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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Beyond Back to School Night: Parents and Teachers as Allies

It was the day before my first parent back to school night as a new teacher. My department chair, a superb mentor, took me aside and said, "You're going to get advice from other teachers to give parents as little time to ask questions as possible. Ignore that advice. Give them time; be responsive. They are potentially your best allies." Not only did I follow his advice, but I also embraced the whole idea of developing close positive relationships with parents. Some of my fondest memories as a teacher are of these relationships.

On more than one occasion, when I used some approach that raised the eyebrows of my conservative principal, it was parent support that helped enable me to experiment. On the parental side, they felt comfortable about contacting me whenever they had a concern about their child.

I think parents and teachers should be allies. They both care about the kids. The fact that there are sometimes differences of opinion regarding what’s best for a child is pretty natural. After all, there are frequently differences of opinion between two parents regarding the best parental approaches. But I want to focus first on what both teachers and parents can do to strengthen their relationships and be mutually supportive.

Suggestions for Teachers

Here are a few of the things I learned along the way as a high school teacher.

1. Reach Out

Make occasional calls to individual parents to tell them about something their child did in class that day -- something that was impressive. A call from a teacher is usually associated with a problem the child is having at school. Change the frame that parents associate with teacher calls. Imagine for a moment how the parent will experience that call. Of course, as a high school teacher with as many as 150 students to deal with every day, one will hardly have time to do that frequently, let alone for every student. But even occasional calls will have an impact.

2. A Family Affair

Try to come up with homework assignments (if you must assign homework!) that include parents, not as tutors, but as equal participants. In a social studies class, have students interview parents or grandparents about their experiences related to the topic. The Vietnam War, labor unions, protest marches and past elections come to mind. Make it part of an oral history project. As a biology student in high school, I did a project on the relationship between genetics and the taste of certain foods. It included my parents, sister, grandparents and other members of my extended biological family. Every subject area contains possibilities for shared student-parent interaction.

3. Make Everyone Proud

Create student projects that will culminate in a show for parents. I know a number of art teachers who work with students, parents and the local library to stage exhibits of student work. The students themselves often coordinate this.

It is a normal part of the process of Envision Schools, a non-profit system of public charter schools based in the San Francisco Bay Area, to have student projects at each of their schools that culminate in a night of student presentations to parents.

Daryll Sevilla was a teacher in Oakland, California who worked with his elementary school kids making movies. This project always concluded with a premiere showing of the films for the students' friends and families. Daryll reported that parents and grandparents would show up in droves. Most of these parents never came to back to school night.

This gap between parent attendance at events in which their children are presenting and parent attendance at back to school nights shouldn't be surprising, particularly in communities where the kids may be the first from their families who are slated to complete high school. Many parents for whom school was a difficult experience have a very negative association with school, and going back to school holds little attraction. That reluctance is also magnified if they think it's going to be a time when they hear about problems with their child. This is far less likely to be the case if other activities have altered that experience with the teacher and the school.

Suggestions for Parents

Now here are a few tips for parents on how you can build closer and supportive relationships with teachers.

1. Show Some Love

In the old days it was "an apple for the teacher." Today's Apples are too expensive and most teachers already have computers! But seriously, we might take some tips from the old parent-teacher relationship in small-town America, where parents sent a pie or an apple to the teacher as a token of appreciation. At the Marin School of Arts and Technology a few years ago, some parents came in one day each week with cake and other foods for snacking, shared across the morning in the teacher lounge.

2. Do Some Research

While there are lots of books on the subject of parent-teacher relationships, most are textbooks or are solely focused on early elementary school kids. The best single source I know is the Harvard Family Research Project. The website is also a great starting point for additional resources, including both articles and books. Another good source is the Educators' and Parents' Relationships section on Education.com.

There is a common occurrence for both parents and teachers that crystallizes the importance of their developing a bond of trust and good communication. I frequently had this dialogue while speaking with a student's parent and telling him or her how great the student was in my class. "Are you sure we're talking about the same person?! At home he never . . . " or "He always . . . " or "He's exactly the opposite . . . " Of course the reverse would happen, too; some student who was a continual challenge in class was never a problem at home.

Parent and teacher, each experiencing the student in a different context and in a different relationship, can help each other to develop a fuller picture of that student. And of course the winner is the student.

Postscript: There are times when a parent encounters a teacher who does not appear to have the best interests of the student in mind and/or when a teacher perceives a parent as being less than constructive and cooperative. Stay tuned for my next column on resolving parent-teacher conflicts!

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