Twenty-one years ago, I prepared for my first parent-teacher conference as a fifth-grade teacher at The Alexander Dawson School. With sweaty palms and a nervous stomach, I was intimidated to meet families who invested a great deal of time, energy, and money into their child’s education. Receiving the best education possible was a priority to these families, and I assumed this was their sole priority. I knew their expectations would be high and their questions would be tough. Those nerves lasted until I was about 10 minutes into my first conference when I realized we all shared the same endgame: We wanted their child to grow into the best version of themselves.
Parents understood how much I cared about their child’s growth and success, and I realized that for each family, it wasn’t only about getting the best education possible. Equally as important to each family was the confirmed reassurance that their child was loved and appreciated as a unique individual. This common ground created a powerful foundation, and as long as I listened and didn’t lose sight of the value of a parents’ perspective, their student’s learning journey was primed for optimal growth. From that moment forward, I placed an important emphasis on teacher-parent partnerships. For education to truly be transformational, this partnership is essential.
Dawson’s commitment to providing the promise of a transformative education means that family and school must intersect around the life of the child. Our Mission and Vision are actualized when we harness the collective potential of those within the school community. Further, one of our Core Beliefs states, “Although families are the primary educators of their children, student achievement throughout life is increased when the School and families work together as partners.”
This trust and reliance only prove successful if Dawson is understood and accepted as part of the extended family. Although this may not always be a common concept at the beginning of a family’s academic journey with us, the beauty of belonging to an independent school is that parents are invested. And while the first role of educators is usually to cultivate parent commitment to their child’s learning journey, this is a given at Alexander Dawson.
The Shared Goal of Student Achievement
From the very beginning of our admissions and enrollment process, the School makes a concerted effort to ensure we work to welcome mission-appropriate families to our community. This means collaborating with parents who seek to instill in their familial structure the same fundamental philosophies and beliefs upon which Dawson operates.
Although Dawson’s precedent behind the interconnectedness of parents and teachers lays the foundation for mutually-responsive relationships, the increasing complexity of relationships, roles, and functions can complicate collaboration. Despite all of the proactive strategies contributing to the choreography of the school-home dance, messages to or from parents are sometimes a tough pill to swallow. In those moments, our work of living our Core Beliefs is called into action.
These are the times when we model for our students what it looks like to manage our feelings and decipher the needs of the student and their family. During these moments, we must push ourselves to stay curious and dig beneath the surface to understand that student growth and achievement are at stake.
As we lean into hard conversations, both parents and teachers need to maintain the unwavering stance that parents are experts on the topic of their children, and teachers are experts on the topic of learning.
Yet mutual respect, even when a message is difficult, is essential for the parent partnership dynamic. When parents are knowingly and willingly in partnership with us, and we all make the concerted effort to avoid putting students in loyalty conflict situations, students experience consistency and predictability in their expectations for growth and excellence. Students feel empowered and responsible for their lives and seek to do better, and this culture of care allows for a child to explore and develop agency both at school and at home. Knowing when to let go and allow for productive struggle is a tough balancing act, and no parent or teacher can make this call without an effective, two-way partnership built on honest communication, trust, and support.
Respectful Listening and a Culture of Dignity
For schools to become equitable spaces for every student, education must break down school-family barriers and listen deeply to parents.
Listening is a competency that sets people apart in their adult life; it requires the ability to refrain from judgment and to resist the urge to insert responses without reflection. Dawson is intentional about building parent-school structures that allow for quality alliances, clarity of purpose, and empowerment.
At the beginning of each school year, teachers and advisors schedule meet-and-greets so the parent partnership can begin with a discussion designed for attentive listening. This opportunity is for parents to share important information that will help teachers differentiate classroom instruction and advocacy, significant components of a student’s personalized learning plan. It’s a simple but valuable formula: Teachers prompt parents to tell them about their child, their child’s goals, and the values of their family framework, and the teachers and advisors listen and take notes intently. These meet-and-greets also purposefully set a communication protocol for the rest of the school year.
Parents as Community Partners
When Dawson shifted to crisis-driven school operations in response to COVID-19, we knew parent perspective and knowledge were essential components of designing a resiliency plan. We welcomed stories about student experiences during virtual learning and solicited feedback about the challenges of online learning, we pivoted and shifted instructional approaches resultingly, and we reassigned faculty roles so personalization could be provided through this digital landscape.
By late spring, we realized our parent body was going to be the key to a safe reopening. Our leadership team modeled what we always teach our students – smart people learn from others – so sought the wisdom and insight of parents with medical expertise to develop the School’s first-ever COVID-19 Task Force. This group of resolute individuals helps us keep our community as safe as possible, a dedicated and thoughtful responsibility that is of immeasurable value to every family, student, and faculty and staff member at Dawson. The willingness of those who serve on this task force, to provide guidance and expertise as physicians and healthcare leaders, helps reinforce the strength of our community’s adherence to health and safety.
In addition, we spoke with parents in the casino industry who helped us identify systems and tools for heightening safety measures, and we consulted with parents in the construction field who helped us obtain PPE products.
At no other time in the history of Dawson has the power of a community rooted in strong parent partnerships been so evident. We relied on, learned from, and supported each other. And we found unity in pursuing a common goal: reopening our school with the best interest of students and teachers at the root.
Learning together is an ongoing effort at the School. Each year, Dawson hosts its Parent University speaker series and Parent Education Piece sessions to encourage families. All of our community events are designed to more deeply involve each parent in their child’s educational experiences, as well as provide an open window into the intentional instructional practices we use and the research behind our curriculum selections. Each conversation gives families resources and suggestions for at-home applications that extend the learning activities students experience in the classroom.
By recognizing that nobody has a lock on this incredibly complex job of parenting, we offer resources to relevant topics that make every parent feel validated and equipped to navigate challenges. We find strength in the fact that we are together in this struggle.
The parent partnership priority is also a common thread among the structure of our Dawson Parent Association (DPA). General Parent Association meetings are organized with the hope that our entire community of parents attend and participate, as these interactive gatherings are utilized to solicit perspectives and feedback about school initiatives. Along with our parent ambassadors, the contributions of the entire DPA – their time, energy, knowledge, and involvement in school-wide events – fortifies strong and vital connections between the School and our families with our parent population front-of-mind; we want to hear what parents need in order to nurture the trust between home and school.
Celebrating Parents as Part of the Dawson Fabric
We’ve weathered a lot of trying times this school year, and I would be remiss to acknowledge there is likely more to come. Yet, more vividly illustrated this year, Dawson must prioritize parent partnerships through community connections. Concrete, visible support of this priority is how we create – and openly welcome – building connections with one another. So at a time when the world can feel isolating and divisive, the school-parent partnership can be a beacon of light. This relationship is built on common ground: the investment in helping our Dawson students to become their best selves.
When I first assumed the role as Head of School in July of 2020, I took a moment to gratefully reflect upon the successful relationships cultivated during my time at Dawson over the last 21 years. I am so fortunate to have found a place where my personal passions intersect with such a special school that speaks so deeply to my beliefs, and I wish the same for all of our parents.
During uncertain times, we often need to dig below the surface to find our pillars of strength. For me, it has been the support, generosity, and outpouring of offers to help that have fueled this commitment to achieve excellence during a school year riddled with obstacles. As our students embark upon their individual futures, Dawson remains confident that we are providing a school where strong partnerships help every community member feel both challenged and supported.
By Roxanne Stansbury
Head of School
Originally published in Dawson's Petroglyph Magazine