Secrets for Secondary School Teachers: How to Succeed in Your First Year (2004)

Chapter 11. Communicating With Parents

Silence. That was what I (Ellen) heard on the other end of the telephone. Complete stillness except for soft breathing. I had just called a parent to say what a pleasure it was to have her child in my class, how attentive she was, and what good grades she was getting.

“Yes,” the parent responded expectantly, “and what’s your point?”

“That’s all,” I replied, a bit confused. Here I was telling her what a pleasure her daughter was to work with, how attentive she was in class, that she turned her homework in on time, was making steady progress, and the mother seemed almost defensive.

“Oh,” she finally said. “I was waiting for the bad news.” She laughed, then said, as if to confirm there was no other reason for the call, “Are you sure?”

“Yes, I’m sure,” I said, not at all sure if the mother believed me yet. “I hope she continues to do well in the future.”

“Well,” the parent said with relief. “Thank you so much for calling! It’s so nice to have a teacher call with a good report. You just made my day! I appreciate your taking the time to call.”

As I hung up the phone, I’m sure we both had smiles on our faces.

Parents enjoy hearing about their children’s positive experiences, both academic and social. They don’t get to see how a child interacts with, and responds to, the variety of people and experiences in the school environment. Much of what they hear is filtered through the often limited reports from the children: “How was school today?” the parent asks. “Fine. What’s there to eat?” You provide parents with a “window” into their child’s world. In ideal circumstances, your conversations with parents about their children should include a balance of both supportive as well as constructive reports.

THE IMPORTANCE OF PARENT INVOLVEMENT

It’s extremely important to establish communication with parents/guardians early in the year and maintain it until the end.

The National Parent Teacher Association (PTA) reports from their research that when parents are involved in their child’s education, the child does better academically, regardless of the socioeconomic status or ethnic/cultural background of the family, and regardless of the age of the child. Not only that, but there is increased likelihood of the child displaying cooperative behavior, positive attitudes, and completing and submitting homework on time. With parental involvement, students are more likely to have regular attendance, to graduate, and to go on to some form of postsecondary education.

The National PTA has six National Standards for Parent/Family Involvement Programs. The topics include: (1) improving communication between parents and schools, (2) providing programs to improve parenting skills, (3) increasing parent involvement in student learning, (4) providing more opportunities for parent volunteering, (5) increasing participation of parents in school decision making and advocacy, and (6) closer collaboration between teachers and other community organizations. We will take a look at how to develop the initial rapport with parents.

BUILDING PARENT RELATIONSHIPS

At the beginning of each semester, most schools now require that the teacher send home a course syllabus or class expectancy sheet. At the bottom of the page, you can include a place for the parent or guardian to sign, indicating that he or she has read the paper and is aware of the objectives, grading policy, and content of the class.

The written communication does not have to stop there. You can send a more personal letter home, introducing yourself to the parents at the beginning of the school year. Share a little bit about your background, your interests, your educational philosophy, what the course will entail for the students, and how parents can help. Periodically, or on a regular basis, you can send a general note home informing the parents of class activities, upcoming field trips, events or projects, or asking for volunteer time or the donation of objects that would be useful in the classroom. Email can also be a useful way to communicate with parents to solicit their input as well as to provide reports of student progress.

Many parents will welcome the opportunity to be involved. Some have other commitments and are only available on a short-term basis. These parents might chaperone a field trip. Or they will bake for a special occasion if it is permitted. They will donate products or supplies from home. They would be willing to visit the class to be part of an audience for a performance or judge a presentation. Many have an area of expertise they would be happy to share. They just need to be informed of what is needed, when, and where. Some will be available on a regular basis; others, not at all, due to family and work schedules. Even if they cannot be included or involved, they will benefit from the information you provide about what is happening during the school day in the student’s classes—not only for their own knowledge but as tools to begin conversations with their children.

Within an aboriginal community in Australia, one school principal decided to reshape the whole concept of a school to be more culturally relevant and responsive to parents. He gathered together as many parents as he could, calling and visiting the others who could not make it to the scheduled meetings. In his presentation, he made it clear that the school was an extension of their homes. As such, they were invited to visit as often as they like, just as they would drop in to see neighbors and friends. Although this might seem a bit chaotic and inappropriate in many North American settings, the whole idea of this plan was to make parents more active partners in the educational process.

I (Jeffrey) have noticed a similar pattern in other indigenous cultures in which I have worked. While preparing primarily native Hawaiian teachers in some of the outer islands, it was very common for their families to visit at any time throughout the day. The students’ parents would come and bring food to share, often sitting in on the classes so they could see what was going on. The students themselves would bring their own infant or preschool children, and everyone in the class would take turns caring for the children.

These two examples illustrate the breaking down of traditional boundaries between school and home, in order to work more collaboratively and cooperatively with families. You can take a huge step in this direction simply by letting parents know that you value their input and contributions.

Another way to build rapport with parents is to attend the programs when they come to watch their children, whether on the ball field, in the theater, or at an academic competition. Yet another option is to invite families to come before or after school, or in the evening to view a “gallery” or “museum” of student work. With this invitation, you not only display students’ work and give recognition for their accomplishments, but also provide a venue for parents to interact with you in a more informal way. Hopefully, using the above suggestions, you will meet and get to know the parents in person before graduation day.

CONTACTING PARENTS

Schools send out grades on a regular basis and most, if not all schools also send out notices midway through the cardmarking period to alert parents if their children are displaying socially unacceptable behavior and/or are making unsatisfactory progress (sometimes called “unsats”) or are failing one or more classes. Parents are generally made aware of the mailing dates of these notices. Most schools have a form you can use at any time to send the information home.

Although we wish that all contacts home involved reporting good news—whether by telephone, email, or mailing a letter/postcard home—it is far more likely that we contact parents/guardians by phone because their child is being noncompliant or difficult socially, academically, or both.

When you are making such contacts, be as sensitive and noncritical as possible so that parents don’t become unduly threatened and uncooperative themselves (obviously, they will not be thrilled to hear negative reports about their child). Emphasize that you share values with the parent regarding the student’s welfare. Acknowledge, if appropriate, that this can be a difficult time between parents and children. Try to stay neutral, calm, and supportive.

If you are verbally attacked, or it is obvious the parent isn’t listening, then disengage as best you can without making matters worse. Schedule a parent conference with the principal or another administrator present, or refer the parent to the counselor, dean, or assistant principal.

Basically, in these reports to parents, you are simply informing them of what you have observed. Provide specific examples of what has occurred. Mention a few of the student’s strengths as well as weaknesses. Then, ask for the parents’ help with your problem (and it really is your concern).

One such conversation might begin like this: “Hello Mrs. Tran. I am calling to talk to you about your daughter. As you know, she is a young woman who is very spirited, enthusiastic, and energetic. She is a lot of fun to be around and I can count on her to help enliven class when things become a little dull.” (This is a diplomatic way of saying that she has attention deficit problems, is sometimes disruptive and unruly, and is difficult to control. Of course, Mrs. Tran will already know this.)

“I do have some challenges, however, helping her to stay on task as she has a lot of different interests.” (She is all over the place and does not concentrate well or stay focused for long). “For instance, the other day, everyone was working quietly on an assignment and Tina kept throwing paper clips at a few of her friends across the aisle—I’m sure you are aware that she has quite a few friends.” (Again, the behavior problems are framed within a more balanced, positive context).

“I was wondering if we might put our heads together and figure out some ways that we could help Tina to improve her concentration, and at the same time, to improve her schoolwork, which is nowhere near her potential. I think we both agree that she is a bright girl who, with a little guidance, could improve significantly.” (With the conversation set up in this way, Mrs. Tran is more than willing to be helpful. She also does not feel a “loss of face.”)

Teachers often call home when there is trouble brewing. The student is being a pest in class, or is not turning in work, or might even be failing. The parents of many students have even become conditioned over time to associate bad news with teacher calls home, and they may have become understandably defensive. It is as if we are criticizing their parental competence, as if we’re saying their kids have turned out the way they have because the parents don’t know what they’re doing.

Actually, we do think that, on occasion. Many of the students we see come from homes with very unhealthy living situations: poverty, unemployment, physical or sexual abuse, neglect, excessive alcohol consumption, drug abuse, little supervision, little help with homework, angry, even violent behavior among the adults, inconsistent or minimal discipline, and absolutely no support for excellence in school. Students in such situations experience hopelessness and despair and a lack of positive role models. No wonder some students struggle so much.

Still, parents are the keys to any lasting change efforts we might wish to promote. They can be our best friends or our worst enemies. If they are unsupportive, they can easily sabotage any potential their children have to succeed in school or in life. Often, what we are doing seems threatening to them, or at least incomprehensible. Even if their kids wanted to do their homework or prepare for class, they may be teased or scorned mercilessly by their siblings, parents, and friends. That is why it is so crucial that we connect not only with our students but also their parents, in order to build positive relationships.

One easy way for you to begin is to find a reason, almost any reason, to call parents, email them, or write them a note when their children do something that is positive, or at least a step in the right direction. Here are some examples of positive calls home you might make:

•   “I’ve been really impressed that your daughter has come to class on time 3 days in a row. I just wanted to let you know that whatever you’re doing, it seems to be working.”

•   “Your son turned in a paper to me this week, and although he definitely needs work with his punctuation and grammar, the ideas he expressed were really interesting. I just wanted to let you know that I think he’s got some real potential.”

•   “I just finished grading the latest exam. Although the total score your daughter got wasn’t nearly as high as I think she is capable of doing, I really liked some of her creative responses. She really has a wonderful imagination.”

•   “I wanted to let you know that your son really helped me out today. There was a fight that broke out in class, and he helped me regain order by acting quickly to break things up. He shows some real leadership at times. I’d love to try and build on that.”

•   “As you know, sometimes your daughter can be a bit challenging to keep under control. I really find her a joy to have in class, though. Her sense of humor and playfulness are lovely. I’m working with her now to be a bit more restrained at times in her comments, and I think she’s making fine progress. I just wanted you to know that.”

Okay, some of these are a stretch. But you get the general idea. Look for the slightest signs of improvement in your students, any evidence at all that they are growing, learning, or changing, and reinforce that behavior directly by telling them how much you appreciate their efforts. Also make a point to tell their parents. Keep the communication ongoing.

It’s a good idea to keep a record of your contacts home, whether you spoke with parents or the student. Note the date, time, and nature of the conversation. Also, if you agreed to do anything that requires action of some kind, make a note in your planner to follow up, and then do so.

OPEN HOUSE

Most schools hold an Open House or Back to School Night for parents to meet the teachers. The Open House typically takes one of two formats. The most common is one in which the parents are given a copy of the school schedule, and each class meets for an abbreviated period, maybe 10 minutes. During this time, teachers introduce themselves, describe the content of the class, review the grading policy, and perhaps show examples of student work. It’s worth your while to spend a little time on making your room attractive for this event.

Usually, there are a few minutes for general questions. Sometimes parents will ask questions or make suggestions to which you are not prepared to respond. A gracious way to handle such a situation is to thank them for bringing the idea to your attention, and go on. There is no time given for individual attention or conversation regarding a specific student during this format; therefore, a private conference can be suggested for a later date.

Other helpful hints include the following:

•   Prepare a PowerPoint presentation to support the main points of your introduction. Parents will see firsthand how technology is being integrated into their child’s education.

•   Inform your audience as to how they can get in touch with you and when they might expect a response—during your prep period, before school, after school, or in the evening. Make sure to let parents know how they can make arrangements to have a conference with you.

•   Distribute a handout with pertinent information or a copy of your syllabus, because the time goes so quickly, and sometimes parents forget what they hear. Also, it will keep you “on task.” And if you get nervous easily, handouts are a good idea because parents will likely look at the sheet of paper rather than at you.

•   Practice what you are going to say aloud for timing—ten minutes will be long for some of you, but will go by quickly for others.

•   Pass around a “sign-in sheet” that indicates student’s name and parent(s)/guardian(s) names. (Remember, the last names can be different.)

The second format is where teachers sit in their rooms, or together in one room, such as the cafeteria, library/media center, and/or gymnasium, and the parents line up to speak to each of their children’s teachers. In this scenario, teachers introduce themselves and then give a brief description of the course and a quick report on the child’s progress. Although more personal in nature than the first format, there still isn’t time to go into any problems in depth. A private, individual conference can be suggested for a later date.

FACE-TO-FACE CONTACTS

Formal or informal parent conferences are other fruitful methods of communication. Such meetings can include a single parent or a whole group of people, including the student, his or her parents, other family members, school administrators, a counselor, and others (psychologist, social worker, special education teacher) who might be relevant. Including students will give them the opportunity to express their own feelings and perspectives on behavior and academic achievement. Some schools utilize student-led conferences, where the student is responsible for planning and leading.

It is important to be prepared for the conference. First, consider setting the stage. If the conference is to be held in your room, you may need to rearrange the furniture so there will be comfortable places for the parents and you to sit face to face. If you sit behind your desk, you create a symbolic barrier; sitting across a table or in front of one another is a friendlier approach. Try to find a time and place where you will not be disturbed. Post a note on your door indicating that a conference is in progress.

Create a folder for the conference in which to put assignments and examples of the student’s work. You might also want to add your written descriptions of the student’s behavior. Include a printout of the student’s attendance record and grades as well.

The first impression you make is very important. Greet the parent(s) or guardian(s) as they enter the room. Introduce yourself, if this is the first meeting. Be sure to make eye contact with the adults, and say hello to the student if he or she is present. Use their names. As you guide the participants into the room, say something positive about the student. Let the parents look around the room. Talk about the class in general.

As you begin the conference, ask an open-ended question such as, “What does Lisi say about the class when she is at home?” See if you can gather information this way. Use your listening skills and watch the body language. Then, review the purpose of the conference—was it initiated by the parent? By you? Or, is this a regularly scheduled conference to review progress? If the student is present, have him or her state his or her view of the situation and his or her feelings about it.

Review the objectives for the class, and see if there are any problems. If so, identify strategies that might help resolve the problems. Be specific as you determine the child’s responsibilities, the parents’ or guardians’ responsibilities, and your own role. Try to set a time line for what needs to be done, when, where, and how. The last step is to identify how progress will be evaluated and monitored.

In concluding the conference, thank the parents for coming, and invite each person to summarize his or her understanding of the conversation. Make plans for further communication with the adults, by telephone, letter, fax, email, another scheduled conference, or a progress report sent by the school.

After the conference, you can take time to write down some notes (if you didn’t do so during the meeting). Reflect on what transpired, asking yourself the following questions:

•   Did I give each of the participants time to share his or her views?

•   Did I mention positive aspects of the student’s behavior and work as well as the problem areas?

•   Was I prepared with samples of the student’s work and examples of behavior?

•   Did I keep the focus on the student and not the school or the parent?

•   Did I maintain my composure throughout the meeting, staying empathic and responsive?

•   Was a specific plan developed to foster progress in the future?

•   What was forgotten or neglected that I may wish to deal with in the future?

Making “house calls” is one other option to consider. Although time consuming, and perhaps risky without supervision and proper training, informal visits to a student’s home with the parents’ prior approval is another way that you can show how much you care. You can gain valuable information in that setting that would be inaccessible any other way.

ONGOING CONTACT

You can direct students to take home their graded or evaluated work with a note to have signed and returned as a way to make sure the parent is kept abreast of the student’s progress. If you do this, make sure that each student returns the work with the appropriate signature. Those who don’t return papers or projects need to have their parents contacted with respect to the grade or evaluation received and the fact that the student did not return the work as directed. (Check for validity of parent signatures, too.)

The school newsletter is another way to communicate with parents. By submitting articles that you or one of your students have written, you can let parents know what is going on in your classroom or with your club or team. You can also include photographs, which will make the article more attractive. Or, create your own teacher or class newsletter, on your own or with the help of your students. Software programs, such as Publisher, have made this an easy project.

Many schools have provided teachers with telephones and voice mail. Not only does this facilitate communication with parents, but also enables teachers to record outgoing messages that include daily overviews, activities, assignments, and reminders for parents and students.

Email and the Internet are increasingly facilitating communication with parents. It is a quick way to check on attendance, progress with assignments, and send reminders. Given passwords, individuals can check grades online.

Taking pictures of the students in various activities and sending them home is a fun way to let the parents know what the children are doing and what their involvement is. Another idea would be to make a videotape and take turns sending it home with each of the students. This would be an especially useful plan for students whose parents don’t speak English.

Many teachers are creating their own Web sites and posting information online. If students and parents have access, this is a great tool to improve communication. You can let parents and students know when tests will be given and when homework and projects are due. You can post makeup assignments, class notes, rubrics for projects, references, and additional references and supplementary material to support parents as they help children prepare for their classes. If parents do not have computer access, you can send these items home on hard copy.

UNDERSTANDING LIMITED RESPONSES FROM PARENTS

There are many reasons why some parents make limited or no response to our efforts. For some, the problem is economic—work schedules prevent parents from calling or coming to the school. Many parents have limited access to a telephone during the work day, and even if they do have access, their calls will not be private, so they are unlikely to contact the school. Some parents have small children or elderly parents for whom they must care, or lack transportation and therefore are unable to come to school.

As you are aware, many parents have difficulties speaking English, or lack confidence in their language proficiency. This may also account for why they do not provide homework support. There may be cultural factors as well. In some cultures, education is left entirely to the teachers, for whom parents have great respect. These parents do not believe in crossing into the teacher’s domain. Some parents have had negative experiences in the past and have chosen to avoid contact if at all possible.

While it can be frustrating and disappointing when our efforts do not bring the successes we would like, we hope you will be understanding and continue to work to encourage parent and family involvement. Many schools and districts are working to implement programs to improve parental involvement.

RECRUITING PARENTS AS ALLIES

We have frequently heard in staff lounges teachers complaining about parents as if they are the enemy, constantly undermining their efforts and blaming them when things go wrong. While a small minority of parents will be certainly unappreciative, uncooperative, or critical, most of them will be absolutely delighted that you care enough to communicate with them and solicit their help.

AUTHORS’ NOTE: Throughout this chapter, we use the term “parents” to mean parents or guardians.