Thursday, September 22, 2011

Parents Can Do Things That Teachers Love

School has started for a lot of kids, and parents are nervous. Teachers spend a lot of time with our children, and we want that time to be as positive as it can be. Will this teacher like my kid? we think. Will they smile at him/her as they come into the room? Will they challenge my child to learn, encourage them through challenges, and move them past momentary failures?

Because there is such a tremendous amount of trust in a parent-teacher relationship, there are a lot of things that can go wrong. Shenanigans can occur. Feelings can be hurt, professionalism can be questioned...and unlike when we were all kids, not all issues can be solved with a handshake. Throw special needs into the mix, and it's no wonder an adversarial relationship can develop! It needs to be emphasized, however, that not all of the parent-teacher issues are the fault of the teacher, nor are the parents to bear complete responsibility. Parents and teachers need to work together, united in the best interest of children. There should never be a question of where the focus should be.

Teachers go through some form of training every year that involves working successfully with parents. They have Monday Mail, and websites, and voice mail, among other methods of communication. Teachers are told to respond to parents promptly and to be courteous and respectful no matter what. Parents do not receive any such training. They are not given a list of rules to follow when dealing with teachers, or the school. It is assumed that they know, when that isn't necessarily true. I always tell my husband that he can't just assume that the kids know what to do--he has to tell them what he expects, in clear and precise language.

In the interest of being helpful, then, I offer just a few tips that seem to improve a teacher's perception of a parent. It's not an exhaustive list, and I must emphasize that my list is The Neutral Zone. I work in education, but I also happen to be a parent. Consider me Switzerland.

So, here goes:

1. Communicate, but not too much.
Teachers love to hear from parents, but calling the teacher four or five times a day could be considered stalking in some states. Especially if your child is in college. The communication needs to match the age and the needs of a child. Your average ten year old may only require a weekly email between parent and teacher, while a severely disabled student may need daily communication via a spiral notebook. Notice that I said daily, not hourly. Remember that the time spent returning those four or five phone calls is time spent away from instruction and/or planning.

2. Let your child take some responsibility.
Let your child have the grade they have earned. If they get a discipline referral, let them serve the consequence. Don't go rushing into the principal's office screaming that your child 'deserves' a passing grade, or that they shouldn't have to serve detention because of their poor self-esteem. The message sent here is that a kid never has to actually work at anything, because his mom or dad will 'fix' it. We complain that children have no sense of personal responsibility, yet we 'fix' a lot of things for our kids because we don't want them to fail. Sometimes kids just don't study or don't turn in assignments, and they get a failing grade. That is a natural, real-life consequence that can be applied to the adult world. "If I don't do my work, I don't get the grade" is equal to "If I don't do my job, I don't get paid".

3. If you don't understand something, ask!
There is no harm in asking the teacher to explain the purpose of the assignment or what skill is being taught. Parents often don't want to ask questions because they don't want the teacher to think that they are uninformed; teachers want parents to ask questions because that means that they are actually interested. If a teacher can't explain why she is teaching a concept, then you might have an issue. But you won't know that until you ask.

4. The only constant is change, so be flexible when you can.
Stuff happens. Plans sometimes have to be delayed, postponed, or cancelled. Teachers do their very best to accommodate students' needs, but things happen(random fire drills, equipment being stolen, etc.) that the teacher may have no control over, so try to be a little flexible when there's an occasional hitch.

5. Please make sure that your child does their homework.
My husband was asked why a student had to read twenty minutes every day. Since this particular student was on the football team, my husband asked him why he had football practice every day. To work on skills and get better at the game, responded the student, and one can almost imagine the little light bulb that lit up. The best way to improve at any skill is practice, and that is what homework is. Your child is not only practicing the skill they learned that day, they are practicing future work skills like task completion and self-discipline. A future boss is not going to be forgiving if your son or daughter blows off a work assignment; why is a teacher expected to do so?

6. Don't expect instantaneous results
This is one that I admit that I struggle with. Intellectually, I understand that learning is a step-by-step process, and that my son will learn a skill when he is ready. Emotionally, however, I get a bit impatient, as if the clouds will part and the Heavenly Host will impart instantaneous reading skills upon my child. The brain doesn't work that way, and if a child is special needs, it may be even harder for there to be acquisition of a skill.

7. Follow the chain of command.
There isn't much that I hate more than being called into my boss' office and yelled at about a problem when I had no idea that there WAS a problem. Don't do that. Give the teacher a chance to explain or correct the problem. If that doesn't work, follow the chain of command up the ladder. Parents may think that getting the 'big shots' involved in a problem will correct it, but the reality is that the Superintendent, who is comparable to a CEO, often has no idea what the heck is going on. He or She just wants the problem to go away, and that is not productive.

Now parents who have read this can say that they have had some 'training' in parent-teacher relations. I hope that I have helped at little. If you've lost your temper and yelled at a teacher, don't be hard on yourself. It happens. Apologize for the outburst, emphasize your desire to work things out, mend fences. I promise that will make the school year much smoother for parents. Oh, and the kids will be happier, too. Except about the homework.


  1. I knew I was lucky, but this post certainly reminds me just how lucky I have been as a parent! I am pretty sure you folks don't get told enough (as if there could ever be enough)...but you are appreciated!

  2. Thank you for posting this! I have no idea what to expect from my kindergartner's teacher... now I have a better idea!


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