We all know the feeling. The blinking voicemail light, the pink phone message from the secretary, the email in-box with the oh-no-please-no-not-her name in bold. The Parent. It isn’t always bad news, but it does seem it almost always causes a little stomach flip, just in case. Here are some ways to set yourself up for success with your classroom parents.
Once upon a time, I taught in a high income, highly educated, highly demanding suburban district. My parents were well read, made sure they were up to date on all the latest curriculum, ran for the school board and kept you On Your Toes. The demands were eccentric, the rewards many. They were clients, to be sure. In every sense of the business word. They expected service to be up to their high standards, but they would talk nice about you on Yelp and give big tips, too.
Talk about a 180. I moved to teaching in an inner city, low income, vibrant neighborhood. My school was around 95% Hispanic and had a 92% poverty rate. Most of my parents were immigrants. Most did not speak more than a few phrases in English, especially the mothers. They more than tolerated my efforts at Spanish, beaming with appreciation most times. They were polite, almost without fail. I had 250 plus students, over nine grade levels. I could count my “difficult” families on ONE hand. There was a great value placed on education and great respect for educators.
These are clearly different parent groups. Different needs, different expectations, different desires for their children. Spend some time “listening to the customers” early on in your year. At Open House, notice who is asking you about the research based assessment, and who makes sure their child shakes your hand. Who wants to be sure the kiddo uses only HER crayons, and who didn’t show up. Make a few notes to yourself. Pay. Attention. You will be way ahead of the game, just by observing the parents you will be dealing with in your class.
Oh, I know, I know. You have that kid in your room all day, every day. You see growing and learning and changing and misbehaving and tattling and cheating and sharing and laughing and playing. You know that kid inside and out. And what do THEY know, anyway? They know they are STILL THE PARENTS. You will never win the respect of your parents, if you turn your classroom on Parent’s Night into an episode of Teacher Knows Best. You don’t. You may know reading scores, you may know math deficiencies, you may know 23 “better behaved” children. You still are not the expert on that kid. Instead of making sage recommendations, try problem solving together, with the parent. One way to show your willingness to do this is to say things that invite input in your territory: “I am unsure where your kid would focus best in my room. What do you think?” The important thing is to open a door to letting them know you are a PARTNER, not a Mentor, in their child’s upbringing.
Truth be told, not a teacher tip. It’s a therapist tip. Back in the day, I did a decade or so as a mental health counselor. We did these meetings from time to time, usually when a client wasn’t doing well, or when their family members felt WE weren’t doing well. Early on, a very wise mentor of mine clued me in that the very best way to start any such meeting, but especially any “tough” meeting was to simply ASK. Start with: "Thanks so much for coming in today. Before I even begin, I would like to ASK you, is there anything important on YOUR mind? I want to be sure we cover that FIRST." Most people find it totally disarming. Plus, sometimes we have it all wrong. More than once, I thought a parent was going to give me a hard time and in fact, they just were out of ideas on dealing with the kid, too. Let them tell you the problem, BEFORE you start in trying to solve it.
If you are old enough to remember the movie Fatal Attraction, you might also remember the “I am not going to be IGNORED, Dan!” scene. If you missed the eighties, I am sad for you on many levels, but for this lesson in particular. It’s a pretty memorable way to learn a simple reality. If you don’t pay attention to important people who are asking for your attention, they will soon be demanding your attention, and if you still are unresponsive to their pleas, they may end up boiling your bunny rabbit. Or, the civilized equivalent, which is calling your principal. Or, talking trash about you on the playground. Or so forth and so on. Why make people crazy? You will have to deal with it, one way or another. Parent Problems don’t go away. They just become Problem Parents.
On the other hand. Good fences make good neighbors and so forth. Keep sensible business hours. Don’t reply to parent email, ANY email, actually, in the evening or on weekends. If you do so, expect to do it over and over, because you have set the expectation for 24/7 service, for ALL your parents. Why? It goes like this: “Well, she always emails me back right away” to the other moms, who now expect the same. OR ELSE. As for the cell phone, just NO. Would your mother have EVER called your teacher at home? Exactly. I don’t care if you like texting parents. There are apps for that, without giving out your number. NO.
No. Really. Not that sappy “I believe that children are our future” thing. I mean literally THAT child is at the center of the parent’s universe and therefore also at the center of your every communication with said parent. It will save you time and aggravation to remember this. Most parents don’t give a hooey about your smooth routines, your awesome guided reading groups, or your cutting edge smart board lesson. They DO care that THEIR KID has his lunchbox in his backpack when he leaves, that THEIR KID is learning to read, that THEIR KID is up to date on technology skills. Get the difference? I am a parent, ya know. “I believe that MY child is the future.” No. Really. Both of them.
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