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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

After seven years in the classroom, I feel I'm in a position to offer some advice for how teachers can build and sustain positive relationships with parents -- as well as appropriately handle difficult circumstances. Following are eight tips that I've learned from experience.

1. Avoid Doing Battle

I always log and take notes on parent phone calls, a good practice in case you need to recall the details of a conversation (or if one took place). When parents get overly angry, emotional or offensive (which rarely happens), I end the conversation quickly but diplomatically: "I hear you’re upset, but I no longer feel comfortable speaking with you on the phone. We should meet face to face, but with an administrator also present." I then report to my department chair. Sometimes, five percent of parents will consume 95 percent of your time.

2. Keep E-Mail Timely and Brief

When I receive e-mail from parents, I reply the very same day. By not responding in a timely fashion, you make your school and yourself look lazy and unprofessional. If the e-mail is anything beyond a simple request, like reminding Johnny to meet for extra help after school, it's always wise to avoid a detailed exchange and request a face-to-face meeting instead. It's remarkably easy to misconstrue tone and meaning via e-mail, which heightens fears and emotions.

3. Post Assignments Online

I post at least four weeks' worth of lessons and assignments online, and they are easily accessible to students and parents alike. Few things hurt a teacher's reputation more than being perceived as unprepared and disorganized. Besides, parents should know what their child is studying, and students should have a clear idea of what they will be learning. On many occasions, this planning has also allowed me to meet with parents and students in advance about how to prepare for more challenging assignments. Moreover, when students miss days of school, neither they nor their parents need to e-mail me about missed work.

4. Involve Parents in Their Children’s Education

Great teachers welcome parent support and curiosity. I've lost track of how many wonderfully positive conversations I've had with parents about my curriculum or assignments. Those conversations morph into how impressed I am with something in particular that Johnny or Sally did or said, letting the parents see that I really know and care about their child. Sometimes, parents ask what they can do to help their child succeed -- and it's crucial that you lay out an approach involving their direct action. Enlist their help as another coach, not as a surrogate.

5. Prepare for a Successful Back-to-School Night

Early on, the best way to earn parent support is to run a successful back-to-school night -- which, in many cases, can be a lot of fun. When speaking to parents, I do my best to bring the same vigor and eagerness I bring to my students in the classroom. I love what I teach, and I make that known not only by what I say, but also by how I say it. I'm animated, talking excitedly about my classes. All the while, I'm careful not to monopolize the short time we have together. I want to hear from the parents. I want to learn their hopes and fears for their student, and how I can support them in our collective mission to help all kids meet their greatest potential.

6. Call Home to Report Good News

Parents rarely receive a positive call home. Twice a semester, I make a point to call and tell them how impressed I am with something their student did or said. It surprises me when parents nervously answer the phone, as if a student did something wrong. They are all the more relieved and proud when I have just good news to report. These calls let parents know that I care as much about recognizing success and improvement as I do about spotting struggle and weakness. These calls also reassure parents that I'm not out to make life more difficult for their child, that I'm fair in my assessments and feedback, and that I genuinely want to see students succeed.

7. Look Professional

Nothing spells "unprofessional" more than a messy-looking teacher, especially when meeting with parents. Since you never know when you might run into a parent, it's a good idea to come to school looking neat and professional. I know some teachers who never come to work without wearing a tie, arguing that a visitor should never have any doubt as to who's in charge. I'm not sold that wearing a tie is essential to accomplishing this task, but it can't hurt -- and it’s an even wiser move for younger teachers, also looking to earn authority in the classroom.

8. Participate in After-School Activities

This could be anything from coaching to attending as a spectator. I coach varsity cross-country, and beyond adoring my engagement with students in a non-academic setting -- which has a host of benefits unto itself -- I enjoy interacting with parents on a daily basis. We speak not only about how their child is doing athletically, but emotionally and academically as well. I can't express how often this rapport has helped me realize how to communicate more effectively with teens, both on the field and inside the classroom.

How should teachers effectively communicate with parents, and involve them in their child's education? Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments section below.

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Mary M's picture

On #1. When someone is feeling uncomfortable, they deserve to be heard as to why they are feeling uncomfortable, are they not? And more often than not, it is the parent and the child because somewhere a long the line, there was a misunderstanding between the child and the teacher or a another child but something that has happened within school, and so the parent is there to express concern, dissapointment and essentially to advocate. If something hurts a child, it hurts the caring parent as well. If a parent needs to talk at that moment, grant them the time sooner than later as this offers a sense of resolution and peace of mind. If not a solution immediately, at least listen, take notes proactively in that moment, and do not avoid a parent's dis-ease by brushing them off to a later time with the impressions that a "bodyguard" or a "witness" in defense of the school is needed to be around, because it sends the wrong message of fear and distrust and increases the tension and fosters resentment, which destroys human connections. "Love and suspicion cannot dwell in the same house."

On # 7. I would rather a simple, modest, even silly and messy looking teacher who has taken more time to tend to more important things than their vanity, this doesn't mean not tending to their health and well-being but rather than a teacher who is dressed to the nines, many in stilletos and mini-skirts and are so uncomfortable themselves, they cannot be outwardly mindful enough to convey a comfortable reception to their students...or their parents...What impresses and who are they trying to impress? And why? And in what way? What good is material organization and the illusion of togethernesss when at heart, there is an emotional disconnect? Be careless in your dress if you will, but keep a tidy spirit." said Mark Twain. ...Outer creativity is often messy,

And where emails are concerned, welcome any form of communication that will get the lines open for the best interest of the children. I was asked once to no longer leave notes in my child's agenda about his feelings or my concerns, I was also asked to stop emailing the principal and teacher and my phone calls were not answered and if the were returned it was to worry me more in an authoritative way or to reject my offer of participation in my child's school whether it be to help clean the playground or to simply walk him to class hand-in-hand because he asked me to...I was not allowed to "be in the hallways." I never was mean to any of them, my intentions were never to sever respect, nor to blame anyone. I simply believed my child, believed in him and was noticing him change, and not in a positive way since he began to go to school there and after kindergarten. ...Bad things in life happen but school shouldn't make it eel worse to live it!

It made me feel sad, not angry. And it made my son feel like an outcast because they rejected me where he needed me and he had to struggle with being loyal to himself and his love for his mother or join in on feeling the embarassment that the administration stirred up about me among his inner school "community." It was either I am there to facilitate his experience as a very young child, or he be forced and restrained by staff instead. Which one would anyone choose for their child?

Once people feel genuinely accepted and not judged on their appearance or social status or even their level of education, their existential experience is valuable and they deserve to be heard and understood. As parents, we are expected to welcome crticism and assessment and communication but we are much too often forbidden to give it back where it's due.

Bullying is unfortunately often hidden in bureacracy and they don't even realize it until it tears a little life apart and they offer psychiatric help to put it back together.

Well, the bright side is, thanks for listening here and for allowing me the space to convey my experience in hopes that it will help make things better for someone else and not to accuse anyone. Simply to learn from each other for goodness sake.

William Blake asks:
"Can I see another's woe, and not be in sorrow too?
Can I see another's grief, and not seek for kind relief?
Can I see a falling tear, and not feel my sorrow's share?
Can a father see his child
Weep, nor be with sorrow filled?
Can a mother sit and hear
An infant groan, an infant fear?
No, no! never can it be!
Never, never can it be!"

: )

Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Online Community Manager

Hello Mary, welcome to the Edutopia community and thank you for sharing your experiences with parent/school communications. We value having parent voices on the site.

Gwen Pescatore's picture
Gwen Pescatore
President Home & School Assoc, #ParentCamp Organizer, Co-Moderator #PTchat

Love this post. It really is the simple things that work. I've been at the same elementary school for 7 years, so for there I think I have become comfortable in how they all do things. But this year, I became a middle school parent, and I can tell you what has made the biggest impact on me as a parent.

The principal doesn't just sit in on monthly PTO meetings. He listens, answers questions and responds to/addresses the concerns before the next meeting. (Values parents)

The 3rd day of school, parents were invited to sit in on a class...and the history class I was in, the teacher knew most everyone's names (Cares about my child)

But what I've come to appreciate the most is the simple emails from my son's Latin teacher giving parents the heads up about tests & projects...and replying to our emails in a timely manner. I think most feel MS is when they need to step back & let their children be on their own....but it's just the opposite. They need family support more than ever. Her emails allow me to ask questions beyond the fluff "what did you learn". It is my MS version of the tweets from the ES classroom teachers.

At our ES, students and parents are always excited to see the staff outside of the classroom....and professional dress really needs to be enforced in school much in the same way it is in an office setting. Save the minis, leggin's & stilettos for after 4pm.

Kate's picture

Thank you for this post full of helpful and practical suggestions. As a pre-service teacher, one of my greatest concerns is creating positive relationships with the parents of my students. As with most things, communication is key; most schools have done a great job of adopting technology that helps teachers stay in touch. Posting assignments and grades through online databases gives 24/7 access to students and parents. Correspondence via email is critical, but as you describe, the power of face time and visibility in the school community goes a long way as well. I imagine that reaching out proactively to share positive feedback with a parent is an excellent way to begin a school year!

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