Build the Bridge

A friend who is the father of a 2nd grade daughter called me up on his way to work after dropping his daughter off on her first day of school. He sounded disappointed. 

“She wasn’t given the teacher we wanted this year. It really bums me out. She had this amazing teacher in kindergarten for half the year. Then she went on maternity leave. She’s back now, teaching 2nd grade. And she didn’t get her. We thought she would. But now we’re going to go through the whole year knowing that she didn’t have the best teacher for her.”

I love my friend. Yet he wasn’t even about to give the unknown teacher a chance. She was starting from behind with the entire year ahead of her, yet she didn’t have the backing of her most important allies, the parents. 

This is the same situation teachers try to avoid with their students, isn’t it? We don’t want to prejudge them before we’ve seen them in action. The same rule applies to prejudging teachers. 

I asked how his daughter felt about it. He said he didn’t know. “She’s good girl. She won’t complain. It’s just that my wife and I know she could’ve really soared this year.” 

I thought to myself, This is great!  It’s all about the parents. The girl isn’t nearly as upset as the adults. Isn’t it amazing how resilient kids are? 

But then I also thought about how his daughter won’t “soar” unless this mindset is shifted. Kids don’t soar when their parents don’t believe they can.

My friend described his daughter’s teacher as someone with 20 years of experience. Very organized. Somewhat dry. But this was all hearsay. He and his wife had never met her.

My advice? Meet her! Just do it! Don’t wait for Back to School Night. Don’t believe for one second that today’s quick ‘hello’ and handshake established a trust-built relationship to last the whole year long. 

Make the beginning of school about building beginning relationships, I said. When you get to work, write up an email to that teacher requesting a 15-minute meeting. No more, no less. Ensure that it’s about partnership, alignment and transparency. Make sure it clearly communicates respect for the teacher’s time (only 15 minutes!), that nothing is urgent, that the teacher can turn off the “helicopter parent alarm”. And send that email. 

As teachers on the receiving end of that email, take a deep breath. This is an opportunity to connect! To build a bridge with the parent who shares the second half of each day with your student. This is your chance—long before giving summative feedback of any kind—to hear the parents describe their kid. And if it goes well, this conversation will include vulnerability on both sides. Listen for it. 

Lean in when one parent admits confusion in his child’s action and the other parent puts her hand on his knee. Lean in when a parent shares the tiniest insight of what school was like for him at that age. Lean in when a parent’s eyes light up about something their child did this summer. 

And share in return. Watch the parents lean in when you share why you love to teach this grade level.  Watch the parents lean in when you share who you were as a student. Watch the parents lean in when you reflect on their child’s first few days of school. 

As both sides lean in together, they build a symbolic bridge. Foreheads are almost touching. Thoughts are exchanged, feelings are received. 

A foundation of trust is established by leaning in. As a result, the student grows in an environment of respectful communication and shared belief. 

The beginning of school offers a one-shot opportunity to set a foundation between the most important adults in a student’s world at the present time. We should all capitalize on it by living the message we impart to our students to not prejudge others.

Nat Damon