The Whiteboard

Abby's Story: The Value of Trust in Parent-Teacher Partnerships

Abby’s fourth grade school year was off to a great start. She was making friends at her new school, loved her teacher, and was getting a handle on math, which had traditionally been her most difficult subject. At her previous school, Abby had been sent to the resource room in a self-contained classroom for math because her skills were below grade level. This lowered Abby’s self-confidence since she was not able to be with her friends and her performance gap in math was ever-widening. Abby’s parents, already worried about the transition to a new school, were thankful Abby was not experiencing the same stigma she had experienced in her previous school. 

Knowing they were going to be moving across the country that summer, Abby’s parents made a conscious decision to revoke services from her Individualized Education Plan (IEP) before the previous school year ended. With her dad’s new job starting in July and a big change on the horizon, Abby’s parents wanted to see how Abby would do in the general education classroom without these services. So, they enrolled Abby in her new school without disclosing her previous services based on her IEP.  

As time went on in fourth grade, Abby’s teacher, Mrs. Fields, started to build a great relationship with Abby and her family. She would even come to Abby’s soccer games on Saturday mornings to show her support. But then, fall parent-teacher conferences arrived…

Broken Trust

Mrs. Fields, a veteran teacher, could see early in the year that Abby struggled in math. She knew that eventually she would need to bring up Abby’s math difficulties with her parents. Based on Mrs. Fields' benchmark assessment in the fall, Abby was performing at the end of the second-grade level as a fourth-grade student. During the conference, Mrs. Fields brought up the interventions she had been using in math up until that point but went on to share that she was running out of ideas to support Abby. Her parents hesitated but still did not divulge that Abby had an IEP in math at her previous school. 

As is typical with many transfer students’ cumulative files, Abby’s file did not arrive at her new school until a week after the fall parent-teacher conferences. When the cumulative file finally reached Mrs. Fields' desk for her review and signature, her heart sank. She discovered that Abby had been receiving special education services in math since the first grade. 

Mrs. Fields felt angry and betrayed. She had poured out so much time and effort over the first few months to build a relationship with Abby and her family. The trust they had built over the past few months was now broken. 

Moving forward, Mrs. Fields had to figure out how to get Abby the help she needed while also repairing the relationship with Abby’s parents. But first, she had to decide if she even wanted to repair the relationship…

She needed some guidance and sought out the school social worker for some advice.

What is Trust?

The next day, Mrs. Fields went to talk with Mrs. Davis, a long-time friend and colleague. She began to retell the story of Abby and her parents’ decision to withhold information about Abby’s IEP. Mrs. Fields felt a range of emotions but ultimately wanted to do what was best for Abby moving forward. 

After hearing Mrs. Field’s recount of the story, Mrs. Davis asked her, “What does trust mean to you?” 

Mrs. Fields, taken aback by the question, responded, “For me, it means doing what you say you are going to do and not hiding things from one another.” 

Mrs. Davis thought for a minute and then said, “Let’s look at all the aspects that could be a part of a trusting relationship before we begin the path to reconciliation.” 

Mrs. Davis turned to the whiteboard in her office and picked up her marker. As she started to write, she said, “Let’s go over this list of ways that trust can be seen in a relationship and name the aspects that you feel have been violated.” 

Traits of a Trusting Relationship

  • You feel committed to the relationship 
  • You know the other person listens when you communicate your needs and feelings
  • You are honest and open with the other person
  • You demonstrate mutual respect
  • You support each other

After Mrs. Davis wrote the above traits on the board, Mrs. Fields realized that not all aspects of the relationship were fractured. However, she felt that two traits had been violated: Abby’s parents were not honest and open and they were not supportive. Mrs. Fields knew there was hope for the relationship, but she still had a lot of questions. 

“Thanks for listening to me, but I am still struggling with how to move forward. How do we move on from here? How do I explain to Abby’s family that she needs more support than I can offer her currently? Do I tell them how I have been feeling about the whole situation?”

“I think all of those are valid questions that will help us walk along the path to reconciliation,” replied Mrs. Davis. 

“What are the steps needed to repair this relationship?” asked Mrs. Fields. 

Mrs. Davis picked up her blue marker and wrote the following on the whiteboard next to the traits of a trusting relationship:

The Path to Reconciliation

  • Consider the other’s point of view
  • Apologize if necessary (be specific)
  • Practice forgiveness 
  • Re-establish lines of communication
  • Let the needs of the partnership guide the relationship
  • Allow for time to heal

Mrs. Davis capped her marker and pointed to the first step, “The first step is considering Abby’s parents’ point of view. Why do you think they withheld this information from you and the school? Parents want the most help for their children, but at what cost? When you talk to the parents, try to have an open mind and walk through this situation in their shoes as you learn about Abby’s past experiences with special education.”

Ready for Healing

Mrs. Fields agreed that there must be some reason that Abby’s parents did not want to disclose Abby’s IEP information. As she thought about the other steps along the path to reconciliation, the verse from Proverbs 17:9 came to mind, “Love prospers when a fault is forgiven, but dwelling on it separates close friends”(NLT). 

Mrs. Fields knew that to move forward, she would need to talk through this situation with Abby’s parents, identify how she had been hurt, forgive, rebuild the relationship through open communication, and allow time for healing. 

Mrs. Fields thanked Mrs. Davis for meeting with her and was ready to move forward with a plan for reconciliation.

Moving Forward Together

During the meeting with Abby’s parents, Mrs. Fields shared how she discovered that Abby had received services at her prior school.  Abby’s parents wept as they told the story of Abby’s struggles starting in kindergarten and the toll it had taken on her up until now. They thought that by not saying anything, they were giving her a fresh start in a new school. 

Mrs. Fields, with the parents’ perspective in mind, proposed a plan that included reevaluation, a meeting with the IEP team, and push-in math supports for Abby. 

After some time and some positive progress for Abby in math, the relationship between Mrs. Fields and Abby’s parents grew even stronger than before. They all agreed that the meeting was a significant part of Abby’s success this school year. 

Is it Worth It?

Although it was uncomfortable at the time, Mrs. Fields was glad that she made the time and effort to see the issue from multiple perspectives. Going to see Mrs. Davis made all the difference, and this experience equipped Mrs. Fields to handle these issues not only with parents but with colleagues and her own family as well. In addition, this powerful learning experience made a significant impact on Abby’s life. 

Even though it requires a lot of extra effort and personal growth at times, working to establish and maintain trust with students and families is always worth it.

Tyler Harms, a teacher consultant at All Belong Center for Inclusive Education, has taught special education in public school classrooms for over 12 years. He is a dedicated advocate for teachers, students, and their families.

Check out Tyler’s blog, book, weekly newsletter, and other resources at


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