If you are a parent who blames your children’s teachers when you feel frustrated with their academic progress, you are not alone. If you are a teacher who blames parents when their children are not disciplined learners, you have lots of company. Although I’ve worked to improve family engagement in schools for years, I’m still baffled by the lack of collaboration and feedback between parents and schools. Like a pack of wild horses, each can be head-strong in their positions and seemingly unable to bend.
The goals of parents and schools are really the same – to develop and educate children. If we look at education as a system where many parts complement the whole, it’s essential to consider parents, schools, and their communities as part of that system. But what is a “system” and how does it provide meaningful leadership to all of its parts?
Several years ago, I learned a lot about leadership and systems-thinking from a horse named Jasper and a “horse whisperer” named Adam. After spending a few hours getting to know Jasper through the process of grooming him and listening to how he wanted to interact with me, I led him with a simple rope about a half mile to a large show ring. Following Adam’s instructions, my job was to walk in the center of the ring – without a rope, whip, or words − and lead Jasper from a walk to a cantor. I was to accomplish this by focusing on Jasper’s breathing, and then by leading him with my own breathing.
At first, I thought Adam was crazy. But I was determined to give it my best shot!
As a short time passed, I began to notice the rhythm of Jasper’s breathing and matched its tempo with my own. With Jasper at the edge of the large ring, I walked slowly in the center while breathing with Jasper and maintaining eye contact with his every move.
From the moment we connected, it was magic. It was clear Jasper felt the connection too. While maintaining the cadence of my breathing with Jasper’s, I easily led him to a full cantor around the ring and back down to a walk simply by connecting with him at a deep level of awareness.
We were in sync; and for ten minutes it was as if we became one organism moving together. Not only did Jasper help me shed an entrenched mental model of how I could interact with and lead a horse, he taught me that my connections with human beings are enhanced through the process of nurturing deep insights.
Through the art of caring, listening, walking together, and being in sync, we were able to achieve a profound experience – an act of interdependence, creativity, and learning. These elements are the core of systems-thinking and the nature of leadership. They must also be at the heart of how we build collaborative parent-school partnerships.
How we perceive schools directly translates into how we take action and lead from within them. When we examine schools using the lens of “systems-thinking,” we see education as an integrated whole rather than a collection of disassociated parts.
Unfortunately, parents and schools have evolved to seeing themselves as fragments in educating children, not parts of a whole. One of the big blind spots in educating children is that teachers see themselves as “teachers” and parents see themselves as “parents.” It is only when they see the relationship between them that they can take mutual responsibility for the educational process.
In my experience with Jasper, it was the trust we built that allowed me to lead him. (Although I’m still not sure if I was leading Jasper or he was leading me.) We were no longer standing firm in our positions as horse and human. We were in relationship, committed to a common goal.
When parents and teachers focus only on their positions and not on the greater purpose of their work and shared vision, they limit their thinking. Of course, this limited thinking causes teachers to blame parents and parents to blame teachers when expectations fall short.
Peter Senge, author of The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, says that when we proactively blame others, we have the illusion of being in charge. This proactive stance is actually reactiveness in disguise.
Parents believe they are being proactive for their children, when in fact, all they are doing is maintaining their limited positions. The same is true for teachers when they communicate a child’s deficits to parents. They maintain their limited position of teacher while believing they are proactively helping the child.
The converse of this thinking is for parents and teachers to recognize the relationship between them and how that relationship can benefit students. One’s position becomes secondary to the main goal of developing and educating children. For example, parents and teachers really do work on developing similar abilities in children, like curiosity, creativity, and sociability. The teacher does this at school and the parent at home. If given the opportunity, their supportive relationship with each other can reinforce the development of these abilities in children.
When we change our perceptions, we change the way we work together. We foster interdependence, creativity, and learning. Just as being in sync with Jasper focused our work together, parents and teachers who become in sync can foster the abilities that help children become career and life-ready.
How are you building these kinds of relationships between the parents and teachers at your school? According to the great minds of systems theory (see references), it is these relationships that will truly transform education.
Bateson, G. (1972). Steps to an ecology of mind. New York: Ballantine.
Bateson, G. (1979). Mind and nature: A necessary unity. New York: E. P. Dutton.
Capra, F. (1996). The web of life. New York: Anchor Books.
Senge, P. M. (1998). Systems change in education. Reflections, 1(3), 52-60.
Senge, P. M. (2006). The fifth discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization. New York: Doubleday
Marilyn Price-Mitchell, PhD, is a developmental psychologist and researcher working at the intersection of youth development, leadership, education, and civic engagement. Subscribe to Updates at Roots of Action to receive email notices of Marilyn’s articles.
©2014 Marilyn Price-Mitchell. All rights reserved. Please contact for permission to reprint.
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