Family Engagement

New Teachers: How to Talk to Parents

A veteran teacher shares what she’s learned in the course of 26 years. Big picture: A little empathy goes a long way.
February 27, 2017
A teacher discusses paperwork with two parents.
© Shutterstock.com/Monkey Business Images

“You don’t have kids, do you?” a parent asked me during my early years of teaching. She was right: I had no children at the time. I was offended, however, by the implication that my lack of progeny inevitably meant that my advice must be useless.

But it was.

It wasn’t my lack of children that made my advice useless. It was the fact that I had derived a solution to the problem (her child never turning in homework) that would work well in my world—not hers.

I’m not saying teachers need to be parents to be good communicators. We need to be empathetic. If I had thought more about what it was like to work three jobs (which I did in college) and try to carve out meaningful time to spend with the people you care about, I would have given that single mom completely different advice.

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Over the years, I feel like I’ve improved at communicating with parents as I’ve made bigger efforts to put myself in their shoes. Here are the main things I’ve learned.

Be Proactive

Don’t wait for problems to arise. Make it a point to communicate frequently and positively so that you have already developed a relationship before you hit bumps in the road. With the technology available these days, teachers should be able to update parents at least once a week about what’s going on in the classroom. Use multiple types of communication—social media, email, and the tried-and-true hard-copy newsletter.

Don’t Take It Personally

When parents lash out at you, they’re voicing frustration at not being able to help their children. Instead of becoming defensive, ask yourself, “Other than being out to get me, what would motivate them to say this?” Think about what someone could say to you to de-escalate the situation and indicate an open mind if the situation were reversed. For example, if a parent says, “You’re out to get my child,” try saying, “I’m sorry you think that. Can you tell me what’s happened to make you feel this way?”

Ask Parents for Advice

If a student is exhibiting negative behaviors, invite the parent to suggest what works at home. Sometimes the parent may not observe this behavior at home, which is a great opportunity to invite the parent to class. Even if the parent can’t give you help or make it to the classroom, you will still make your relationship stronger by showing that you value their input.

Get Involved in the Community

When you appear at sports events, festivals, and other community activities, you send the message to the children and their parents that you care about the whole person, not just the student. Families understand that, to you, it’s not “us and them,” but “we.” Even though students may have the perception that your entire life revolves around them, most parents realize that you’re sacrificing your free time to show support for their children, and they appreciate it.

Choose Your Battles

If you and a parent disagree, always look first for a compromise that will benefit the student and preserve your relationship with the parent. If you are not inclined to compromise, ask yourself if your method is really the one that’s best for the student and whether it’s likely to improve the situation. For example, if a student never completes homework despite the fact that you call home and penalize them for it, you may need to find a different way to help the student practice skills instead of wasting an entire school year trying to prove your point.

Admit It When You’re Wrong

As a teacher and (now) a parent, I can truthfully tell you that parents don’t lose respect for you when you admit your mistakes and correct them. As long as they perceive that you’re really trying to do what’s best for their children, parents will not penalize you for occasional mistakes. What annoys parents is when teachers act as though we’re superior and give the impression that we’re unwilling to listen to the people who know their children best.

When I was first teaching, I would become furious when a parent questioned my judgment. Now that I have nearly 26 years of experience, my reaction is the opposite. I mentally replay the situation and reflect on whether I could have handled it better. If so, I immediately apologize to the parent and outline the steps I’ll take to improve matters. If not, I make sure the parent knows why I think it was the best course of action and that I value their child enough to follow through. We don’t need to have our own children to be good teachers, but we must have empathy, humility, and dedication to do what is best for our students. A little diplomacy goes a long way, too.