In schools we trust
The critical relationship between parents and schools is one of trust. Dominic Floyd, Head of Prep at Mount Kelly, looks at how online forums and messaging groups can significantly erode this.
Who do you trust the most in your life? The simple answer one would hope would be a spouse or partner, parents, friends and close family. Beyond that, who else? Doctors, nurses, teachers and our emergency services? Or in other words, people vocationally employed and driven by offering a service, in which it is hard to quantify the lasting effects? Surely correct? Well, sadly, the wall of trust has been eroded significantly in all parts of our society especially within a school community. Trust is on the demise and yet we need it more than ever.
Schools have a huge burden of responsibility for educating our young. Not only as a result of the pressures of academic rigour but also the responsibility for embedding a strong moral compass, global citizenship and communication skills. With more parents working, family time has become a precious commodity. Sunday roasts and family walks are a distant memory for some families as social media, the internet and gaming, result in more conflict and preoccupation in our homes. One might also argue that some parents unintentionally squeeze this precious family time still further. At the extreme end, they do so by encouraging their children in an endless programme of external clubs, perhaps in pursuit of some vicarious Olympic dream. It is no wonder therefore that with the eradication of 'free time', the rare experience of real boredom and the increase in pressure on domestic bliss, we have a generation of families struggling with increased anxiety and mental health issues.
"This delicate and critical relationship has been eroded in recent years as a result of messages posted through WhatsApp groups or round-robin emails to all parents in a particular year. The rise of these form or year group gatherings demonstrate a worrying state of affairs for some parents."
A wise New Year resolution for us all would be to look again at our family lives – to declutter and simplify – to enable a refocusing on what is really important to our children. As parents, we need to empower our children to take responsibility for their own education. We need to have the confidence to step-back and give them space. One of the most powerful and empowering moments in a pupil's development at school is that eureka moment where they reach out beyond their parent. When a child opens up and shares with an adult an issue or problem, they discover they are listened to and appropriately supported, and this enriching process builds an umbrella of trust beyond the central point. The more children and young teens realise that they can trust teachers to listen, support and champion them, the more enriched and confident that child will feel – whatever life throws at them. Peer pressure has always existed but is more pronounced when children are finding their own identity (their strengths, values and weaknesses) whilst trying to fit in. Interestingly, this never really goes away as adults, our only advantage being that we have more freedom and choice with whom we spend our time.
So how can parents help to build this trust? They need to always work with the school, in active partnership, in the education of their child. This delicate and critical relationship has been eroded in recent years as a result of messages posted through WhatsApp groups or round-robin emails to all parents in a particular year. The rise of these form or year group gatherings demonstrate a worrying state of affairs for some parents. While these groups can be helpful, and really positive, they can also fuel misunderstanding and become a forum for negativity. They are usually created to connect parents and encourage a better fellowship for the greater good of their children. Sadly, they can end up dominated by a few key players, and become home to vitriolic tirades. Minor complaints become amplified to an unintelligible degree: one lost sock takes on a proportion never intended and, far from being constructive, perspective can quickly be lost.
This is where the importance of school communication comes in. An open door policy of working with parents and encouraging them to communicate their frustrations as much as their appreciation is vital to stem any possible resentment or frustration. We all know that email is a poor method of communicating as tone, nuance and language become subjective. Even punctuation can be left open to interpretation. Of course, it is possible to argue that these groups are just a digital version of the 'school gate' culture of old. But people talked at the school gate, face-to-face, and issues didn't take on such a life of their own. If left to fester, the damage from group communications can be a negative spiral both for parent and, sadly, the child too. We must trust each other enough to share a concern face-to-face and stand up against farcical pettiness rather than let the outspoken thoughts of a few erode our trust.
"For their part, all schools need to work harder than ever to reassure parents of their vision and their genuine dedication to the betterment of their children, whilst recognising there will be bumps along the way."
For their part, all schools need to work harder than ever to reassure parents of their vision and their genuine dedication to the betterment of their children, whilst recognising there will be bumps along the way. The bruised and scraped knees, metaphorically speaking, are as important as the successes and achievements. Schools need to be as transparent as possible, welcoming parental feedback whilst being confident enough to make decisions in the interest of the child. This comes from building mutual trust. Professionally, as teachers, we have seen it all before. We are well qualified and we do have a deep well of experience when dealing with the multiple daily issues that arise between pupils. Good teachers are outstanding in listening, guiding, inspiring and working in an environment where they are faced with myriad pressures on a daily basis. An outstanding teacher will not simply have excellent subject knowledge but a broad understanding of sociology, paediatric relationships and a strong grasp of child psychology.
Whilst working as a Houseparent at a former school, I had the privilege of running a micro-community. All the healthy ingredients were there: sleep, food, water, warmth, fun, reward, consequence, friendship, care and routine. Of course there were pitfalls and mistakes but fundamentally our tiny community was a happy and harmonious one. This was down to our shared vision. In sitting down with the children to write our own list of priorities, we highlighted the three most important ingredients for a happy and thriving community: trust, honesty and respect. Without one of these, the community is undermined and the toxicity of distrust starts to grow. With all three core values, we created an environment where the majority felt they had purpose and meaning. Schools are no different and every attempt should be made to drum these simple values.
In listening to the daily news, it is clear we are bombarded with negativity and gloomy stories. It would be fairly easy to become a little depressed and overwhelmed by the magnitude of self-made human issues. What we need to amplify louder than ever is the greatness and power of humanity and community. By reaching out, by being honest and by showing each other we can trust each other and support each other through thick and thin, this is surely the most valuable education we can give our future generations. As Ernest Hemingway said: 'The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them'.
Dominic Floyd is the Head of Prep at Mount Kelly, a coeducational boarding and day school for pupils aged 3 to 18 years. The school is situated in a beautiful location in Tavistock, Devon, on the edge of the Dartmoor National Park.