The Bridge of Empathy: Connecting Schools to their Families and Community

Our humanity develops community partnerships, not our knowledge. By leading with empathy, school leaders can build bridges between their schools and communities that will result in more support for students and families who feel heard and connected.

Topics: Innovation

The Search Institute, through its “Profiles of Student Life: Attitudes and Behaviors” survey of almost 90,000 youth, has identified “40 positive supports and strengths that young people need to succeed.” And the findings are not surprising.

No matter the age group, family support is the No. 1 asset for child and adolescent development.

As educators, we are not shocked. We know the importance of parents and community engagement in our schools. What we don’t know, sometimes, is what to do about it. How to bridge the parent-teacher relationship gap and build trust between our schools and the communities we serve.

We’ve tried the tricks offered on our favorite Facebook groups and installed the initiatives provided at the recent conference. And we’re still stuck, at odds with parents, and struggling to bridge the gap between community partners and schools.

Building bridges can help.

The Curse of Knowledge

One of the greatest reasons educators struggle to connect with parents is because we have forgotten what it’s like to not be an educator. We spend countless hours in our schools, discussing policies and procedures and engaging in academic discussions. School and school life have become our norm. They’re our life.

We have the curse of knowledge. Our parents and community partners, however, do not. But that doesn’t mean they don’t come with a great deal of experience.

Education is the only profession where its clients have an almost 100 percent experience rate. Every parent we welcome has sat in a classroom and almost every community leader we encounter has a favorite (and least favorite) teacher. When they enter our buildings, they bring their stories, their history, and their foundations of understanding. They’ve experienced school, intimately, and because of that, they too have the curse of knowledge. The Dunning-Kruger kind—a type of cognitive bias in which people believe they are smarter and more capable than they are. But that doesn’t make it any less real.

As educators, understanding these two sides of the same divide is crucial to developing healthy community partnerships because it allows us to build bridges of understanding and connection rather than division. It encourages empathy.

Understanding Each Other

We’re not on opposite sides of the gap because we’re against each other; we’re on opposite sides of the gap because we don’t understand each other. Below are two simple examples of how this might look.

1. Understanding Busy

According to the National Center for Educational Statistics study “Parent Involvement in Children’s Education: Efforts by Public Elementary Schools,” over half of the schools reported that lack of time “created a barrier to parent involvement to a great or moderate extent.” Which isn’t surprising. What is surprising, though, is that 87 percent of schools also “perceived lack of time on the part of parents as a barrier to a great or moderate extent.”

This means when we struggle to connect with parents, instead of allowing frustration to fester or accusations to rise (“If only the parents cared more!”), we can focus on what we have in common—a busy life. Instead of combating, we’re connecting.

It’s simple, but it encourages a bridge instead of a wall.

We might not understand why parents and community leaders are too busy, and we don’t need to. We simply need to acknowledge that they are. And if we can focus on that, families and community members feel heard. They feel understood.

And when they feel understood, we gain trust.

2. Understanding Anger

Angry parents are difficult. They are also normal. Even though their accusations might feel outlandish, or their insults misplaced, their reaction to schools and teachers is understandable. And if we can lean into why our parents and community partners are angry, we can once again start building bridges of empathy.

More often than not, anger is the manifestation of fear. When a school calls a parent to talk about the struggles or failures of their child, although the parent might show anger, they are probably afraid of three things:

  1. Perception: that we think they are a bad parent;
  2. Reality: that they are being exposed as a bad parent; or
  3. Loss: that there truly is no hope for their child.

They know their child is struggling because they see it every day. And if the school is also seeing it and cannot find a solution, they wonder what hope is there. But there is always hope.

Having a school that empathizes with the fear and frustrations of parenting—of life—not only builds bridges of trust and understanding, but it also strengthens the community we serve by reminding us all that we are not alone. That we have hope. Hope in the process, in the future, and in those around us.

Anger is isolating. Empathy is inviting. Anger casts stones. Empathy builds bridges.

Community Matters

“Show them they are real, and you’ll have them for life,” Taffy Brodesser-Akner says in a recent and inspiring New York Times podcast about Taylor Swift (I know, she’s everywhere!). It’s true, and it’s why empathy matters.

More than analyzing test scores or creating behavior plans, writing comprehensive handbooks and iron-clad policies, and even more than rousing assemblies or weekly student awards, empathy matters because if we can build stronger, more empathetic relationships with our parents and surrounding community members, our students will have the support they need to be successful—in their homes, their schools, and their communities.

It is our humanity that will develop community partnerships, not our knowledge. Embrace the humanity of your parents and community, build bridges of empathy, and our children will succeed. As students, but also—and more importantly—as people.

Brian Miller is principal of North Middle School in Great Falls, Montana.