For many teachers, having parent contact is like visiting the dentist. We understand the need to maintain communication with parents and guardians. However, these interactions can be uncomfortable for some and entirely unpleasant for others.
When we realize the benefits of building and maintaining relationships with the parents and guardians of our students, we can begin to develop another worthwhile skill set to add to a diverse array of tools. The work begins by embracing a model of partnering with parents in order to strengthen the classroom.
I have found that when students know their parent or guardian and I are on the same page, when we speak the same language, when we support one another, it becomes easier for me to be a warm demander with high expectations of my students. Invoking the name of a parent becomes less of a threat and more of a reminder of our partnership and a shared culture of learning.
Here are three ways to establish and maintain partnerships with parents and guardians:
Determine the Best Method of Contact
Every parent is different. The parents and guardians of our students are small business owners, nine-to-fivers, gig workers who manage multiple jobs, and stay-at-home caregivers. Establishing strong partnerships with parents through effective communication involves a willingness to be flexible with our mode of messaging. For those of us who are introverts, this does mean that we will have to pick up the phone sometimes.
I have found that most parents are just as busy as we are and often prefer emails and text messages. Still, the tone and content of text messages and emails can be misinterpreted. Sometimes, going the extra mile to make a phone call can be the difference between a successful collaboration that mitigates student challenges and a stressful exchange that produces little support on the home front.
Normalize Positive, but Realistic, Communication
Most commonly, we contact families to notify them about student misbehavior and academic failure. However, when a parent or guardian receives positive communication from teachers, they are more likely to be responsive and supportive partners. For our part, as we work closely with our students week after week, we learn to identify the wins at every level. These are the moments that become the building blocks of normalizing positive contact with our parent partners.
We can do so by making a habit of sending a quick message to parents on the heels of acknowledging the student. As a teacher, I would send positive text messages about student effort, improved behavior, and class participation during class. I would even send an occasional picture of an engaged student. When I did so, I noticed an increase in the student’s confidence and an improved attitude (even if only for the day).
Spotlighting positive moments in this way, particularly for students with behavioral issues, became a part of the relationship-building process. One of the first times I messaged a parent about their child being engaged with writing during class, the student did not believe me, going so far as requesting to see the text. She told me that her teachers only called home about behavioral issues. That first positive contact alone did not manage all of our issues, but it was a sizable step toward strengthening the relationship between the student, her parent, and me.
However, positive communication should not be disingenuous. Many teachers use the “compliment sandwich” when communicating with parents, saying something nice about a student in order to slip in the real issue, followed by more praise. While this is well-intentioned, parents do not take it as positive communication. What really matters to parents and guardians is whether or not we can express that we see and understand their children.
Reflect on Mindset: Are You Engaging in Deficit Thinking or Taking an Asset-Based Approach?
Understanding our mindset—the way we frame our understandings of students—requires consistent reflection. As we reflect, sometimes we may find ourselves engaged in thinking about goals and challenges from a deficit mindset, fixed on problems rather than finding solutions. In my experience, deficit thinking is prevalent where diversity is not understood and therefore not valued.
Thinking about the families of our students through a deficit lens means focusing on our perceptions of what parents and guardians do not have, what they do not have access to, and/or what they are not capable of. Deficit thinking reveals itself when we engage in conversations about “saving” our students or providing them with food or supplies they cannot get at home. (Having a well-stocked classroom to meet the needs of students is never a bad thing. However, we provide pencils for students because they need pencils, not because there are no pencils at home.)
The concept of partnering with parents, in and of itself, is an asset-based approach to communicating with families about student progress. Communicating with parents through an asset-based approach means asking the question, “How can we work together to address the needs and challenges of your student in order to ensure their success?”
Adopting an asset-based approach to parent communication allows us to see parents and guardians as partners who are invested in their children’s success. If we begin our interactions with an asset-based assumption that families care about their children’s education, we are less defensive when parents have questions about our classrooms, our instruction, and our roles as teachers. We are able to concentrate our efforts on how we can effectively work together to ensure the success of our students. After all, through an asset-based lens we see clearly that as teachers and parents, we share a common goal.