I think we’ve all been in a place where it is just scary to communicate with parents. In today’s world teachers are often blamed for anything and everything. This in turn makes us avoid communicating with students’ parents.
There are few people who enjoy confrontation. Those people who do enjoy it tend to be lawyers, not teachers.
However, if we avoid communicating with parents then we are doing a disservice for our students and for ourselves. If we can flip our mindset, which we should be able to do since we teach a growth mindset, we can really benefit from communicating with parents.
1. Parents have known their kid longer than us, so they know their kid better.
My teaching team has often called parents in for a short meeting before school. Before school is a great time because we have to end the meeting to start school. It provides a mandatory end time. We talk to the parents about the struggles we see the student having in the classroom and ask about the struggles they are having at home.
Oftentimes parents are relieved to have help and support because if we see a struggle in school it’s often much worse at home. Students, even the struggling ones, manage to maintain themselves in school and fall apart once they are home.
During this meeting we make sure that we know what’s really hard for the student, and what the student likes. We make sure we hear what the parents have seen work in the past and what hasn’t worked. If it hasn’t worked before we don’t want to waste a month trying it.
We also make sure we come up with a plan to destress everyone. A lot can be accredited to removing stress by having a plan
(For this case study to make sense you must know my school has been a hybrid model for years. Every assignment was online before Covid-19.)
In the particular case I am thinking of the student was struggling with everything. Homework, organization, and getting any assignment done.
We made a plan with him every afternoon for homework and got spelling done and turned in during school. However, when he got home and did his spelling again. Turned out, his parents weren’t sure if he lost it or turned it in. So, they had him do it again. Of course the student got more stressed out doing his work twice.
Our plan was that even if it was a paper assignment the student would take a picture of everything and turn it in online. Parents could see it at home and we could see it at school. If it got lost it didn’t matter as much. And many things did get lost.
There were many other parts to this student’s plan too. For example, he was going to type everything except spelling homework because his parents said handwriting made everything ten times harder for him.
2. Contact Parents First
You will contact the parents first when you send your meet the teacher information. However, if you have a student that needs you to communicate with home be the one to reach out first. Don’t wait for the parents to become fully panicked. You might email a couple of times and try a few things. But when you decide, “This is not working for this student,” be brave and reach out to the parents first.
When you make the first request to have a meeting it flips the tables. Parents say to themselves, “Is everything okay?” rather than you saying that. It also shows parents that you are proactive in that you see there is a problem and you want to do something to fix it sooner rather than later.
Be brave, contact the parents, and keep control.
3. Get everyone on the same page
I hate watching TV shows that have a “huge” problem: the characters won’t talk to each other. The most recent show demonstrating this thick plot line that I watched was Merry Happy Whatever. They can’t get engaged because they think they want different things, but once they finally talk in the last episode they get engaged.
Let’s not bring this awesome television comedy/drama technique into the schools. Let parents know that you want to make sure you are all on the same page. You want them to hear what is happening at school and you want to know what’s going on at home. You want to communicate clearly with them. You want to find something that works for their child.
You are a teacher who cares about your students. Say that. Parents will appreciate it.
The Drawbacks & How to Protect Yourself
There are parents that we need to be wary of. We must set ourselves up to be successful. These parents are often called “helicopter moms,” or “momma bears,” hovering over their babies. The term I recently heard was “snowplow parents,” from the show The Unicorn. They are snow plows because they push every danger and problem away from their poor babies.
In one classroom I was in there was a mom who would come volunteer for lunch duty. She would throw away her 4th grader’s trash for him. She would email the teacher upset because we were trying to help him learn to be responsible for himself.
Here are some tips for how to cover yourself in case these parents think you are greatly at fault and go to the principal to get you in trouble. (Yes, I know it’s very mature of them.)
1. Keep Records
If you are emailing be sure to CC your teaching team and principal. You can ask the parents to reply to everyone so that the whole team is informed. Most electronic communication leaves a record for you to refer to, which is key.
If you are on a phone call keep notes and a log. The principal can match the log with the phone record. She/He will see that you talked about lunch and snack time for 5 minutes, and reading homework for 4 minutes. The call was 9 minutes. It all matches up. Even write down any snarky comments the parent makes.
If you really feel you need it, record the call. We often know who these parents are after a few weeks. Tell the parent you are recording it so you can be sure to share all the very important information with the teaching team and keep everyone on the same page. If you have another great way to tell a parent you are recording comment below.
2. Set Boundaries for Response Time
Let these parents know that you answer emails at two particular times a day. (Actually, let all the parents know that.) Maybe, at snack and at the end of the day. Tell them you are focusing on the students during the rest of the day, so it’s hard to email back any sooner. If there is an emergency that needs your attention sooner please call the secretary so that he/she can pass on that information.
Do you really need to spend your teaching time telling parents that yes you will make sure Timmy eats his lunch? Boundaries are beneficial for everyone, they just take some getting used to.
3. Prepare Parents When a Challenge is Coming
Send an email to all the parents before you start something challenging or new. I know most teachers do send out a newsletter of sorts, but how you word everything is important.
Let parents know that “the class will be starting fractions next week.” Tell them that you know “fractions can be tricky, but you are ready to help the students work hard to understand them better.” Remind parents that “learning is a process and every student will need a different amount of time to really understand it.” Remind parents that mistakes are okay.
4. Mistakes are Okay
Teachers are getting better and better at admitting mistakes to students and showing them how we learn from mistakes. We tell our students daily that we make mistakes and they will too.
Often parents have a harder time accepting that their perfect angel will make mistakes. We have to help and prepare them for this. Especially as students get older.
At my beginning of the school year open house we would prepare our parents for this. In my 5th/6th grade classroom we asked parents to let their kids make mistakes.
If they don’t do their homework they get a zero and will see that in their grades. If they don’t study for the test they will do poorly. If they don’t listen in class they will be confused about how to do the work. Let the student make the mistake and ask the teacher for help. Let the student figure out how to fix it.
Let the student learn.
Silly, right? The point of being a student is to learn.
I also point out to parents that up through 6th grade is a great time to make these mistakes and get a few bad grades. No one is looking at their transcripts for that year. If they decide to apply to a private high school then they really look at 8th grade. And colleges definitely aren’t checking 6th grade. By the time they are in the years that count on a transcript hopefully they will have learned some personal responsibility.
Email parents when their child does something great. Not often, but once in a while so the parents know you see their child being great. These emails are fast, positive, and even fun to write.
Communicating with parents should be more than just the required parent/teacher conferences, open houses, or IEP meetings. It can benefit us so much as teachers to have the help and support of the parents. Principals will be happy to hear parents raving about how great your communication with them is.
Let’s make communicating with home positive, not a task to avoid.