

For my friend and his administrative compadres, this means leaning into the discomfort for a while as they whittle down a tightly focused set of values, ideals, practices, and purposes that is the school's brand. They might also look for opportunities to engage the parents in the mission and work of the school in ways that lessen the teacher-parent schism and at the same time empower the administration and faculty by defining with clarity and strength the work they are doing and the nature of the institution to which they have given their hearts and sweat. They might also ask faculty to consider the powerful role that being on-message might play in helping parents understand and appreciate on both intellectual and emotional levels what the school does.

It will take time and hard work, but after a while people will begin to "get it." Confident, assertive promulgation of the school's values and program philosophy will translate into an increasingly benign and positive climate vis-à-vis parent-faculty relations. The stance of parents and guardians relative to the work of the faculty will shift. Parents will understand what the school stands for and is trying to do and will refrain from panic or anger when they don't understand something or when something doesn't go their kids' or their own way. The cranky phone calls and messages will decrease, the pain will lessen and the old inspiration and fire will return.

I keep reflecting on our Back to School Night, when we invite our families not just to hear about but to experience what it means to be a student at our school--even though those parents and guardians are having supper with their students every night and getting them off to school each morning. How hard the teachers who run those workshops work, but how much easier their efforts make all of our jobs!

1 comment:

Sarah Hanawald said...

Hi Peter,
I just found this one of your blogs and I'm so glad I have. I almost didn't read this piece since I don't feel that we have many "Families of Fury" but I'm thankful I didn't pass it by because your description of the need to refine a school's vision and mission is dead on. I'm passing this one along to others in my school as we are examining our mission statement right now.