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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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