In another post I talked about forming a positive relationship with parents and a sure-fire way to do that – letting parents know you like their child by telling them good things the child has done at school. It can take some effort to both make the contact with the parent and to find that good thing to tell them about, but the rewards are huge. Parents see you as someone who likes their child and who is not “out to get” him/her. And we benefit because it forces us to look for the good in each and every student.
There are other ways to get parents on your side, too.
Help students know what they learned
Students rarely understand what they’ve learned, so when a parent or other adult asks, “What did you do in school today?” they do not know how to respond. In fact, many kids interpret that question to be asking what happened that was different from any other day.
To top it all off, kids don’t always know how to put their learning experiences into words.
I realized this when I was teaching all day and later I would ask my son what he did in school. I had the advantage of knowing more about what goes on during a school day so I was able to ask more probing questions, but many, if not most, parents do not know this.
I began by asking the students if their parents ever asked them what they did in school. Most raised their hands. Then I asked what they told their parents when they were asked this. Sure enough, most said, “Nothing.”
I started by teaching the students a procedure. “I’m going to help you look absolutely brilliant in front of your parents. At the end of each day (or class period) we’re going to go over what you can tell your folks when they ask that question.”
What we did was reviewed aloud the learning targets for that day (or class). Most teachers write these on the board so it is not difficult to go over them with the students. It is important to have the students read the learning targets out loud, first in unison. Then quickly say, “What did you do in school today . . . Jackson?” And teach the students to respond, “I learned . . . “ Insert the learning target there.
In addition, if your school uses student agendas, those required assignment books, have the students write the learning target in the agenda. Teach the students that they can refer to their agenda to answer the adult’s question.
A picture is worth a thousand words
Parents and grandparents love to show off pictures of their children. Sadly they rarely are able to see what their child is doing at school.
Use technology to show parents you are on their child’s side. Take photos of their child doing school work, laughing at a joke, cleaning up, or helping. Send that photo to the parent using your preferred method. These are not photos that should be put into a class newsletter. That could be considered a violation of confidentiality. Instead these are photos you take just of THAT student and are sent to just his/her parent(s). You can even use photos like this as that monthly positive contact that I’ve discussed in previous posts.
It is difficult for parents to say that Lois hates school when they have a photo of her laughing while working in a small group.
Don’t forget that many families either choose not to use technology or cannot use it. Reliable internet is difficult in rural areas, and costs money in all areas. People who do not use technology as part of their job may be less likely to use it at home. So we have to use the technology the parent is able to use. If you know Lois’ parents do not have access or rarely check email, then print the photo out and drop it in the mail.
If you do use the mail, don’t use an envelope with a school logo or printed return address on it. Too often, those envelopes disappear, either because the child gets the mail before the parent does, or because the parents are too alienated or frustrated by the school to open it. In their experience, mail from school is usually bad news. Instead make the letter look more personal. I’ve even used the more square envelopes you’d expect to find a greeting card. Jot a quick note (Hi, I thought I’d share this photo of Lois with you. Ms. Roe) on a sticky note on the photo and pop it in the mail.
Be careful to not take sides
The majority of marriages end in divorce, and divorce can get really messy. It is easy to fall into the trap of taking sides. As a professional, you are required to work with both parents unless there is a court order to the contrary. This may mean making two phone calls about one child. This may mean sending two copies of the class newsletter instead of one.
Sadly, many parents who are going through a divorce try to get the teacher to side with this one against that one. Don’t do it. This doesn’t mean you cannot listen sympathetically to a parent vent about the other. It does mean that you make sure both parents know you are on the side of the child, and you are willing to work with both of them to benefit the child.
Recognize parental love and concern
There are parents whose parenting style is light years away from ideal, but the motivation behind their parenting is the same. Nine times out of ten, they want what is best for their child. Their understanding of “what’s best” and your ideas may differ, but wanting what is best for the child is a motivating factor both the parent and the teacher has in common. Use it!
When having that difficult conversation with the parent, start by saying something like, “Ms. Jones, I know you love your daughter.” Stop there. Don’t give in to the temptation of adding a “but”. You do not want to say anything that could be interpreted as “but you’re doing it all wrong.” Instead, continue with something like, “I want Lois to be successful just like you do. Let’s work together to help her.”
In my experience, this method gets hostile parents to do a double-take. They’ve probably only had teachers who phrased things to the effect of “your child is broken; fix her!” Those dreaded tiger parents or helicopter parents, as well, have difficulty blaming the teacher for this or that when she puts this slant on it.
This approach puts the conversation with the parent on a completely different foot. Suddenly it is not about the teacher telling the parent that it is the parent’s responsibility to “fix” their child. Instead it is saying that the teacher wants to work in collaboration.
Be sure to reinforce this by ending a conference with something like, “I am confident that by working together, we can get Lois back on track.”
Think “solutions” not “problems”
It is common for teachers to inform parents of problems with the idea that if a parent knows there is a problem, the parent will find a way to fix it. However, parents do not always know what to do. They do not always see the same problem in their interactions with the child. If the child has a history of problems at school, the parent may have begun to think of the school being out to “get” their child.
Labeling a behavior doesn’t help. Saying Jackson is lazy might be true, but it doesn’t offer any way to change the behavior. Telling parents what has happened in a neutral,, business-like way can put us on the way to finding a solution, while just naming the problem just names the problem.
A way to tackle this is to plan out what you are going to tell the parent when you are going to have a face-to-face meeting or if you are making a phone call to them. Try this:
- Tell the parent what the child has done in observable and measurable terms. Saying, “Jackson did not turn in his homework on Monday and Tuesday” is neutral. There isn’t room for arguing about it. However, saying, “Jackson doesn’t want to turn in his homework” leaves a lot of room for argument. And when you get right down to it, do you really know what Jackson does or doesn’t want?
- Tell the parent what you’ve done to try to solve the problem. Again, do this using observable and measurable terms and do it in a neutral voice: “I talked to Jackson privately just before recess on Monday. He said he’d been too busy to do his homework. When he didn’t turn in work on Tuesday, I talked to him again. He told me that he did do his work, but his mother threw it away by mistake.”
Doing this is less likely to make a parent defensive than saying something to the effect that Jackson was sassy or lying.
- Ask the parent for their input. Yes, we are professionals and have a great many ideas on what to do to solve problems, but parents have expertise, too. The parent may answer your question by saying they don’t know or they may tell you things that make you see the underlying causes of the problem behavior.
Be sure to phrase this question in a way that there is no hint of parent-blaming. Saying, “What is going on at home that Jackson is doing this” will make most parents more defensive and hostile. Saying, “Can you help me understand what’s going on with Jackson” is much more neutral and more likely to help the parent see the teacher as wanting to collaborate.
- Tell the parent what you will or can do at school to try to solve the problem, and what you’d like them to do at home. Plan out ahead of time what you’d like the parent to do at home in case s/he doesn’t have any ideas about what to do. If you can, incorporate any ideas the parent may have had into these solutions. Tell the parent, this is what you said you will do at home.
Be motivating by offering hope
Unless you are a preschool teacher, odds are the parent(s) of THAT student have heard over and over again about things s/he has done wrong at school. The parents are likely to be frustrated, defensive, overwhelmed or bewildered about what to do to turn things around for their child. They need to work with a teacher who projects confidence and the belief that by working together, things can be different for the child. The parents need to know that the teacher does not think their child is beyond help, or that s/he is so deeply flawed that s/he will always be or have a problem.
In my experience, ending a problem-solving conference with a parent by saying, “I am confident that by working together we can get a handle on this and help Jackson get back on track” works far better than simply telling parents what you want them to do. Saying that, offers parents a glimmer of hope.
Don’t we all need hope to keep on keeping on?
Remember, our language has the power to shape what others think, and it also shapes our beliefs about things. We need to see light at the end of the tunnel when working with THAT student as much as THAT student’s parents need to see the teacher as sincerely wanting to help. Changing the way we talk about things helps. Notice that I called the conference with parents a “problem-solving conference” rather than a “negative phone call” or just a conference. Thinking “problem-solving” shapes the way we think about it. It helps us think about working together with the parent, rather than just naming the problem.
Try these ideas on how to build a more positive relationship with parents, and especially the patents of THAT student.
Do let me know how these ideas are working for you!