It’s the beginning of the school year, and you have a new crop of students, which means you have a new crop of parents. Getting to know your student’s parents and gaining their trust is one of the most important connections you make during the school year. Having that parent-teacher relationship helps foster the learning environment and makes for the best possible school year for each of you.
I have had all types of parents throughout the years, from the parents I never met to those that I couldn’t kick out of my classroom fast enough. Below are some tips and tools for effective communication with the parents of your students. Remember that these parents are putting their children’s lives in your hands, and they expect that you return them in the same shape they arrived in (plus a little paint and dirt):
- In the first weeks of school, make sure to smile. Yes, it’s a stressful time for you, but it’s also a stressful time for parents. Some of them are dropping their babies off for the first time and they have just spent a small fortune on back to school clothes and supplies, and are only hoping that the generic brand of markers will be an acceptable alternative to Crayola! If you have a sourpuss on your face, you can guarantee that they will be more nervous about that first day than if they are greeted with a smile. First impressions mean a lot!
- Decide how you are going to communicate with parents and let them know from the very beginning. Are you going to be available for drop-ins before school? After school? Do they need to make appointments? Can they email you? Should they call? Will you be sending home daily notes? Will you have a communication journal? Once your “office hours” clear, it will be easier to communicate and they will know when or how is the best way to get in touch you.
- Make your expectations clear. You cannot rely on students telling their parents that they do or do not have homework. Will you be sending homework nightly? Will you send a packet at the beginning of the week? Do you accept late assignments? Will partially completed assignments receive credit? When will you send home important papers? Once a week? Daily? The more informed the parent, the more likely you will get better communication in return. I liked to send home one big packet on the first day of school (or at back to school night if you expect good attendance) that outlines my “office hours”, homework policy, and any other important information.
- Do not get defensive! There will be many times that a parent does not agree with you on discipline, homework, policy, etc. Our first instinct as humans is to defend ourselves. When someone does that to you, you are most likely thinking ‘how many excuses is she going to make?’. It’s no different with parents. The most important (and hardest) lesson that I have learned over the years is that it’s important to validate the parent’s feelings. If a parent comes storming in because Johnny and Joey got into a fight on the playground, stop what you are doing and listen. Just listen. Let the parent speak their mind (of course you can draw the line if the parent becomes rude or offensive) and then respond. The trick I was taught is to say the following: “Okay, let me see if I have what you are saying correct. You are upset because Joey keeps chasing Johnny on the playground and won’t leave him alone and you are wondering where the yard aides are during all of this. Is that correct?” (basically, you provide a summary of the parent’s concerns). The parent then feels that you have heard what they have to say and THEN you can begin the dialogue. You will not get anywhere with a parent who doesn’t feel like you are hearing them. Offering your recap of their concerns is by no means an agreement with what they are saying. It is simply an understanding of what they are saying. After the parent is validated, you can hopefully have a meaningful discussion.
- It’s not the student’s fault! It is very easy to transfer our feelings for the parent onto the child, especially after multiple parent-teacher conferences! It’s important to remember that it’s not the student’s fault. If you are having problems with a particular parent, do the best you can to solve it or deal with it. You can bring in outsiders (principal, assistant principal, other teachers, etc) to help mediate a conference and offer suggestions and alternatives, but ultimately, there may not be anything you can do to change their minds. In that case, you need to understand each other’s positions and move on, keeping in mind that the child is not the parent.
If Sally’s mom can’t remember that you have a no peanut butter classroom, make sure you have alternatives for Sally to eat. Don’t get mad at Sally when she isn’t the one who packed her lunch. Simply send the sandwich back home with a note reminding mom that there is no peanut butter in class and that you gave Sally a cheese sandwich for lunch. This is a simple example, so it is important to remember that you may need to involve administration at times.
- Daily notes home (see example- leveled for kindergarten, but can be modified for many grade levels)
- Communication journal (both parent and teacher write notes back and forth to each other- great for those parents who you don’t see)
- Weekly homework letters (what it is, when it’s due, explanation of assignments, etc)
- First day send home packet (expectations, daily schedule, samples of daily send home notes, homework letters, office hours, etc)
- Classroom website or blog
- Email (send class newsletters, school bulletins, homework, etc)
- Google calendars (have a class calendar that highlights exams, assignment due dates, assemblies, school hours, etc)
- Phone calls
- A smiling face!