How to Talk About Difficult Things With Your Child’s Teacher
Several times a year, parents and guardians have the opportunity to meet and talk with their child’s teacher. But sometimes, thorny issues arise outside of the parent-teacher conference season. Families may feel their child has too much homework, or are concerned about conflicts during lunch or recess. These situations may require multiple discussions, a longer-term strategy, or perhaps simply an uncomfortable conversation.
How can parents and teachers work together to discuss more difficult topics? We talked to experienced teachers and found out how they approach communication with families. Additionally, a family engagement expert weighed in with five things all parents have the right to expect from their child’s teacher, as well as how parents can help.
Open Communication Is Key
Teachers agree that open, honest communication between families and teachers is not just nice to have, but critical to kids’ success in school. Dana Roth, a Kindergarten teacher in Brooklyn, NY, says that open lines of communication begin with mutual trust: “Trust is step one. Parents need to trust that teachers are doing their best to meet the millions of demands thrown at them, while keeping students’ best interests as the priority.”
Start the School Year Strong
Teachers will often ask kids to share information about themselves at the beginning of the school year. One pre-K teacher from Brooklyn, NY includes parents in these projects, which both helps her get a deeper understanding of each student and lays the foundation for a strong relationship with families. “I feel that this not only gives me another perspective on how the child’s life is outside of school, but I hope it conveys to the child and the family: I want to learn about you and I care about you.”
Melissa Miller, 2019 Tennessee State Teacher of the Year, says that it is “wonderfully helpful” when parents take time early in the school year to share information about their child. When teachers hear directly from families about kids’ likes, dislikes, questions, concerns, celebrations, family dynamics and motivators, it “really helps teachers to get to know your child and you prior to having time to sit down together at conferences.”
Agree on a Communication Tool That Works Best for Everyone
Teachers often have a preferred form of communication but can usually adjust to meet families’ needs. Melissa Miller prefers text messaging, which is quick and personal. She establishes a connection with families early on by texting pictures of her students at special events during the school day. For Miller, texting helps open up the lines of communication, helping parents feel more connected.
Yet for some families, texting is not the best option, so parents should always feel welcome to use alternative methods, such as writing a note and placing it in their child’s homework folder. Just make sure to clarify with the teacher how you’ll be communicating so they know where to look for your messages.
When there is a larger topic to discuss, Roth also appreciates it when parents email her their concern, which gives her time to respond. She will then tailor further communication depending on the topic: “Sometimes I can respond via email, sometimes a phone call is more convenient and sometimes a nice face-to-face chat is best.”
For in-person meetings, Cicely Woodward, 2018 Tennessee State Teacher of the Year, recommends that parents come prepared with specific observations and concerns. Then parents should always share information that the teacher may not know about their child, and also listen to the teacher’s perspective. Finally, there should be agreed-upon next steps for the teacher, the parent and the student.
“There have been times I’ve changed my policy on something, such as homework, because a parent brought up concerns I had never considered.”
Talking About Homework
In many families, especially those in the lower elementary grades, expectations around homework can be a source of anxiety for both parents and children. Parents may feel there is too much homework, or not understand what academic goals are tied to at-home assignments.
Ideally, teachers will explain homework expectations early on in the school year. Melissa Miller is willing to hear from parents and caregivers about homework if they are open about their questions and needs. When approaching a teacher about a potentially contentious issue, be constructive. As she explains, “Complaining cannot fix anything, but communicating concerns can bring needed adjustments and clarification.”
Ask Questions and Remember: There’s a Reason for Everything
If a particular decision or policy is troubling, first remember that there probably is indeed a reason behind it, and second, that you have every right to ask for clarification. Roth always prefers that parents simply ask questions. “There have been times I’ve changed my policy on something, such as homework, because a parent brought up concerns I had never considered.”
What Parents Can Expect
Parents should be able to depend on teachers to facilitate communication in a way that is mutually beneficial. Jenni Brasington (Senior Director FACE Services, Scholastic Education) shared five things parents should be able to expect from their child’s teacher.
Parents should expect:
- Teachers to keep them informed when there are issues or concerns. Parent/teacher conferences should never be the first time a parent hears about a behavioral or academic concern.
- Teachers to communicate with them when things are going well as often as they do when there is an issue. (When I look down at my phone and see the school number, I shouldn’t panic. I should be excited that the school is calling to share good news about my child!)
- Materials to be translated or for there to be an interpreter if families speak a language other than English.
- Timely feedback on student work.
- Teachers to treat them as an equal partner and understand the shared responsibility for student success.
Additionally, parents can do their part to ensure communication is productive between themselves and the teacher.
Windy Lopez-Aflitto, Vice President, Content and Partnerships of Learning Heroes has suggestions on how parents can help:
- Go beyond good grades: According to a new national study, more than half of teachers say parents rely too much on grades alone. And, nine in 10 parents think their child is at grade level in reading and math when only 39% of teachers report their students start the year prepared for grade level work. Grades are just one of several ways to assess a child’s achievement, along with annual state test results, teacher feedback, and your own observations. Don’t be afraid to ask the teacher about these various measures so you can have a more complete picture.
- Find out the expectations: Be proactive in asking what your child’s learning goals are for the year and how you can support them at home. This will help you start the school year off strong.
- Ask about life skills that will help your child in school and beyond: Is your child engaged in class and among peers? Is s/he being encouraged to learn from mistakes, and how to communicate effectively with others, especially in tough situations? Find out how life skills like these and more are being reinforced as part of academic instruction.
The Bottom Line
Open, honest communication between families and teachers is the foundation for any effective discussion, even — and especially — about difficult topics. Communicating early and often, asking questions, sharing information and being mindful of teachers’ abilities as well as their constraints are all things parents can do to establish a positive relationship with teachers outside of regularly scheduled conferences.
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