Parents are key partners in successful teaching. An administrator made this point when he interviewed me for my first teaching job more than twenty years ago, and he was right. Many parents are directly involved in the formal education of their children through home school programs, and countless others spend a lot of time helping their kids keep up on the assignments they get from teachers. Parents are important supporters of PTSA, athletics, and many other extracurricular programs. Drawing on their support is vital to a fulfilling school year.
I remember feeling nervous about contacting parents, especially in my first few years of teaching. I was afraid of being perceived as ineffective or incompetent if I couldn’t “handle things on my own.” I was pleasantly surprised to discover that most parents didn’t respond to me this way at all. They were grateful I kept them informed and pledged to help their student succeed in my class.
This was true for all kinds of parents, from those with honors students struggling to keep up to others who had kids with special needs. As a bilingual teacher, I also worked with many Spanish-speaking parents over the course of my career. All were appreciative of my efforts and expressed their willingness to work with me. To be sure, I had a few who questioned my methods, but even those came to some sort of compromise with me. Many parents over the years shared family memorabilia that related to what we were studying in history class. Others attended class to observe or participate.
When I organized an after school theater program during my five years as a middle school teacher, the parents showed up for rehearsal and performances. Many had never attended any school activity before. I walked the neighborhood to get some of them to come or to discuss their student’s academic progress in my history class. I made phone calls home in both English and Spanish. I encouraged them all to attend Back to School Night and the annual Open House and offered my students incentives to bring their families.
Keeping parents informed early is important in setting the pace for the entire year. Several of the schools where I worked had software programs that would call home with grade progress reports or other messages. All I had to do was enter the code or message and press “send.” I made sure I contacted parents if their student won my Student of the Month award (the student would receive a handwritten certificate and a week of extra credit homework points) or if their grade fell below a C-. If a parent wanted to meet with me, I would schedule a conference during my prep period or after school. I tried to accommodate the parent’s schedule and make sure the student could attend.
Discipline problems were diminished if I included the parent from the beginning (see also my blog entry on “Progressive Discipline”). I would usually call or email the parent right away if their student was having trouble listening to me or refusing to follow directions in class. This was particularly true at the beginning of the year. I remember calling one father at the end of the first day of school to tell him his son had to be moved to the back of the room because of disruptive behavior. His response was “Already?” but then he thanked me for letting him know right away. He told me some of his son’s former teachers had waited too long to let him know what was going on.
Remember that your students choose how to behave in your class. By the time they get to high school, they are already young adults and have been students for many years. They know what is expected of them, and if they are discourteous, they are making a choice. The way they treat you is probably not that different from the way they treat their parents. One mom said in exasperation, “I don’t know what to do with him!” when I called about her son’s behavior. She was at a loss. We ended up coming up with a joint discipline solution that worked for everyone involved. Her son decided to change his behavior, I didn’t have to send him to the office, and he finished the semester with a passing grade.
Don’t wait to call the parent or guardian. They want to hear from you, whether it is good or bad news. Some of my parents were afraid to contact me because they thought I would be angry at them for their child’s behavior. I had to reassure them that I give every student another chance to improve, and that I always distinguish between the person and the act. I designed a Parent Acknowledgment Form to accompany the course syllabus at the outset of every school year for parents and students to sign, which specifically stated that I looked forward to working with all of them to ensure the student’s success.
I worked with some difficult parents, to be sure. With some of them I had to compromise on my discipline choices. I had to say no to a few who wanted their students to be excused from certain course requirements because of family vacations. Others wanted alternative assessments or objected to state content standards. I tried to accommodate every family’s needs as best I could. It is important to do so, but not at the cost of your integrity as an educator. Stick to what you feel is right. If you are conforming to state standards and your school’s administrative procedures, you are doing your job correctly. Believe in yourself.
I always enjoyed the support I received from parents as a teacher. It made the job worthwhile. Being a part of their child’s education was a privilege. For many of your students, you may be the most dependable or educated adult they know. Teachers are important authority figures in the life of a child and can have as great an impact on their development as their own relatives. Develop effective teamwork with parents as you go. Your students will do better knowing that all the adults in their life are working together to help them succeed.
Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.
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