Often in international school communities we wear many hats. We may be a teacher but also a colleague, supervisor, parent, friend, or possibly the partner of an administrator. Sometimes it can be a challenge to navigate these multiple roles and wear these different hats. One of the most challenging can sometimes be the teacher-parent hats, either being the teacher of a colleague’s child, or being the parent whose colleagues teach your child.
I remember the first time I was faced with this challenge. As a young teacher I was asked by an older colleague if I would ‘reconsider’ her son’s grade. She felt that he had worked harder than the grade reflected. I still remember the initial shock, then the feeling of having been professionally insulted. I wondered: would I ever do this once I became a parent?
In the world of international schools the parent-colleague dynamic tends to happen quite frequently. It is a good idea to think about setting a few simple ground rules to avoid any confusion over which hats we might be wearing.
#1 Start on the same page
Establish the ground rules at the start of the school year in terms of how you will communicate if you are close friends and/or colleagues with a student’s parents. I suggest communication via emails or parent teacher conferences. Avoid conversations in the corridor, en route to a meeting, during playground duty, or in the lunch queue. Parent meetings can be emotional and you don’t want to be struggling to focus on the students in your care in the playground if your colleague has just told you that your child has just failed a reading test or hit another child in the class!
#2 Keep the child at the center
Always remember that when you are wearing a teacher hat that the focus is on the child. Avoid, for example, telling a parent colleague in their child’s parent teacher conference that you are overworked or criticize the administration. This is especially inappropriate and insensitive if this child is related to a school administrator.
#3 Check your hat - daily!
A good strategy whenever you are in a situation where you have a number of hats is to think “what hat am I wearing here?” And if needed, communicate that clearly. For example, “I am here today not as your head of department but as my son’s father.” “I’d like to talk with you today as my daughter’s teacher, not as your colleague.” If there is a challenging conflict of interest you may need to remove yourself from a process. For example, if your best friend’s child, with whom you have spent the Christmas holidays, is caught cheating in your class you may need to ask another colleague to investigate. This way it removes you from a situation where you may feel conflicted or maybe perceived to be clouded in your judgement.
#4 Always tell the truth
You owe it to your colleague’s child to report accurately. Don’t sugar coat behaviours that are not acceptable because you don’t want to upset your friend or colleague. Or feel a pressure to inflate a grade because the child is the daughter of your boss. I have rarely met a child of a teacher who does not want to be treated like every other child in the class.
#5 Professionalism above all things
Be careful not to talk openly in the staff room or during lunch about a colleague’s child to other colleagues. If you say anything that is slightly confidential, sensitive, or in some way perceived as a judgement of a parenting style you are likely to lose the professional respect of the other parents in ear shot because they will question if you talk about their child in this way too.
#6 Course correct when needed
We are all human and the chances are we will, from time to time, mix our hats. Don’t be afraid to say you are sorry if you do or gently remind a colleague, if needed. For example, if you are at a colleague’s home for dinner on a Saturday night and they start asking you about how their son is performing in your class, you can gently remind them that you’re very happy to schedule a parent meeting during the school week to discuss their child’s progress.
#7 Know when to step back
Unfortunately, from time to time, you may find yourself in a situation where professional and or personal boundaries are not respected. If this is the case, I suggest you limit your contact. Whilst it may be upsetting to lose a close relationship with a friend or colleague it may make things a little less complicated for a while so you can focus on your primary role of teaching your colleague’s child.
If you have a situation where you are struggling with this aspect of teaching, and many understandably do, don’t hesitate to reach out to a trusted colleague and/or mentor to share your challenges and discuss a way forward.
Natasha Winnard has come across many amazing young people in more than 20 years as an international educator, guidance and college counsellor, and mentor in schools in Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America. Natasha Winnard Consultancy provides holistic, personalized guidance for young people and their families looking for support in the world of international education.