“Return phone calls the day you get them” was Bob’s advice to me in 1988 after he hired me to join his law firm’s startup education practice. Forty-eight hours — even 24 hours — is too long. Do you like waiting for your doctor’s call — the next day or day after — as your anxiety rises?
Return calls (emails, too) even if just to say you’ll be in touch later, or if you have bad news or no news yet. It tells people that you care and they matter. Bob’s advice helped me build trust with clients, colleagues and adversaries throughout my career. After more than 60 years in public education — as a teacher, hearing officer, school attorney, author, speaker, parent and grandparent — I know that trust is often the missing piece in our quest for excellence.
Of course, building trust requires more than just a prompt response to calls and emails. But that simple act is a powerful signal to recipients that their concerns have been heard and someone cares about them.
What is trust? It’s a firm belief that you can rely on the strength, ability, honesty and truthfulness of someone or something. It gives you confidence in that reliance. Distrust is the lack of belief or confidence, suspicion. I believe that a trusting relationship between school and home is basic for excellent outcomes, which is what we want. Schools need trust everywhere — at the front office, in the lunchroom, during special education IEP or 504 team meetings, in the classroom, with students, parents, administrators and colleagues.
In the special education arena, for example, building trust can be an uphill quest, as the law was set up as an adversarial private enforcement system — about rights and procedures without a mention of trust at all. Under the system, parents — the enforcers — have to “advocate” for their children against the very schools and teachers who educate them. The system often damages relationships between school and home. Many teachers leave the field, often because of the onerous bureaucratic requirements and stress: the paperwork, the meetings, the accountability. After completing their bureaucratic duties, special education teachers have just 27% of their available time left to teach.
Today, distrust is rampant — in government, media, public health policies, products, and, unfortunately, schools. The U.S. is the only established democracy with declining “social trust,” the belief that most people can be trusted to abide by established norms. Ours used to be 50%; now it’s less than a third.
Despite that, trust — or the lack of trust — are easy to spot. You know it when you see it. For example, walk into a meeting to develop an IEP (individualized education program) for a child with a disability, and you can feel — immediately — if trust or distrust palpably hovers over the meeting: Do educators start the agenda without any smile, greeting or small talk? In a few seconds, do school personnel launch into legalese or education jargon with acronyms — FAPE, IEP, IFSP, LEA, LRE — trust killers that disempower many parents?
Distrust is often the stimulus for complex and lengthy IEPs, with every item meticulously negotiated. Parents may believe that if everything is nailed down, their child will succeed more, but often these legal documents, with their plethora of jargon, acronyms and vagueness, overwhelm parents and teachers alike and create confusion.
In short, IEPs may be the recipe for more distrust and possibly, litigation — or the threat of litigation — down the line, certainly far removed from building trust and vital time-on-task in classrooms. Sad and unnecessary.
What to do? I believe that focusing on building trust instead can help to ease the situation for parents and schools. Building trust through small steps can go a long way because trust is created (or lost) at the personal level. Consider these three steps:
Do what you say you’ll do. Make that call today! Provide the service. Be on time. Keep your word. Be predictable. Be reliable.
Build relationships. Show parents that you care and have their backs. Keep them in the loop. Treat parents like partners: Share the good, the bad and the in-between. Be honest. I’ve never forgotten the mother of a middle schooler at an IEP meeting where the teachers highlighted their concerns about her son’s lack of basic reading and math skills. Shocked, the mother said, “But I don’t understand, he was getting all As and Bs in elementary school!” Alas, in violation of the law, she had not received the information she needed to be able to participate in the development of her son’s IEPs. Avoid the “honesty gap” between information parents receive and how students are actually doing. Under-promise and over-deliver.
Since most parents like their children’s teachers and schools, work off that, so parents know you have their child’s interest at heart.
Words matter. Speak plain English. Avoid jargon and acronyms, which disempower those not in the know. Avoid ambiguous doublespeak that may confuse and deceive. For example, while parents and schools are partners in educating the child, avoid telling parents that they are equal partners. In reality, parents provide input and school professionals provide expertise. Avoid telling parents, “We want what’s best for your child,” when the law provides what’s “appropriate.” Be honest with parents and students. Work to delight them.
Besides a ready smile and friendliness, small steps are doable and can often have a big impact.
Maya Angelou reminds us, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Let’s feel the trust.
Here’s the question: What new small step will you take?
Miriam Kurtzig Freedman, a former teacher, is a lawyer and author of “Special Education 2.0 — Breaking Taboos to Build a NEW Education Law,” (School Law Pro, 2017).
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