Need to Be
More Involved in Their Children’s School World
For heterosexual parents, it’s common for Mom to be privy to her child’s school world while Dad is out in left field, says educational consultant Nat Damon. And this is a huge detriment—to the child, the parents, and the school. Each parent brings a purpose to their child’s educational experience, according to Damon. And that mix is what builds a stronger platform for the child to thrive throughout the school year.
A Call to Action for Dads
It was a typical end-of-year parent-teacher conference. The parents—a mother and father—and I shook hands. We looked one another in the eyes. They thanked me for my advice on their child. I thanked them for accepting it. They went on their way.
A few minutes later, there was a knock on my door. I was surprised to see the dad poke his head in. I invited him inside. As he sat down, I noticed that his face was wan and his eyes were tired. He looked as if he’d aged ten years in five minutes. I waited for him to speak.
“I don’t know my kid.”
Didn’t we just spend the past half hour talking about him? I thought.
“I was lost in that meeting,” he continued. “I didn’t know anything you were talking about. I’m sitting here listening to my wife and you rattle off all this information about his year at school. But I was clueless. The whole time, I’m thinking, Who is this kid they’re describing? I know him at home, and I think we’ve got a good father-son thing going. But at school, it’s as if you were describing a completely different kid.”
Like many fathers, he had a distant relationship to his son’s school. As a result, he felt marginalized and inadequate. Unnecessary, even.
In the course of my work as a school administrator, I’ve seen that, for many married couples, managing the school front is the mom’s work—unless the child has same-sex parents, where gender is not a factor. Barring very few examples to the contrary, I have seen women running the Parents’ Association, attending conferences, and volunteering to serve lunch. It’s the mom who signs permission forms, health forms, and field trip slips. Unless it’s the golf fund-raiser or the sidelines of a sports game or the audience at the school play, fathers tend to be out of sight. There have been many times when my only contact with a dad was over the phone or shaking his hand at graduation.
We should no longer look around the school and wonder where the dads are. When the dad absents himself from school, the child misses out and the school misses out. His attendance is critical. Here’s why:
Dads add value to the parent-school connection. When only the mother attends the conference, the teacher might not be getting the full scope of a child’s potential in school. Fathers went to school, too. They possess insights on school that are deeply valuable. A lot can be learned about a child when parents share who they were as students. The school is an organization that can benefit from feedback from all sources.
Dads and moms know their kids in different ways. We know that fathers and mothers have interdependent relationships with their children. Kids know that when they need X done, they go to Mom. For Y, they go to Dad. The bonds between fathers and daughters are different from the bonds between mothers and daughters. The same goes for sons. In this way, both parents use different lenses when describing their child, despite raising them in the same family. Hearing both views can be valuable in helping teachers gain a more fully dimensional understanding of the student.
Dads can provide perspective—and witness—to important conferences. If, for example, Mom is doing most of the talking, Dad can play an important role by listening—and recording—the conversation taking place. Dad can tap into areas of the conference that ring atonally. Later, both parents can reflect on the conference, relying on each other to fill in holes, answer lingering questions, and (oftentimes) help cool down feelings of anxiety, confusion, or helplessness that arise after a difficult conference.
Dads can provide backup as well. Moms do not need to be the only option to contact. If a child needs to be picked up due to sickness or lice, the father can pick them up. I always appreciate when both parents share their contact information (i.e., both of their emails and personal cell phone numbers) with the school.
I’ll conclude with a recent example of how a father can play a more central role in their kid’s education.
A friend who is the father of a second-grade daughter called me up after dropping off his daughter on her first day of school. He sounded disappointed.
“I have no idea who her teacher is,” he told me. “All I know is it’s not the one she wanted. It really bums me out, but what can you do.”
My friend wasn’t going to give this unknown teacher a chance. He had never met her nor was he planning to. As a result, the teacher was at risk of starting the year without the support of her most important ally, the parent.
Dads: Make the beginning of school about beginning to build relationships. Write an email to your child’s teacher requesting a fifteen-minute meeting. No more, no less. Ensure that it’s about partnership, alignment, and transparency so the teacher can turn off the helicopter-parent alarm. By doing this, you’ll be seizing a critical opportunity to build a bridge with the teacher who shares the daylight hours of each weekday with your kid. This quick touch-base meeting is your chance to build your team long before things get real with report cards and parent-teacher conferences. And if it goes well, this meeting will include key information. Listen for it.
Use the conference to share the tiniest insight of what school was like for you at that age. Talk about something your kid did this summer that you found amusing, inspiring, or even (if you’re in a particularly vulnerable mood) cringe-worthy.
And listen closely when your kid’s teacher expresses their love for teaching. Listen if they share who they were as a student. Lean in when they reflect on your kid’s first few days of school.
The important thing is you don’t need to leave the meeting with a game plan. A trust-based foundation is the desired outcome. As a result, your kid will grow in an environment of shared belief both at school and at home. Because you got to know the teacher as a human being, not a stereotype based on hearsay, you will find yourself engaged in your kid’s school experience in a new way.
And your kid will do better thanks to your involvement. There’s no better return on investment.
Nat Damon is an educational consultant, an author, and the founder of Reach Academics, an education consulting company. He’s written three books, including Time to Teach: Time to Reach, which was released through the Relational Schools Foundation. The book explores relational teaching and the keys to helping students feel connected and seen at school. As part of his research, Damon interviewed more than one hundred kindergarten through twelfth-grade teachers and educational experts from the United States, Finland, and England about their processes. Damon lives in London with his family and often travels internationally, consulting and speaking on relational teaching.