George Lucas Educational Foundation
Subscribe to RSS

12 Conversation Starters on What Parents Want You (Teachers) to Know

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest
  • Share

Earlier this year, I came across an article by Eric Sheninger entitled, "Seven Things Teachers Want You (Parents) to Know." As I read through the article written from the lens of a teacher and school leader, I became curious as to how our parents would respond if given the opportunity to speak up about what they want teachers to know. I decided to put out a short, one-question survey to my school families, and below I'm sharing the results and how we as educators might listen and respond.

The following themes were those repeated most often in the 100+ replies this survey generated. Even though we are a K-6 elementary school, many K-12 families face similar challenges.

Every Home Situation Is Different

"My first grade daughter's father and I do not live together and have extremely different parenting styles."

  • Conversation starter: How do teachers and office staff work with split families to provide an equitable approach in the best interest of the child? Are we sending school communications to multiple addresses? Who do we call "first" when we communicate?

"We are a one-car family, and one parent does not have a driver's license. The other works all day which makes making friends difficult and scheduling meetings even harder."

  • Conversation starter: For families without transportation, how might a home-school partnership infuse a support system that meets these needs and/or offers a hybrid approach? Are we streaming school events or making Skype and other tools available for conferences when face-to-face just isn't possible?

"We're grandparents raising grandchildren."

  • Conversation starter: Today’s "parent" might mean aunt, uncle, neighbor, grandparent, cousin or other relative or family friend. It's up to us educators to identify early who the caretakers are so that we can understand where we need to focus our efforts to engage them.

"We relocated from Seattle just a week before school started, and our kids are in a transitional state of mind, making them a little nervous and timid, but excited at the same time."

  • Conversation starter: How are new families immersed into the overall culture of your school? Is there a new family night? Consider a family mentor program made up of volunteer families that "take new families in" to show them the ropes, introduce them to others, and are always there to help with a question.

"I am a single mom. I am broke. I work three jobs so that I can put food on the table for my kids. I want school to be our first priority, but really it is third or fourth on the list. We do the best we can."

  • Conversation starter: It's hard for us educators to swallow, but for so many of our families who are living in poverty, attendance, school and homework not top priorities. Developing a strong relationship from the start with our families and asking, "What we can do to help out?" goes a long way in maintaining high expectations for all families, while differentiating where necessary.

Please Plan for Us

"We are working parents and wish there were more opportunities to volunteer at night or on weekends."

  • Conversation starter: The school calendar hasn't changed much over the years. Most of our events are held in the evening without much attention to religious groups that might make up a large population of our school families. When making the calendar for the upcoming year, consider bringing in a few local parent leaders to provide a varied approach with offerings in the morning, afternoon, evening and on weekends. This is where a home-school parent leadership group that represents your school families would really benefit the students and the partnership you are working to build.

"We totally want to help out, be at school events, in the classroom, etc, but we need notice to take off work, on the order of months, not days to weeks. As much notice as you can give, the better."

  • Conversation starter: Be proactive and offer a structure to the way you integrate parent volunteers. Come together with your teaching team and create a calendar of possible volunteer opportunities for parents. For example, if you are doing something like "Kidwriting" and your schedule is constant through the end of the school year, provide a signup Google Document in advance. This way, parents can see where they are needed and can plan in advance for their work schedules. Having parents volunteer in the classroom (even if it is not in a classroom where their kids are) helps parents and teachers further the partnership and build capacity for the curriculum and needs of children of a given age.

Homework Must Be Meaningful -- If Given at All

"We are very busy at night -- ease up on the tremendous homework. Studies don't support the benefits of excessive homework."

"We are very busy! Two parents working full time, three kids, school, activities, etc. School is top priority, but kids are already in school/daycare 8+ hours per day. They need some downtime at home. So, please only homework that is relevant, not just busy."

  • Conversation starter: If you read any of Alfie Kohn's work, you know that homework has little if any impact on student achievement until the students reach high school. Our families are now paying attention and are pushing back for good reason. With this in mind, it's extremely important to know that our parents want to support their children's education, but not to the point where they are sacrificing the little family time they have at night to watch their kid struggle through a worksheet when concepts haven't been mastered yet.

"We've learned over the years that homework is not always reviewed by teachers. There are frequent times when I don't feel like the child is 'getting' the concept and I try to help, knowing that this problem will not be obvious to the teacher because the homework isn't being looked at."

  • Conversation starter: If you assign homework, how do you assess it, if at all? Is it the job of the parent to "teach" the concept to the child if he or she does not get it? How would you respond if parents called to ask you? As kids get older, parents often do not have the skills to help their children with the curriculum or the English skills to communicate back to the teacher. Does your current structure support these types of challenges? If you choose to grade homework, aren't you in fact grading the support system the child has at home?

How Can I Be an Advocate Without Being Overbearing?

"Sometimes it's hard for a parent to know where to draw the line between a 'pushy, helicopter parent' and an advocate for our child. We never wish to overstep a teacher's authority, but if teachers would encourage parents to communicate with them about their child, we'd really appreciate the offer."

  • Conversation starter: I've never been fond of any labels for parents. I strongly believe that all parents are doing the best they know how to support the needs of their children. I ask my teachers to teach as if the parents of their students were in the back of the room, and to work with parents as if the students were their own children. Seeing through the lens of the parent in varying situations is imperative to building a strong and open partnership between home and school.

We're Here for a Better Life

"We are a family of four in our household now. It is myself, my husband and our two sons. In order to educate our children in a better way and to give them a better life, we came all the way to USA from Bangladesh."

  • Conversation starter: Before we even engage with school parents, we must be mindful that some families have already made major life decisions just to be a part of our schools. Ask them to share their stories and details about the situation their children were a part of in the previous country. Use this information from the start to make decisions on how to meet these needs of the family and the student. Identify other families from similar locations and reach out to them about becoming a mentor family.

Meet Us Where We Are

"We like to stay involved and appreciate when the teachers communicate with us (via letters sent home, emails, Facebook, Twitter, etc.)."

  • Conversation starter: Does your school have a high- and low-tech menu of communications for families? In diverse schools like mine, the modes of communication our families use in daily life are a mile wide. We know this because we solicit information via a two-minute, hard copy technology survey every September at Back to School Night. Those families without access to technology at home or at work are known as HCPs (Hard Copy Parents). We make it a point to send them hard copies of our digital communications.

The beginning of the school year holds the greatest window of opportunity for getting to know our students and families. It is these relationships we build throughout the year, starting with a sustainable first impression that we will leverage in the best interests of our students. We must always be working toward a comprehensive and inclusive family and community engagement plan for our respective populations. This approach takes more listening to the needs of our families through their own unique and important lens, and less offering of one-size-fits-all solutions on our part as teachers and administrators. Working toward a strong home-school partnership is hard, and you should never feel like you've reached the summit. This work is ongoing.

Was this useful? (2)

Comments (15) Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Conversations on Edutopia (15) Sign in or register to comment

Cathleen's picture

I loved this blog. I work with ELL students and often need conversation starters for parents to get them involved in education. Thank you for such a great idea.

Tiffany Jones's picture

This is a great way to communicate with people of different backgrounds! I am a student in college wanting to obtain my degree in Elementary Education. I will remember these for when communicating.

Scott's picture

As the African proverb goes, "it takes a village to raise a child" and the conversation starters offered by the good doctor will be particularly useful as I go into my field of work upon graduation. It was eye-opening as well concerning the diverse populations we find ourselves in anywhere we go here in America and much of our work with the children will start and end with the parents. That ability within to take a careful consideration with the avenues suggested, in initiating conversation with the parents of varied cultural backgrounds as well as from different walks of life will definitely come in handy. Thanks Doc for an excellent read...

Debora Wondercheck's picture
Debora Wondercheck
Executive Director, Founder of Arts & Learning Conservatory

Thanks... this is a very great post,This is a great way to communicate with people of different backgrounds and levels. I love inspiring and being inspired by children and works closely with parents and the staff to create a fun, unique and creative environment.These conversation starters provide a way for all parties to learn about each other as well..

Dixie T's picture
Dixie T
Last year in earning my K-6 Teaching Degree

I have to post the following for my college English Comp II class, so I chose to post it in a "teacher forum." But first I want to say, your article has been extremely helpful to me, in my last year of college, before becoming a teacher. Thanks so much. (Perhaps someone can tell me if I'm on the right track, with the topic of homework!)

Eliminating Problems with Homework

The debate of homework has been repeated for the past 100 years. Research shows that homework can be stressful, chaotic, and disruptive in the lives of teachers, students, and parents. In fact, education experts suggest that these negative characteristics of homework can be eliminated by a simple, re-designing of homework assignments, by teachers. Included in this re-designing process are five key elements:

* Homework assignment instructions should be at each student's comprehension level
* Students should be allowed to begin their homework in the classroom, so that teachers can monitor that students understand the instructions
* Homework should be returned to students promptly, and with understandable feedback
* Homework assignments should be relevant to what the student is learning in class; if the assignment is not relevant then discard it
* Homework for specific subjects can be assigned to specific days, forming a routine students can easily follow (Wilson and Rhodes)

Subsequently, by including these elements into their homework decision-making, teachers would be creating a much better environment for themselves, the students, and the parents.


Wilson, Jan, and John Rhodes. "Student Perspectives on Homework." Education 131.2 (2010): 351-348. Academic Search Premier. Web. 21 Nov. 2013.

Dixie T's picture
Dixie T
Last year in earning my K-6 Teaching Degree

Although I'm in my last year of Teacher Education (K-6), I really agree with your assessment that an entire page (or more) of a math concept is too much, and that 6-7 problems would allow the teacher to see whether or not the student is comprehending what they are learning.

I've read studies that have shown math homework to be the most stressful for students, than any other type of homework. I'm adding your comment to my "Ideas Notebook," for when I have my own classroom! Thanks, again.

Kristen's picture

Parent involvement is a concern in my district and it is nice to have this list to hear real issues from the parent side. I like having the list to refer back to and make changes in communication or planning. Thank you!

TexiforniaGirl's picture

I am surprised that the issue of younger siblings didn't come up. As a mom of three I felt like so many of the volunteer and participation activities specifically excluded parents with younger children at home, because you could not bring younger siblings (even those just a year away from attending school themselves). I did appreciate them being clear as to when younger siblings weren't welcome, but I wish there were more times when they were. And this problem actually continued once all my children were in school, but one was in elementary, one was in intermediate, and the other in middle school--the schools would often all plan things like "meet the teacher night" on the SAME NIGHT and I would have to choose between which child's activities to participate in. That has been really frustrating.


Sign in to comment. Not a member? Register.