The parents you interact with throughout the year can either be the biggest asset to your classroom, or one of the biggest challenges.
Sometimes, instructors feel as if they’re screaming into a void when sending notifications about student performance, and other times they feel as if the parents are questioning their every move.
Facilitating a positive relationship with your students’ parents is key for a healthy learning environment, and that starts with communication. Here are some tips to develop thoughtful and engaged communication with your students’ parents.
Parent-Teacher Communication is Changing
The parent-teacher relationship has changed over the past few years and continues to do so. It has become easier for teachers to communicate with parents and bring them into the classroom. Email, communication apps and social media have opened the floodgates for more engagement, which many parents and educators are embracing.
In an article for FutureSchool, Steve O’Hara explains that today’s parents are more involved in the classroom experience than past generations, and schools welcome this trend. After all, parental involvement leads to more volunteers in the schools and more input for managing school operations. Smart schools are becoming more responsive to students’ needs with the help of parent input.
Historically, the responsibility to engage parents typically fell on the teacher, but more and more it’s becoming the parents’ duty to be involved in their child’s school career.
“While teachers are experts in teaching, you’re the expert on your child,” Hamish Dunham writes to parents at Mathletics. “You know what stimulates, bores and interests them, what they’re good at and what they struggle with. You know your child’s learning style and you also know if there are any other issues going on that might be affecting their learning at school.”
Though some teachers might actually have psychic powers, it’s almost impossible to understand what’s going on in their students’ lives outside of the classroom without talking to the parents.
Remove Emotions and Stress from the Relationship
Unfortunately, parent communication can become highly emotional, and increasing the amount of communication with parents can seem like a teacher’s worst nightmare at first.
Jennifer Rosser at EdNC admits that she was scared of parents when she first started teaching. She has a harrowing story of one parent refusing to shake her hand, claiming he knew better for his child, and refusing to let her even get a word out. This completely shut her communication down for years.
“Each year, I realized more and more how detrimental my fear of parental engagement was to my students’ success and ultimately my success as a well-rounded teacher,” Rosser writes.
She slowly started increasing communication through weekly emails, phone reminder apps, and more parent-teacher conferences. She also encouraged parents to become part of the classroom, not just to drop their kids off in it. Not only did this make parents better informed, but it turned enemies into allies.
No parent wants to hear that their child is struggling. This triggers a fear that they somehow failed as a parent — and they might turn around and blame the teacher as a defense mechanism. To ease the tension of parent communication, the team at Brain Balance Centers recommends focusing on the facts during these meetings.
Instead of using emotional jargon or trying to find someone to blame for a student’s shortcomings, focus on where the student is currently, where he or she needs to go, and the steps that both parties can take to achieve these goals. This will prevent communication from getting heated and focus on proactive solutions.
For an effective relationship to form, parents need to feel as if they’re not failing to raise their children, and teachers need to feel they’re being listened to.
Eliminating Bias in Parent Communication
One of the hardest parts of the teaching profession is avoiding bias. It’s hard not to have favorite students or treat certain students differently, but this can actually be damaging to their long-term performance.
In an article at The Atlantic, Melinda D. Anderson highlights research that found the level of teacher outreach to parents depended on the student’s race, ethnicity, and immigrant status.
- A third of math teachers contacted parents of black or Latino students when they were disruptive in the classroom which was 10 percentage points higher than when white students misbehaved.
- Conversely, only five percent of math teachers contacted parents of Asian students when they misbehaved in the classroom or failed to submit their homework — significantly lower than that of white students.
This information highlights racial bias in the classroom. Some students are given harsher punishment than others for similar problems (like failing to turn in homework), while other problems are ignored because of a student’s race. In all cases parents should be contacted, but preconceived stereotypes end up determining who actually is.
When you start meeting with parents, treat all of your students equally and try to recognize any biases you might have going into any meetings. In an article at the Guardian, Nicole Ponsford encourages teachers to draw their own conclusions in any student’s situation, despite what parents and even your peers tell you.
“If you don’t make up your mind you risk letting someone else’s opinion shape your view, which could set the relationship off on the wrong foot,” she writes. Just hearing that a student has difficult parents can create a bad relationship if teacher opinions aren’t tempered.
This ties into the previous section about trying to remove emotions from your communication. If you approach parents with facts and solutions, you will reduce both the bias and the stress that comes with talking to parents.
Take Steps for Better Communication
In order to establish a strong, positive relationship with parents early on in the school year, there are a few steps teachers can take. Most of these steps rely on the teacher evaluating what works and making changes based on parent response.
Set Expectations Early On
One of the first steps in the year is to set expectations. Both parents and teachers have certain expectations for communication, Linda Sahagun writes at Reading Horizons. However, problems arise when these expectations aren’t met. It’s crucial to communicate early on what you expect from parents and what parents should expect from you as their child’s teacher. This will prevent dissonance down the line when both parties might feel the need to point fingers over a student’s academic difficulties.
One way you can set expectations (and evaluate parent response) is by assigning homework to parents early on. Ginny Osewalt, the mind behind Understood.org, which provides resources for parents of children with learning issues, recommends parents create an “All About My Kid” letter. This lets the teacher see the student from the parent’s point of view and gain insights into the child’s interests, strengths and needs.
Pass Your Strategies on to the Parents
Do the parents in your class know how you handle conflict or address problems? By “sharing your secrets,” you’re able to create consistency for children when they’re at home or at school.
Michelle Maltais at the LA Times recently sent her 4-year-old son to kindergarten, and learned from the teacher that he was just as defiant in the classroom as he was at home. She worked with the teacher to implement the same words and actions at home that her son follows in school.
“When we began to implement the same approach at home, it was like a miracle,” she writes. “Mornings shifted from stressful screaming matches to a pleasant routine easing him into the school day.”
Instead of having two different relationships with parents and teachers, the students interact with authority figures the same way. This keeps parents and teachers from experiencing Jekyll-and-Hyde students who might be angels at home but terrors in the classroom (or vice versa).
Keep Up Communication in the Middle School Years
Parent-teacher communication shouldn’t be limited to elementary school students, either. Becca at Science Rocks has taught science at the middle and high school level for the past nine years, and she understands that secondary teachers have five times as many students as elementary instructors — and five times as many parents to work with.
Still, she recommends putting parent checks in notebooks even for middle schoolers. It gives parents a window into what their children are learning and can serve as a conversation starter between student and parent.
Understand How Parents Check on Their Children
Newsletters or emails could be falling on deaf ears if parent prefer other sources of information.
Crystal at Colorado Springs Moms Blog expressed her frustration with her child’s teacher recently for “grade dumping,” or inputting several weeks’ (and even months) worth of grades into their reporting system all at once. She had been relying on her child to communicate because the teacher wasn’t updating the system and was dismayed to find that there were multiple missing assignments and failing quiz grades.
Not only did this overwhelm parents, but it meant the teacher essentially had to conduct an entire review of the student’s performance with those parent. Had the teacher been adding grades as they were available, parents could have taken action regarding their children’s behavior early on.
Take time to understand how parents want to be reached and what they want to see. It will save you lots of time and energy later.
Engaging Parents Who Won’t Communicate
More school districts than ever are making increased parent-teacher communication a requirement. From midterm grades to regular newsletters, teachers are communicating left and right. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean parents are responding. There are a few ways to troubleshoot parent communication when teachers receive radio silence.
Make Sure They’re Actually Reading Your Messages
Meghan Mathis at TeachHub writes that some parents still seem completely clueless about their child’s performance, even when they receive weekly emails.
“When I called at the midpoint of the marking period to discuss their child’s failing grade, his mother responded as if it was the first time she had ever heard that he was struggling,” Mathis writes. “It put me in the position of having to remind her of all the communication we had done about his work and left me feeling very attacked and defensive.”
Evaluate What You’re Sending Home
In a letter to Classroom Tested Resources, one “Teacher Mom” explained that her views on classroom communication changed dramatically once she had kids of her own in school. She thought she had all the bases covered communication-wise and regularly sent home information, but she quickly realized that she needed to evaluate what she was communicating to parents, not just the how or how often.
“Communication is more than the words we say to parents, but also what they hear and understand as a result,” she writes.
Identify Why They Won’t Engage
If you struggle to connect with certain parents or face reluctance when you try to engage them, it’s important to evaluate why you’re getting this pushback. In the same way that people lash out in anger or when they’re scared or confused, you could be facing a parent who’s unsure about his or her role.
For example, Meghan Vestal created a guide for teachers to communicate with parents on the blog Virginia is for Teachers. She found that some parents don’t understand the math or language homework their child was assigned or didn’t feel comfortable teaching it. So, she started creating “parent study guides” so they could have a refresher on the material and better help their kids learn.
Find New Ways to Reach Them
If you’re struggling to get a parent to communicate, consider changing up how you contact them. If they’re ignoring your weekly emails, consider switching to push notifications through an app or scheduling monthly or weekly review calls.
Megan Ruesink at Rasmussen College School of Education also found that in-person and phone communication dissolves a lot of tension that comes from online communication and allows for more context.
While these calls may seem time-consuming at first, if you break them up across five week days they should become less burdensome.
Parents and teachers are supposed to be allies, working together to prepare children for bright futures. By breaking down communication barriers, you and the parents you work with can come up with the perfect strategies to set students up for success.