The more I’ve attended family education events, the more convinced I’ve become that most schools’ programs aren’t actually designed for adult learning. Sarah Hanawald, our Senior Director, Association for Academic Leaders, says that best practices in adult learning direct educators to include practical applications for new concepts and information. We’ve moved beyond “the sage on the stage” in our classrooms--so why are so many schools still teaching parents and guardians this way?
As adults, we recognize the feeling of sitting in a classroom and listening to an expert. That familiarity is inherently reassuring. Whether it’s an author or a local professional, experts have the star power to bring parents and guardians to school in the evening. One challenge arises, however, when schools locate the expertise about children and adolescents outside of their school community. This is a missed opportunity for a school to demonstrate their deep well of experience with the social, emotional, and cognitive experiences of their students specifically.
When education for parents and guardians centers on hiring outside experts, it reinforces a framework that contributes to anxiety. The overload of information generated by social media, online sources, podcasts, and more has created the sense that it’s impossible for any person to know all they need to know in order to raise a “successful” child. Family education event question-and-answer sessions run the risk of being performative (the humblebrag can be raised to an art form in these exchanges) which can create a culture where families with students experiencing challenges feel like outliers.
A shift to a skills-based approach to family education can focus attention on the realities of raising children and adolescents, rather than on parents’ and guardians’ anxieties. That’s because this approach is based on a growth mindset, which sees students as constantly evolving and changing, rather than a fixed mindset which locks both children and their parents and guardians into “successful” or “unsuccessful” roles.
For example, take the discussions of resilience common in many schools and families. When an expert describes the qualities of a resilient adolescent, they’re contributing to the sense that some students are inherently resilient and others aren’t. When a presenter, instead, describes specific practices and approaches that build resilience in young people, there’s a way for every parent or guardian to implement the strategy, no matter where their student falls on the resilience spectrum. A skills-focused approach makes it clear that a singular standard against which parents and guardians can measure their children is, in fact, a fallacy.
A skills-based approach provides adults with actionable, real-world frameworks, which means that family education can make a difference in the lived experiences of families. When that instruction can be delivered by a person in your community, you help parents and guardians trust your experience and empathy. All learners acquire new information most effectively when they feel connected to their instructor, so bringing family education in-house provides the opportunity to take advantage of the trust your families feel in your teacher-leaders and counselors, making it more likely for parents and guardians to implement their learning.
Rethinking family education can shift the understanding of child-rearing as something that should be professionalized and optimized by experts, into an alternative framework that sees adults, adolescents, and children as part of a web of relationships and resources that can grow and respond to needs--a framework that all communities need to help young people thrive.
*Many schools still use the term “parent education” to describe programming for parents, guardians, and caregivers. At One Schoolhouse, we’ve chosen the term “family education” to acknowledge the wide range of family and care structures in school communities.
Want to more resources on supporting strong school-family partnerships? Association members, check out all of our parent-guardian resources in the Portal. Not a member? Learn more about the Association and join today!
Navigating interactions with worried or frustrated parents or guardians is a vital skill set for Academic Leaders. As school leaders, we understand that these conversations have two facets. On one hand, they're about the child and their needs. Yet, hidden beneath, there's the parents' personal journey—their beliefs about schooling, authority, and their role in their child's education. Recognizing these layers and practicing empathy can transform challenging conversations into collaborative opportunities. This approach not only eases communication but also minimizes conflicts, fostering a positive space where everyone's focus remains on the ultimate goal: the child's academic success.
Recognizing Protectiveness and Worry
A defensive stance is often a reflexive response when parents or guardians are worried about their child’s experience or emotions. Parents are their children's fiercest advocates. A protective stance can all too easily be misread as aggression or obstinance, immediately putting an Academic Leader on the defensive as well. In situations like these, it’s important to start with curiosity rather than challenge. Asking questions and listening to the parent or guardian’s point of view can give you better insight into their concerns for their child. This openness builds trust that can help bridge potential differences between you and the family, ultimately creating an environment where conversation is possible instead of conflict.
Navigating Perceptions of Authority
When parents and guardians talk with Academic Leaders, much in the conversation is shaped by the attitudes each participant brings to the room. Parents’ assumptions about school leadership is often shaped by their own experiences as students, at a time when leadership was all too often opaque. That contributes to an often-held view that Academic Leaders are powerful figures who wield influence over their child's education. This perception can color a family member’s interactions, unconsciously cuing an assertive or even confrontational posture. It's challenging to reconcile parents’ perceptions of school authority with Academic Leaders' true roles as stewards and facilitators. That's why building empathy is an important component of effective communication between families and school leadership.
Acknowledging External Factors
When faced with a parent or guardian's frustration, it might be easy to miss the broader picture. The conversation you have is being shaped by forces outside of your control, like challenges in the family's home, or at work. The source of a family member's exasperation may not lie within the school or its administration, but could instead be tied to other personal or professional pressures. You can open the door for that conversation by recognizing the challenging situation they're in, and inquiring about any other difficulties their student might be facing. This kind of approach is invaluable in creating a meaningful dialogue and fostering trust.
Empathy includes listening with compassion rather than simply hearing the words being said. It's about asking questions to help understand a parent's perspective while remaining solution-focused. Intentionally building connection and understanding helps parents see us not as opponents, but partners. When Academic Leaders approach challenging conversations with empathy, we not only foster a positive environment, but we strengthen our ultimate goal - every student's success.
As a part of our commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice, we’ll be recognizing observances and holidays that center the voices and experiences of historically excluded peoples in the United States. As an educational organization, we want to lift up the words of others who share our commitment to learning, and amplify Chicana/o/x, Latina/o/x, and Hispanic voices.
Here are some of our favorite resources for expanding curriculum, embracing the diversity of the Latinx community, and supporting students.
Something that never changed in my 20+ years of working with faculty towards the effective use of classroom technology was that the teacher always brought far more to the table in crafting the student learning experience than the technology ever did. Teachers’ skill sets adapted as technology entered and even occasionally transformed aspects of student learning; and then the adoption of learning technology exploded during the years of remote and hybrid learning. Teachers drew upon their wisdom, discernment, and expertise in forging connections with their students to craft curriculum and rethink pedagogy. The most successful uses of technology happened when academic leaders and faculty focused on a highly curated set of technology resources, “less is more” certainly applied.
I have the same sense that school is about to change again in watching the emergence of generative AI. Once again, I’m not sure about the time to full adoption, but I’m positive it’s going to be exponentially faster. Generative AI is a powerful tool that will become ubiquitous in the future lives and work of today’s students. Who will teach these students what they need to know to make generative AI a resource while still developing their intellectual capacity? It’ll be their teachers and parents, not the AI itself. When social media emerged to become part of the landscape, we (educators) let social media teach students about social media for far too long. We need to do a better job this time around.
Tom Rochon, Ph.D. President at ERB, wrote a compelling post about how writing instruction should evolve to leverage generative AI while still helping “teach students to write so they are able to formulate and communicate their thoughts.” It’s well worth a read for all educators, not just ELA faculty. Notably, nowhere in his post does Dr. Rochon posit the idea that educators will be less important in the future than they are now! What he addresses instead is a glimpse into the future of meaningful instruction. What’s essential is that students grow confident in their ability to think critically and deeply, traits that teachers typically assess via writing. Will students who aren’t taught to use generative AI critically succumb to feeling “my writing isn’t as good as AI generated text, so why bother?” It’s never been more important to explain the why of every lesson to students and emphasize the importance of cognitive skill development over producing a final product.
Along with the call for teaching students about generative AI, there are also tremendous implications for how AI can support the professional work of teachers. When generative AI can assist teachers and academic leaders more effectively accomplish various tasks like grading, personalized instruction, and administrative management, what does this recaptured time empower teachers to do more of? In other words, generative AI isn’t going to teach or replace teachers. Teachers are going to use generative AI to better support student learning. Let’s consider some areas in which teachers excel and how having access to AI might further empower them.
Human Connection and Emotional Intelligence
One of the most crucial roles of a teacher is to foster a connection with their students. Research suggests that the human connection between teachers and students is critical in promoting student motivation and engagement. Leading a classroom is not just about content expertise in a subject matter but teachers’ empathy, insights, and inspiration–and machines cannot match that. AI tools can help provide personalized learning for a student but only when directed to do so by a skilled and empathetic teacher. AI cannot discern emotions beyond a coded response, even a bot “trained” to be supportive will be limited when compared to a human teacher. When teachers leverage AI tools to fast-track their ability to provide personalized instruction in light of each student’s needs, that’s an empowered classroom.
Teaching well has never been a one-size-fits-all approach. Teachers are flexible in adapting their approach to their students' varying needs and learning styles, flexing their ability to read their students' emotions and respond accordingly with empathy and support. Unlike AI, teachers can observe their students' progress in real-time, seeing the smallest signals that a student needs support, noticing a furrowed brow long before that student has generated “output” for an AI tool to examine. Teachers are also aware of the outer world impacting students’ ability to learn–is it the night before the state semifinals? The day after a heart-breaking loss in double-overtime? Tech week for the musical performance? Teachers know and adjust their classrooms to these realities rapidly. AI simply cannot match the adaptability of a human teacher to the emotional and developmental needs of students.
Trust and Ethics
Teaching is far more than imparting knowledge and developing skills; it’s also helping students become responsible, ethical members of society. Teachers promote trust, honesty, and integrity in the classroom and serve as role models for students to emulate. Thoughtful teachers help students grow their metacognitive skills and develop a growth mindset; these teachers truly inspire students to be their best selves. Further, in specific relation to generative AI, teachers are essential in encouraging students to be critical consumers and thinkers about not just the results of their interactions with generative AI, but about the bias, inequity, and exploitation that might be a part of the tools they are using.
Yes, generative AI can be a valuable tool for teachers in supporting student learning, but it's important to remember that it cannot replace human teachers. Teacher intelligence is far more effective in fostering human connections, providing real-time adaptability, promoting critical thinking and creativity, emotional intelligence, trust, and ethics. It's crucial that we continue to invest in teacher development and provide all faculty with the resources and support they need to become better educators. In conclusion, Artificial Intelligence serves as a support for educators, yet at the end of the day, Teacher Intelligence is still the driving force behind effective and meaningful learning.
Join us this fall at the Association for Academic Leaders as we delve into the exciting world of generative AI and explore its impact on education!
Connect with peers from other member schools at our monthly meetups, designed for focused discussions. On September 20th, Sarah and Bob Weiman, Associate Head of School at St. Stephen's + St. Agnes School, will lead a conversation on the evolution of school policies around AI.
In October, we'll shift our focus to how generative AI is transforming professional practice in schools. Stay tuned for future topics to be announced each month. And don't forget, you can also opt for role-specific conversations with your peers within our cohorts.
For those looking to take a deeper dive into leading teams, divisions, or whole schools in working with generative AI, we're offering asynchronous one-week courses.
As we go down this road, I think that instead of crafting policies that assume a reactive and/or defensive posture to the emergence of this technology, and its ever growing use by our students, we should approach our policy-making from a“backwards design” framework.
What do we consider to be the qualities and skills that our “successful graduates” should possess? Perhaps we could frame our policy conversations about faculty and student use of these technologies from that vantage point. Otherwise, we will be forever chasing a moving target. With that said, though, any policy that we devise should have built-in review dates for potential revision because of the speed by which this technology and its uses are expanding.
School-wide policies will also need to also be reflected in each teacher's course syllabus, explicitly addressing the acceptable use of generative AI in their particular course. Without completely banning the use of generative AI, teachers should offer clarity on the do’s and don’ts. In order to deal with the “gray” areas, perhaps teachers only allow the use of generative AI by giving specific examples of acceptable use such as allowing students to use this technology in a “tutoring” capacity offering feedback on a draft of a paper, or allowing students to use this tool in brainstorming ideas for a group project. Students should also be given clear guidelines on how to cite their use of these platforms, as they learn to cite other sources.
In developing policies/procedures, I recognize that we must develop consistency across all constituencies and users of AI that preserve data privacy, consider the potential for bias, and ensure security of identifiable personal data. As this technology continues to grow at a rapid pace, so must our understanding of the power for this technology to enhance and/or harm student learning. Our policies should certainly reflect these concerns.
Generative AI is one of the most intriguing and rapidly advancing tools available to students and faculty today. It's essential that we create sensible guidelines, in order to ensure a positive learning environment for our students and faculty. It's critical to reflect on our mission and guiding documents when creating the policies dealing with the use of AI technology. I firmly believe that through thoughtful collaboration we will be able to create meaningful policies that center the well being and future needs of our students and educators.
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Brad Rathgeber (he/him/his)