“Hi, Mrs. Miller!” I exclaimed as I bumped into my son’s beloved teacher from the past school year at a summer festival. “E was hoping we might see you.” I said. “He barely said hello to me,” she unexpectedly responded with a smile. “He quickly averted his eyes and walked away.” It reminded me of how I felt when I ran into my teacher outside of school as a child. Teachers possessed a certain aura about them that was part celebrity, part judge and jury and part parent. And we tend to carry those feelings with us into adulthood, making conversations with them, at times, awkward and uncomfortable. And if we were scolded by teachers in our youth, (“Jennifer talks too much.”) then we may even feel judged or accused going into the relationship and proceed with a high level of caution.
Yet we know our relationship with our children’s teachers are critical. The biggest predictor of their achievement in school is not family income level or natural ability, but the level of involvement of parents. Children whose parents are involved in supporting learning at home and engaged in the school community have more consistent attendance, better social skills and higher grade point averages and test scores, according to school-family partnership researchers Anne Henderson and Karen Mapp. So we understand the critical nature of parents’ roles with children’s school and learning. But how can parents communicate most effectively with teachers?
First, let’s dispel some common myths - or misconceptions - swirling around the parent-teacher relationship that can, intentionally or not, influence our approach to one another.
From the parent’s perspective, some misconceptions can be…
- Teachers are too busy to communicate with parents.
- Teachers don’t view their jobs as communicating with parents, instead they focus only on the students.
- Teachers don’t want to feel judged by parents, so they intentionally keep them at arm’s length.
And from the teacher’s perspective, some misconceptions can be…
- Parents will be strong advocates for their children to the extent that they may cross the line of fairness and not allow for the teacher’s perspective.
- Parents have unreasonably high expectations that the teacher will work miracles in one year.
- Parents will hold teachers responsible if their child is struggling with learning.
After working with teachers for over twenty years, I can honestly say I have yet to meet one that didn’t enter the profession with the noblest intention of helping children learn and be successful. So we are beginning from a common ground, an essential start to any collaborative relationship. We share a goal for our children to learn and develop. Your actions can go a long way toward ensuring that the goal is achieved through a safe, caring partnership between you and your child’s teacher. In addition to shopping for back to school supplies this year, consider how you might be proactive in your relationship development with your children’s teachers. It could just be the single most important step you take this year in helping your child learn at school.
Make an introduction.
As with any other adult who plays a significant role in the life of your child, building a relationship is key. Because there are misperceptions and can be mistrust between parents and teachers, don’t wait for a teacher to make contact. Attend school community functions. Go to your open house night at the start of the year. Seek out your child’s teacher as soon as you are able. Perhaps it can’t happen until the first day of school but on that day, hang out on the playground and make a point of meeting him or her. Shake hands, introduce yourself and your child. Offer your hopes for the school year and set a positive tone to get started.
Ask about ways to support learning at home.
Teachers do have a full set of responsibilities at the start of the year. And often, parents don’t know what a brand new teacher expects of them in supporting learning at home. “What do I do? How do I set my child up for homework success?” may cross your mind. Be sure and ask your teacher what her expectations and hopes are for you as a parent. Every teacher is going to have a clear opinion about the most important ways you can contribute. Likely those opinions have come from years of experience and numerous challenges from the past. Perhaps he’ll tell you that getting enough sleep on school nights with a regular bedtime routine is the most critical for his classroom. Or maybe she’ll tell you one hour of reading with your child in the evenings is most vital. Whatever the case, it will help you clarify your teacher’s hopes and expectations of your role.
Find opportunities to connect.
Then, look for brief opportunities for connection. Dropping off a form at school may be a helpful excuse to wave hello. Ask how your teacher best likes to be communicated with. Does she prefer email, a phone call or an after school drop in? You might recall a time when you were trying to build a new relationship with a boss or colleague. You likely found chances to connect in small ways. Teachers have shared with me their dismay and disappointment when their first contact with a parent involves a problem. That’s not the way you want to begin a relationship. So be certain to make an effort to introduce yourself and begin to build a connection from the start.
Getting involved in your child’s school community does not have to mean you are volunteering in the classroom once per week. If you can, that’s an incredible contribution. But we know from the NBC News State of Parenting poll, sponsored by Pearson, that 43% of parents said they want to be more involved in their children’s education but don’t have the time because of work responsibilities. However there are simple, small ways to get involved that can still have a significant impact on your child. Attend school events in the early morning or evening (or when you are most available). Whether it’s a soccer game or a musical or a morning “Muffins for Moms” event, your attendance will give you a chance to put faces with names and connect, even if briefly, with teachers, staff and the school principal.
Though saying hello at school events may sound trivial, even silly, it’s far from it. Consider that Sandy Hook Elementary and other schools with tragic shootings have, since the event occurred, focused on and become highly intentional about offering numerous ways to build safe, caring connections between parents and school staff. It’s not just a nicety. Those relationships ensure that there is an interconnected web at the ready when problems arise. If a child becomes depressed or involved in high risk behaviors, because the adults are already talking to one another, they notice those early warning signals and are poised to join forces to support any individual in need.
But what happens if there is a problem early on in the school year and you feel compelled to discuss the issue with your child’s teacher? How can you best prepare for some of the more challenging issues that come along? Perhaps your child comes home upset about his first graded paper and feels the teacher has judged him unfairly. Or perhaps your child receives a demerit for a misuse of a bathroom break, but she tells you that the teacher got it all wrong and the accusation is untrue.
Frequently, we hear one side of the story from our children. We know the information is limited in scope, but it’s all we have to go on. And when our children are hurting, it’s easy to skip to blaming a teacher or another student for the perceived injustice. Be certain to seek further information before making conclusions. Recall that the teacher likely has more to add to the story and perhaps, a different perspective from your child’s. Give the benefit of the doubt first to your child’s teacher, remembering that the relationship with your family - your child and you - can have a long-term impact on the entire school year. James Comer of the Yale Child Study Center describes the danger of not giving the teacher the benefit of the doubt first and seeking additional information when there is a problem;
Children in home-school conflict situations often receive a
double message from their parents: “The school is the hope
for your future, listen, be good and learn” and “the school is
your enemy. . . .” Children who receive the “school is the
enemy” message often go after the enemy–act up, undermine
the teacher, undermine the school program, or otherwise exer-
cise their veto power.”[i]
This is not in the interest the child. He is not mature enough to understand constructive ways to deal with the conflicting messages he is receiving. So be careful not to skip to judgement. You may instead consider the following.
Coach your child on how to approach a conversation with his teacher. After all, the conflict is between your child and the teacher, not you. How can you give him the conversational tools to be able to approach his teacher with constructive ways to discuss the problem? If your child is upset, encourage him to calm down and not approach his teacher when he is highly emotional. Then practice words he can use to begin a conversation. Kids may tend toward blaming. “You gave me a ‘D’ on my paper and you were wrong!” might be a child’s starter. Instead help him approach her in a way that will not put her on the defensive. You might say, “I was disappointed to receive such a low first grade. Can you explain the problem to me so I can better understand what I did?”
If your child attempts to work it out and there’s still a significant problem, then get in touch and ask if you can schedule an in-person conversation. With any problem situation, talking eyeball to eyeball can make a significant difference in coming to a resolution and building trust in the relationship. Begin in the same way you coached your son - seeking further understanding - without blame. “My son has been upset about his grade. Can you help me understand what’s going on and how I can support him?” Taking responsibility for your role in the situation will show the teacher you are willing to lend your energies to helping both work through the challenge.
Parents who are proactive about getting to know their children’s teachers are generally better in touch with what their children are learning in school and feel better connected to the staff and environment. It’s worth the small investment it takes. Remember that teachers are frequently motivated from the heart and often go unthanked for their contributions. Notice the small ways that they positively impact your child and mention them. A teacher never tires of hearing that he is making a difference. Those moments of sincere feedback will continue to build a trusting relationship, nourishing you, your family and your school community.