As a middle school teacher, I complained about the infrequent involvement of my students’ parents: how hard it was to get them to come in for a conference, return my phone call, or sign a paper. I didn’t understand why they didn’t remember what I’d explained about our course or grading policies, and I got frustrated when they wouldn’t follow the systems I’d established.
Now I’m the parent of a seventh-grade student who has seven teachers, and now I know. I can’t count the times I’ve sheepishly said to myself, I wish I had known what it was like to be a parent when I was a teacher. This is something we need to work on because there are many teachers without children, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but we need to change how teachers are trained and supported. (I dream of a new teacher surrounded by coaches, mentors, and teachers who are parents. Of course, it's important to listen to your students' parents, but there’s a need for the insights of teachers who see schooling through a parent lens.)
Here’s what I know about involving the parents of secondary students in school.
1. Use Common Protocols and Systems
Grade-level teams need to sit down together and determine consistent protocols and systems for the grade. It’s crazy-making for parents to get seven introduction letters from teachers, with each teacher requesting a different process for homework, absences and classwork make up, paper signing, and getting in touch with the teacher. Some of these letters ask for hard copies of papers to be signed, some want digital versions, some say texting is best, and some say email only.
Teachers: I know what it’s like to want to set your own systems, but from the parent perspective, it’s not doable! The myriad of requests from my son’s teachers has made me just want to check out and never be in touch, which isn’t what those teachers want. You’ll sacrifice some autonomy, but it’ll be worth it if you develop stronger partnerships with parents.
2. Administrators: You Have a Part to Play
Ensure that grade levels have time to sit together and make these agreements. Provide the resources and support. Provide some guidelines and suggestions. Ask to see what teams develop and offer feedback. Ask for feedback from a few parents. Create a web page for grade-level course descriptions, communication protocols, absence procedures, calendars, and so on. Ensure that the broader structures, systems, and conditions are primed to support teachers to make these decisions.
3. Be Open
In the batch of introduction letters I received from my son’s teachers this year, there were an array of requests for communicating with teachers (“email first,” “drop into my office hours,” or “call and we’ll schedule something”) and a lot of parameters on when I could reach them. For example, “Thursday from 7:50-8:20am.” I suspect it wasn’t their intention, but overall, the long list of requests and restrictions made me feel like they hoped communication would squeeze through a cocktail straw.
When I taught, here’s what I wish I’d said to my students’ parents:
If there’s something you want to talk about related to your child and my class, please let me know right away because I really want to hear. You can stop by my class before or after school or during lunch, or you can call, text, or email me. Please know that sometimes I may not be available at the time you reach out, but we’ll set a time to check in.
Now I know you’re thinking, I have 120 students! I can’t have that many parents calling, texting, or stopping by! But you know what? It’s really unlikely that scenario will happen.
4. Don’t Be Afraid of Parents
Many teachers worry that if they give parents their cell phone numbers, they’ll be called all the time. This is rarely the case. During the eight years I taught middle school, I had less than a handful of calls that I didn’t want to receive. More often than not, I wished that parents would have called more often, but they usually said, “I didn’t want to bother you.”
Parents are really busy people, and we recognize how hard teachers work, and we won’t bombard you. We are far more afraid of you than you realize (you spend so much time with our babies; you have their hearts and minds and bodies in your hands five days a week). We want a partnership, and we need you to welcome us in, to make the invitation warm and easy.
5. Stop and Listen
Remember: quality, not quantity. Two calm, focused minutes of listening to a parent -- of connecting and asking one thoughtful question about their child -- will go a long way. Teacher-parent interactions always felt rushed to me as a teacher. As a parent, they feel frantic and breathless. There’s so much to say in those 15-minute parent conferences. We’ll need to address that problem at some point (the structures for parent-teacher connection are flawed). In the meantime, when you run into a parent on campus, or you are on the phone with one, make it count. Be fully present. Be still. Listen. Make appropriate eye contact.
Our Greatest Allies
Please know this: I didn’t do all of these things I’m suggesting when I was a teacher. I did things that I now feel shortsighted, that weren’t supportive of parents or of what could have been a great parent-teacher partnership. I’m hoping to save you some of the regret that I feel in hindsight. It might not be as hard as we think to set up some systems and structures that are uniform across a grade level, or to crank up the warmth and welcoming of our invitations to parents, or to be more fully present for short interactions.
The payoff? It may be tremendous because parents can be our greatest supports and allies in achieving what most teachers want -- to see our students thrive and succeed socially and academically.