Effective Practices : Working with Parents

Social Dynamics
Working with Parents Section 5

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1. Does your school have a general social contract for parents? What issues does it cover (e.g. support of no media policy, conflict resolution practices, etc.) and how is the contract used?
2. How and why was your school’s social contract developed? In which ways has it been particularly effective? What improvements could be made to your social contract?
3. If your school does not have a social contract how are these expectations communicated to parents? How effective is your approach?
4. A fair amount of focus in the area of social dynamics is described as “dealing” with parents. What steps does your school take on the other side of the coin - “dealing” with teachers?
5. In what ways does your school promote the important partnership between parents and teachers?
6. Describe the key elements of your school’s philosophy in promoting a positive social dynamic in the adult community.
7. What about your work in the area of social dynamics is particularly effective?
8. If there were something that you could change with respect to your school’s work to develop positive social dynamics, what would it be and why?

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Does your school have a general social contract for parents? What issues does it cover (e.g. support of no media policy, conflict resolution practices, etc.) and how is the contract used?
The subject of social contracts in Waldorf schools is one that generates a lot of conversation, with many schools considering the advisability of taking this step but few in actual use.

One school has a very brief document that requires both parents’ signatures. This document acknowledges (1) the school’s efforts to support healthy child development through the elimination of television and other electronic media and (2) that attendance at parent evenings is essential to creating a harmonious link between school and home life.

Another school has a lengthier Parent Pledge form. This pledge form is included in the Parent Handbook and does not require a parent’s signature. (See: Parent’s Pledge)

In the course of this study the researcher found a Parent Contract used by a charter school that was not otherwise a part of this study. This Parent Contract requires a signature, and addresses ten areas:

  • Acknowledgement that this is a school of choice,
  • Agreement with the school handbook, philosophy and policies,
  • Attendance at Parent Education evenings,
  • Attendance at class parent evenings,
  • Agreement to volunteer 20 hours per adult per year, plus work on one school wide festival,
  • Reduction/elimination of child’s contact with electronic media,
  • Support for the school dress code
  • Child’s attendance and timely drop off and pick up, and
  • Support for the school’s discipline policies.

The contract also includes a closing phrase that indicates that if the school feels the above conditions are not being met a meeting with the parents will be requested and that after two such meetings the family’s placement at the school will be reviewed and may be terminated.

Several of the schools interviewed indicated they had no social contract for parents and that the Parent Handbook forms the working understanding between the parent and the school. (See: Parent Handbook Sample) (See: Additional Examples of Parent Handbooks) Editor’s Note: Please use discretion when excerpting material or practices from other school’s handbooks. Practices that are legal in one state or province may not meet legal standards in other areas; please be sure your school’s handbook is reviewed by counsel to ensure that your practices meet applicable state and local laws.

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How and why was your school’s social contract developed? In which ways has it been particularly effective? What improvements could be made to your social contract?
The schools that have pledge forms, whether signed or unsigned, have developed them over time and seek to continually review and improve them. These forms are a reflection of two goals. The first goal is to be explicit about the key philosophies and expectations of the school. The second goal is to support parents in their efforts to create an environment at home that is congruent with the goals of Waldorf education. While it is impossible to eliminate all forms of peer pressure in a school, clear statements about media and dress code help parents by minimizing the difference in standards between home.

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If your school does not have a social contract how are these expectations communicated to parents? How effective is your approach?
All schools have a parent handbook that contains information on the school’s philosophy, policies and practices in a variety of areas. Many of these areas are presented prior to enrollment by the Enrollment Director, the class teachers, the kindergarten teachers and the high school class sponsors. The new parent orientation session is another area where this information is reviewed. Parent conferences and class meetings also touch on these topics. The school’s weekly bulletin is another area where these issues may be addressed.

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A fair amount of focus in the area of social dynamics is described as “dealing” with parents. What steps does your school take on the other side of the coin - “dealing” with teachers?
Most Waldorf schools have developed processes for handling concerns. A cornerstone of these processes is an expectation of direct communication - the person with the difficulty formulates his concern and brings it to the person involved.

When this first conversation is unsuccessful at resolving the concern the circle is widened to include additional members of the school staff. One school has a pedagogical dean whose job it is to pay attention to the relationships between parents and teachers, and to ensure that programmatic parent education is available to help develop relationships in a positive effective way. When difficulties emerge it is the pedagogical dean who can help bring the “hard message” to parents and teachers, eliminating the need for parent/teacher relationships to be strained in an adversarial way. The school administrator is also often brought into these conversations, frequently serving as a mediator for difficult situations. In schools without a pedagogical dean this role is often held by a College or faculty chair, or a senior teacher who is well respected by parents and faculty alike.

At times matters escalate further and an issue will be referred to the Board of Trustees. Typically the Board reviews the concern and, if it is primarily pedagogical in nature, refers it back to the faculty. The Board takes action on issues that are primarily legal or financial in nature, and when pedagogical issues have risen to the point of being a legal matter for the school.

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In what ways does your school promote the important partnership between parents and teachers?
Parent/teacher relationships are promoted in many ways in Waldorf schools. These include in-service and professional development opportunities for teachers, the creation of explicit leadership roles for parents, an active Parent Association that meets monthly, written communication in the school’s weekly bulletin and quarterly newsletters, and through the enrollment interview. The Development Director and her work in the development area is in many ways a means of supporting parents’ partnerships with the school and the faculty as a whole, although it is less focused on building partnerships with individual teachers.

The Pedagogical Dean or the College and Faculty chairs also support the development of a healthy parent-teacher culture. This culture can also be supported by bringing outside speakers into the community to address the issues of effective parent/teacher relationships in ways that are beneficial to both parents and teachers.

The presence of a faculty representative at all Parent Association Leadership Council meetings is an important statement of the value the faculty places on strong relationships between faculty and parents. In some schools this partnership is taken a step further by including one of the Parent Association co-chairs as a regular member of the administrative committee. In most schools the Parent Association chair is a member of the school’s Board of Trustees or a regular guest at those meetings.

At one school the administrator sends a letter to all new parents saying, “You’ll never be new again, and you’ll never be able to see things at our school again with such fresh eyes. Will you share your perspectives with us and help us see how things might be improved at our school?” While the school is certainly interested in the valuable feedback received from parents at this time, the meta-message in this conversation is that the parent is an important part of the community, and is counted on to provide feedback and perspectives to build the school. This is far more than just, “We tolerate feedback”; it is a sincere expression of the school’s interest in cultivating parent participation and activism.

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Describe the key elements of your school’s philosophy in promoting a positive social dynamic in the adult community. (Editor’s Note: The following comments are quotes from schools about their individual school’s philosophy.)
We believe that everyone has something to contribute. The school is open to initiative, and will consider a wide variety of ideas for building the school and the school community. This openness contributes in a general way to a sense that this is “my” school.

The Board of Trustees is a place where the partnership between parents and the faculty is most visible, as parents and faculty members are the key representatives on this body. To underscore this partnership the Board created a mission statement for itself. It says “we’re here to serve the students”, allowing them to link arms with the faculty in support of the students and the education.

The whole school is striving to build a commitment to each other that is full of openness and support for the work and expertise each has to offer. This wording is part of the mission statement of the Board of Trustees, a reminder that while the Board may be focused on legal or fiscal issues, it is also interested in building a mutually supportive adult community.

This is a school community of adults that love to laugh. We work hard and do our jobs seriously, but don’t take ourselves too seriously. This ability to laugh at ourselves is important, because humor is related to perspective, allowing someone to back away and get the distance necessary to see things more clearly. One way in which this is manifested is the skits developed for the end of the year party, as they manage to poke fun in a healthy way at some of the issues and personalities that were key parts of the year.

It is important to be truly welcoming to parents, to recognize the social nature of Waldorf school communities and to promote the important role that parents play there.

The school must recognize that parents are allies and coworkers in the effort to create a healthy school community, and work out of this conviction.

The parents bring to us their most precious possession - their children. They are looking for a school that will educate and enrich their child. The school wants to draw the parents into a relationship also through participation in the classroom culture and the school-wide culture. This partnership between parents and school enriches the family life and the personal development of adults.

Waldorf schools are small, village cultures, the kind of relational culture that is sorely lacking in our times. Parents are looking for opportunities for association, friendship, and intimacy with other adults, and for the missing sense of neighborhood that we experienced as children growing up. Effective partnerships between parents and teachers, based on the values of Waldorf education are the bases on which our school’s village culture is built.

Many people in the school community are able to speak about the community life in the school. Developing this capacity is critical, and must be developed in more people than just the teachers. The Administrator, the Pedagogical Dean, Admissions Director, Development Director, board Chair, and the parent council leaders ideally, will be able to speak to this topic.

A child and family’s life in a Waldorf school, from pre-k through 12 is a significant educational and community experience for children and parents. Such a life commitment of possibly 14 years in a school community is rarely found in private or public schools. It creates deep bonds and a significant experience of belonging to a supportive, value based community. This kind of educational “life community” is a powerful draw - we must learn to articulate this unique feature of Waldorf education more clearly so that parents who are looking for a school that is also a learning community can recognize it, and choose it more consciously for their child and family.

We must consciously work to help parents become stakeholder members in the school community. We must look for school forms, events, and activities that make explicit our desire to welcome our parents to participate in a school community centered on the values of Waldorf education. The most successful independent schools, in the long term, are those that work hard at supporting this stakeholder identity.

The school community is committed to building an understanding of and putting into practice a threefold social working. This shared commitment and striving unites the adults and creates a positive social dynamic as they work together for the betterment of the school.

The Board has a real interest in promoting a culture of giving, and does this by creating many opportunities for parents to share their perspectives on what should be taking place in the school.

The community education effort in the school is inclusive, and demonstrates that Waldorf education is as much for parents as it is for students. Waldorf education is not a commodity, but a commitment to building a community that educates students by welcoming parent presence in a vital and active way.

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What about your work in the area of social dynamics is particularly effective? (Editor’s note: The following comments are quotes from schools on what has been particularly effective for them in their individual schools.)
The festivals are well done and are the result of a positive social dynamic in which parents ask teachers for guidance but then are entrusted to create the festival without interference.

The way that class meetings are held by the teachers creates an important means of involving parents. Oftentimes parents may be reticent or shy about getting involved in the larger group, but are willing to “start small” by taking up an activity in the classroom, and then slowly getting more involved in the larger school community as their comfort level expands.

The school has a member of the administrative staff enrolled in the collaborative counseling training. It is hoped that this will be a healthy way to support positive social dynamics in the school.

The school often establishes “buddies” for new parents to help shepherd them through the first months in the school.

The school has always empowered parents to be active, and has a visible and active Parent Council that meets monthly.

We have a parent host program that provides buddies for new parents to help them get involved in the life of the school.

We have 90+ % participation in our annual fund campaign as a result of our active work to support strong relations between parents and teachers.

The Parent Council leaders attend the school’s ABC meetings, where the leaders of Administration, Board, and College meet monthly to discuss leadership issues, including community life.

The Board hosts a yearly Christmas party and invites parent council reps, Board committee members, and other leaders in the parent community. The parents who have done the heavy lifting in the life of the school are recognized and celebrated. We have frequently hosted an end of year parent tea to recognize and thank parent volunteers.

Having leaders from various organs of the school at the Parent Council meetings every month sends a strong message that the parent work is important. The Board chair, a College rep, the Development Director and the Events Coordinator all attend, give reports, and participate in meeting activities.

The fall and the spring town meetings are invitations for parents to hear reports on the state of the school, review the result of school-wide parent surveys and to dialogue and share perspectives.

There are regular articles in the school newsletter from the leadership - Board reports, College reports, articles and reports from the pedagogical chair, and Administrator, etc.

We have a new parent tea that is in essence a Rose Ceremony for the parents. The school leadership is present, and the parents meet the key representatives of the school and learn how the school is managed. Most of the meeting is devoted to going around the circle and giving each parent an opportunity to share how they discovered the school and Waldorf education. At the end of each story the parents receive a rose.

There are well respected parents in the community who love the school and are also able to laugh. They are a positive impact on the social dynamics in our school community.

The school has a good parent handbook that has been updated over time to include philosophy, history, and policies and procedures.

One thing that is very damaging is when an upset person begins bending the ear of every person who will listen. The procedure for processing concerns is the way in which situations should b dealt with, but the school does have a clause in its contract that allows it to dismiss a student when parents are acting in a way that is detrimental to the school. A legal contract does not build social positivism, but it can be helpful when dealing with situations that have become unmanageable.

The school’s founders are still active, and have an approach that embraces change and development. This openness to what is coming out of the future on their part helps everyone experience a sense of joy and excitement during times of change.

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If there were something that you could change with respect to your school’s work to develop positive social dynamics, what would it be and why? (Editor’s Note: The following comments are quotes from schools about what they would change in their own school.)
Strengthening lines of communication is an ongoing priority. We don’t want the parking lot conversation to be the major place where the social dynamic is defined.

Having the Parent Association mandate rewritten will be very helpful.

We continue to emphasize the importance of building the adult social fabric in the classrooms. There are a number of parents who would like to participate but don’t know how or where to get involved, and a classroom activity is often the ideal place for first engagement.

There are two groups of families, if we somewhat simplify the matter, - traditionalists and modernists. The traditionalist would like to have a firm, clear policy in areas like media, and the modernists don’t want to worry about these issues. This dynamic plays out in the classroom culture, and has an effect there that is not always positive. There is no question that a social contract would be a helpful approach - we need to do as much as we can to make the social legacy of the school explicit, rather than assuming that new parents will “get it”.

We need to keep an eye on the amount of volunteer work we ask of parents. We don’t want people to feel overburdened, and must continually look for the best use of limited parent resources. We want our volunteer opportunities to be enriching experiences that create a sense of common cause and community, and are joyful, rather than a burden.

We are interested in offering a four session Waldorf 101 class for our parents. We believe that this background would help the community’s understanding of the values of a Waldorf school and the roles that each member of the school community plays.

We need a continued focus on communication, and to increase the perception that the school has an empathetic ear for parent concerns and issues

We need to continue to build trust between the parent body and the school’s administration (meaning administration in the fullest sense of faculty, Board, College and staff). This trust has not always been apparent.

Clarity, communication, transparency, and gratitude are foundations for positive social dynamics. We continue to work with these values in an ongoing way to build a positive community experience for all.

The school will be working with a consultant over the next three years on issues of Social Inclusion. This program is expected to address inclusion issues in the classroom such as bullying as well as similar inclusion concerns in the adult community.

One thing that happens, particularly in the junior high, is that rules and regulations are not always enforced regularly. One example is the dress code. Some teachers are more relaxed about this, and others apply it more strictly. There can be a perspective that because of the difference in teachers some rules are not evenly applied, and this can create a strain in the school community.

The school once had a reputation as being strict (no junk food, no TV, etc.) Teachers have worked hard to find ways to communicate the basis for these policies so that parents can understand it in a positive way. However, at times parents can be very judgmental of other parents, and this can lead to hard feelings in the parent community. It would be good to find a way to deal with this in a positive way. We want parents to help other parents support the policies of the school, but we don’t want them serving as the “Waldorf police”.

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