Working with parents

Julia Norman, 7th and 8th grade science teacher, John F. Kennedy Middle School, Waltham.

New teachers deal with many challenges in their first few years. One of the biggest challenges I faced was communicating with parents. I was overwhelmed by my daily teaching, and finding the time and nerve to interact with parents was very stressful. Through the years, I've learned a few lessons about teacher-parent communication.

First, it's not about me. When I was a new teacher, if a parent questioned my judgment I took it very personally. I was ready to stand up and defend all of my actions in the classroom. I now realize that I don't do everything perfectly every day. If a parent has a question or raises an issue, I am happy to listen and reflect on his or her point of view. I don't always agree 100 percent, but I value the perspective.

Second, don't react out of anger. All teachers have received a phone call or e-mail from a parent that has fired them up. When you get these messages, don't respond immediately. Most of us have sent an e-mail or two that we wish we could take back. I have a 3+ hour no-response rule. This gives me time to calm down and approach the parent without being negative. I have found that most parents reflect my tone when I am talking to them. If I'm worked up, they will get worked up as well.

Finally, do communicate! Don't avoid making that call because you are nervous or can't find the time. Parents need to be equal partners in their children's education and must be kept in the loop. I am a big fan of group e-mails to parents about special events or simply what we are studying in class. Parents appreciate "being in the know."

View from some more veterans

Tips from Sheila Hanley, Randolph Education Association

Soon after I started teaching I realized that I needed a course in classroom management. I elected to take a course called Assertive Discipline.
The course encouraged frequent and positive communication with parents. Make that first call to parents a positive one. This lets them know you're not always calling because there is a problem. It establishes a working relationship with parents that will be important when or if a problem does arise where you need their support. In that case most parents want to be notified early. If that first call is abut a problem, try to highlight what the student does well before mentioning the area of concern. These basic rules have served me well. 

Tips from Christopher Saulnier, Acushnet Teachers Association

Working with parents has never been one of my strong points, but it is something that every teacher has to deal with.  I have received some tips from others, though, that have helped through those harrowing times.

Christopher Saulnier
8th grade science, Acushnet

  1. Be yourself.  Parents appreciate getting to know the person that teaches their child.  If you don't wear a suit every day, don't wear a suit on the open house night.  You want to be comfortable when meeting parents.
  2. Parent contact doesn't have to be just for negative reasons. If you build a positive relationship from the beginning, then parents are more receptive if an issue arises.
  3. Keep it short and sweet. Most parents are busy people, too. They don't have time to talk about their kid for two hours, and you probably have something better to do as well.  Start a phone conversation with, "I only have a couple minutes, but I wanted to call and let you know..." If the conversation goes longer than expected, suggest an in-school meeting to continue the discussion.
  4. Get involved in the community.  Show up at town fairs.  Volunteer at the community center. Join a book club. While you're probably thinking, "Where's the time?" most of these activities have very little or extremely flexible time commitments.  They can also be extremely rewarding for you personally as well as showing the parents that you care about the community.

I hope these tips are helpful as you deal with The Close Encounters of the Parental Kind.  You will have your stories like everyone else, but these hints will make things a little less painful. And if the stories are funny, be sure to share!