Bringing Humanity to Our Relationships with Families

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December 7, 2021

We’ve all had at least one teacher that changed the trajectory of our educational experience. For me, that person was Mrs. Henderson. She was my second-grade teacher. Her magnanimous personality had a tremendous impact on my life and my perceptions of teaching. I was in awe of her in every way. She was always impeccably dressed and was unfailingly kind to every single student. She taught a computer club after school and showed me how to do a variety of things on the computer. I loved every moment in her class and was sad when it was time to transition to the next grade.

Third grade was a stressful year for my family. My Uncle Shane had been deployed to the Middle East as the Persian Gulf conflict was escalating at a rapid rate. Communication was scarce with him, but we knew he was at the center of all that was arising. In January of 1991, my mom and I stood in front of the television watching in horror at the announcement of the beginning of the war. It was the first time I remember feeling genuine fear at what I was watching and what it meant for our family and my Uncle Shane. As we watched the broadcast, the phone rang. My mom looked away from the TV and grabbed the receiver, both of us assuming it was another family member wanting to connect after watching the same report.

It was Mrs. Henderson.

She had known my uncle had been deployed and was calling to check on us to make sure we were OK. It was a profound moment for me. She knew the news of the war would be heartbreaking for us. By picking up the phone that snowy Michigan evening, she not only showed us at that moment she cared, but she taught me the most important lesson: that making an impact on a student went beyond the walls of the classroom.

That small moment of kindness set the foundation in how I envisioned building relationships and fostering partnerships with families. I wanted all the families I worked with to feel as seen and known as Mrs. Henderson had made my family feel.

What I began to understand over my first few years of teaching was that it was critical to be mindful and observant with families just as it was with their students in the classroom. Every family had unique needs and perceptions of what they wanted our relationship to be, and I needed to allow the relationship to develop by following their lead. You must learn about families first before you can establish the parameters of your partnership. Authenticity in your interactions allows relationships to develop naturally. Show you genuinely care by supporting them through a lens of empathy. The most challenging families will often be reluctant to connect – from uncertainty or past trauma. Patience is the key with these families as they need to establish trust and safety with you. Once you have established the relationship, creating a partnership of support for their students becomes exponentially easier.

Remote teaching shone a light on the importance of partnerships with families more than ever. Our communication, trust and understanding were essential in supporting their students' learning during that time. While I had always strived to know families deeply, it had never been more important or necessary to establish routines for success. I knew families' work schedules, the different homes in which some children resided, who to contact to drop off materials, and how to be gentle and understanding with families that were so overwhelmed by the entire process. I worked diligently to show them I saw them as humans, and that led to a level of trust and connection that allowed for an honest and genuine partnership.

There is no rule book about how to work with families. What I know about developing relationships will always fall back to that sad winter day all those years ago, when Mrs. Henderson showed her humanity by truly seeing ours. May we all embrace and show that level of empathy.

Thank you, Mrs. Henderson. I will be forever grateful for that invaluable lesson.

About Leah Porter: I am a third-grade teacher at Wilcox Elementary in Holt Public Schools. As an educator for over 15 years, I strive each day to help students develop into their most authentic selves. I value providing instruction that helps create leaders and competent, critical thinkers who will be strong voices and caring citizens in their community. As Michigan Teacher of the Year 2021-2022, I strive for all my work to be seen through the lens of equity and accessibility, and how to build educational systems for learners that will transform the trajectory of education across the state of Michigan and beyond.
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