In my first year as a teacher, I was terrified of parents. Phone calls, emails- all communication with them terrified me. Looking back, my reasoning was limited: I was always afraid that if they were contacting me, it was because of something I did wrong. It taught at a well-known private school, and the stories about parents from veteran teachers in the building were elaborate and brutal.
A few years into my teaching tenure, I began to realize how incorrect my perception was. Sure, there were parents who wanted to challenge me, but in general, I found that parents were often my first line of action when I wanted to help, nudge, or connection a different level with a student.
I went through some trial and error before understanding how to work with parents, and the following is what I’ve learned along the way…I share it in the hope that it will help you too:
1. In the Loop
Student grades can be accessed online, so parents can check their child’s grades at any time through the parent portal. Initially, my perception was that parents were dialed in at all times, and were consistently tracking their child. Before I was a parent and now that I am one, I can’t imagine tracking my children that closely!
Parents have different ways of connecting with their children and have different ways of monitoring their them. Consider that when school is in session, children’s time at school is longer than the time they are at home. From a parent’s perspective, that alone is reason enough to crave knowledge about my child’s “school life.” However, especially if there’s something good or challenging happening with a student, you definitely need to reach out on a regular basis. Are there times when there’s a challenge or pushback? Absolutely. But you have kept parents in the loop about their child. It is absolutely your responsibility to communicate actively with parents by sharing both good and bad news.
The unhappy and angry parents I experienced those first couple of years were the ones I updated only when midterm grades were released, showing that their child was performing poorly for weeks. Had I let them know much earlier than that (as I learned to do), we could have been a team working together to help the child, and the child’s struggling may not have been so consequential. It’s much easier to work with a parent when both sides understand the situation and agree on a plan to move forward. Have the courage to broach problems when they are relatively benign- smaller problems are more easily addressed.
3. Parents want to help you help their child.
Unless the parent is constantly in your classroom, they don’t know how to best help their child succeed in your class. Communicating as much as possible with parents about where their child is succeeding, and where he or she could improve helps parents immensely. Your students work best with explicit instructions and detail; parents do too. If they are able, parents can be a powerful part of helping their children do well, so enlist them. Ask parents for ways to connect and engage with their child. Most don’t wish to interfere with your instruction, but they do want to play an active role in helping their children thrive.
4. Parents are not your main customers.
You are there to serve the students!! However, as a beginning teacher, I was *just immature enough* that I perceived my job as the person who appeased parents with very little attention paid to what the student needed. That’s just not the way it works. No matter what your teaching role is, your customers are your students. Parents are stakeholders, but your interactions and relationships with students should be your number one concern, not what parents perceive you to be. It turns out that explaining things well, demonstrating respect, and empowering a student has the same benefits as for a parent. How powerful it became when a parent and I could talk to and about a child we both wanted to support in all the best ways.
Any effort you spend engaging parents with their child’s education is worthwhile. Not only will parents support you in your role, but you can support parents in theirs, and in doing so, the child is supported and cared for in a holistic way. These tips will help you navigate and nurture relationships with your students’ parents and caregivers.