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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.

Comments (24)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Corinn's picture
4th Grade Reading/Language Arts & Social Studies Teacher

I also believe that it is important to humble yourself when talking to parents. As much as we would hate to admit it, there are times when we have made a mistake. Just today, a parent expressed her disappointment in the fact that she felt I waited too long to call her about her students missing grades. Honestly, I had waited too long. Time slipped away. Her rude and accusatory tone made me want to go on the defensive side. I wanted to tell her that it was also her responsibility to check the online grade book, or call me after her daughter told her "No homework!" for a week straight. However, I knew this response would not be appropriate and apologized, admitted I was wrong and shared ways we both could get back on the horse.

After our conversation, my parent seemed extremely pleased, and sounding actually surprised that I apologized!

Ranesha's picture

I think this is great!!! I've been teaching for nine years and having these tips are always great. Dealing with parents can be tricky and takes skill to accomplish the best methods. Starting off on the right track will take you a long way. I especially like how you said to involve parents in education and call when you also have something positive to say. I have found that this builds a fantastic rapport and parents are willing to work with you during the year!

Jessica's picture

I enjoyed reading your post. I am currently working for a Head Start program and #4 Involving parents in their child's education is something that I am constantly working on. I meet with my parents once every 2/3 months and discuss their child's development and individual goals. I also provide activities that the parent can do at home with their child in order to help them achieve the goals that have been written. This also bridges the gap between school and home. It makes the parents an active part of their child's learning. Each month we write a newsletter to the parents letting them know what we did that month and we write daily sheets to the parents letting them know what we worked on that day. Because I see my parents on a daily basis I do not often make phone calls home but I do try and share something that their child accomplished or enjoyed working on that day (at pick up). For some of my older students I try and encourage them to tell their parents something exciting about the day. I believe having an open and positive relationship with parents is very important to each child's success.

Jodi S's picture
Jodi S
Preschool Director

I am always looking for ways to involve my parents in our school, so thank you for your post. I have found myself engaged in the "battle" conversation, a mistake I will not make again and I reply to email on the same day. I do not call with the good news however. I tend to make the sick calls and "heads up" calls. This is something I will try with new families and add to my list for current ones. Thanks for the idea!

Charity Wells's picture
Charity Wells
Kindergarten Teacher from Atlanta, GA

This was a really great read! I have implemented some of your ideas even at the kindergarten level. I believe that through proactive communication with parents, a partnership of trust and openess is created. Each week I send a newsletter home that contains important info, class reminders, and an open invitation to schedule a phone or face to face conference. My parents know that I will always keep it updated, so they know where to check for pertinent information. I also loved #8! I have the privledge of being the athletic director and a head coach at the middle school level in my K-8 school. When I'm not Ms. Wells, I'm Coach Wells. It has helped me foster relationships with parents at all grade levels.

Meagan Heintschel's picture

Hi I am a pre-service teacher at Prairie View A&M University. I read your blog and love your ideas on how to get parents involved. From a pre-service teachers perspective it is very helpful to get tips like this because I feel that it is very important for parents to be involved in a child's education. What do you do if you have a parent that wont email back, return phone calls, does not come to open house or any other school function but for the child you need their parents involvement? How do you get them to become interested in what it is your trying to share with them about their child?

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal

Hi Morgan! I'm curious- are you having trouble getting the conversation started because you can't find a way to get the parent to engage or are you having trouble because it's a wicked tough topic to discuss? I'm not the author, but as a mom I know the most effective ways schools have engaged me (especially around really tough topics) was through social media with quick, general outreach on specific topics. One great example was a recent Facebook post from the school saying "Did you know that 9 year olds still need 9-11 hours of sleep per night? Sleep more, learn more!" Obviously your mileage may vary- sometimes it has to come down to a one-on-one conversation centered around learning or behavior issues and their potential causes.

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

Meagan...there is no quick fix (as I'm sure you know).

First, I think you need to look at the why. Why are they not responding/participating? Did they have a bad experience in the past (not necessarily with you)? Are they available to speak or come in during hours presented? (Some may be working, caretakers or have religious obligations) Once you know the why, I think you can then begin to work on approaches.

Take an honest look at how welcoming your school and classroom is to all families (not only the active ones that speak the same language and have the same beliefs). Everything from the front door/lobby/signage, to the staff and parent group attitudes. Read your emails, newsletters, and posts through the eyes of a new parent...are they talking at them? Or are they engaging them in a conversation? Intended or not, perceptions are realities. You need to ensure you are creating the perception you intend. If you welcome families, you need to create that atmosphere...just as we do for guests in our homes and businesses attempt to do for their customers.

Reputations proceed us all....go to any school and ask parents their opinions (in this case of the teachers) and you will quickly learn about who is a great communicator, who engages the kids, who is strict versus free-spirited, and who welcomes parents (physically and their questions/concerns).

Once you've created a positive and welcoming image, it comes down to relationships. Getting to know your student and their family a bit. Sharing positive news, useful information in addition to concerns/issues. If you can build a relationship with your students and their families where they trust that you are acting in their child's best interest and that they are valued; they're more likely to read your messages, notices, letters, and attend events when invited.

John S. Thomas's picture
John S. Thomas
First & Second Grade Teacher/Adjunct faculty Antioch University New England

I agree with the good calls home. I also send good emails home often with short tidbits of good effort, behavior or work samples.

When the school year begins I always try to note which students may likely have issues that come up and pinpoint those families to contact first and often with positive messages. That builds up that positive relationship so if things become difficult we have that solid foundation to begin from.

Morgan- I have had families who ready their children like this for school...soda, candy, lack of sleep or even video games BEFORE SCHOOL! Nothing like getting a kid wound up by playing an aggressive action game on the Wii with a friend before they board the bus! Anyway, I make sure the above positive contact happens first thing and often with this family so the conversation is easier. I begin conversations with positives and then focus on the child's learning, behavior, and choices. For example I let them know if the child seems tired or has to take rests to give 100% effort. I share with them that she is yawning during reading or works with their head down during math. These are tough conversations to facilitate.

I also talk with all my students (even at the first grade level) about developing good habits with sleep, screens, food, etc. I discuss with the student if they are having trouble sleeping, seem tired, etc. Then during the conference with parents I may have the student in the conference to discuss these issues so they hear it straight from their own childs mouth that they are tired or not sleeping well. Then I do my best to carefully facilitate that discussion to help lead the parents to the obvious....STOP screens, soda and sugary foods before bed and school!

We do a thing called 5210 at my school which is a HUGE help in the healthy habits discussion. It provides great resources and basis for these types of discussions with students and parents! We do many school wide activities and events based on the 5210 philosophy. We work hard at developing good habits early on and teach the students what habits are and how to evaluate them even as young as first grade.

I send home suggestions in my newsletters on developing good reading and homework habits. I often use things other parents and my own children do as examples. For example I may say that a bedtime routine that many parents find helpful to promote reading skills is to limit screens after dinner, provide reading only time before bed. If a child has trouble sleeping they may ONLY read. (I have had many parents who let their child use legos in bed to help them fall asleep- you can imagine how well that works!) I tell them if they are reading in bed one of two things will happen: Either they will learn to read better or fall asleep and either way it's a win win!

Disclaimer- As of yet (knock on wood) I have not had a parent take my communications as telling them how to parent. But I work REALLY hard at establishing a solid relationship and facilitate all meetings carefully to not step on toes. I help the parents see the facts, behaviors and habits and work to not make it come across as judgements on their parenting. In my opinion this is the most difficult, but absolute MOST important, role of an educator. These are often the students who I see struggle in upper elementary and beyond.

Now, can anyone help me figure out how to get a parent to help their first grader be more responsible and get to school with their homework folder, communication folder. lunch check, backpack or even socks on!?!? This is a parent who doesn't feel like it is her responsibility to help her daughter do any of this. She even things it is more MY responsibility than hers? Ugh.

Kevin Carroll's picture
Kevin Carroll
5th grade social studies/Spanish teacher from Mount Vernon, WA

Thanks for those tips, David!

I particularly like the idea of having an idea of how to respond to parents if they ask about how they can be proactive in their student's learning. I have been caught in situations when I wasn't prepared for that question and it reflected poorly on me. I feel that if we think about what parents can do to help support their students learning at home it can have very positive outcomes on the student's growth. There are many parents who want to be involved, and when given the chance to, they can reinforce what we have taught in the classroom. In some cases a parent-teacher partnership can form, which is generally very beneficial for fostering student achievement.

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