Talking to Families: 8 Great Teacher Habits, Plus Tips for Principals
Tired of parent problems? Consider this your rescue guide. Eight techniques to help you connect with every family.
- Grades: PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5, 6–8
It’s been a long, hard day. Your students were fidgety, and the unexpected fire drill during lunch didn’t help. The physical education teacher was absent without a substitute, so you taught an impromptu gym class in your room during your free period. The copy machine was out of order, and you weren’t able to give the test you had planned. The day started early with a conference on a new student and ended late with a curriculum meeting. Two of your students went home sick, and frankly, you’re not feeling that great yourself!
Before you leave school you check your mailbox. On top of the memos, schedules, and announcements is a message from an irate parent, unhappy about a disciplinary issue with her child.
We all have days like this throughout the year. Most of them we can handle with aplomb; they’re just bumps along the school road that will be forgotten tomorrow. Notes from unhappy parents, however, can get under your skin. Some days you find yourself wondering if your students’ parents really understand how hard you work every day to educate their children.
You’re on the same side as your students’ parents, of course. You both want their children to be successful, happy, and eager to come to school. Disagreements sometimes arise, but they occur less often when parents understand what’s going on at school and why decisions are made. If these eight great habits are part of your professional repertoire, parents are more likely to be appreciative and supportive of your efforts.
1. Give Parents As Many Specifics as You Can
Test scores are important, but what parents really want to know is that you see their child as a unique individual and not just another student in the class. One way to demonstrate to parents that you know each child on a personal level is to share a story. Maybe the student said something funny or clever in class the other day. Perhaps he went out of his way to help another student. Maybe he had an unusual solution to a problem. Stories like these reassure parents that you see in their child some of the special qualities that they see.
Rather than relying only on memory, some teachers make little notes of certain student behaviors when they occur so they can be shared with parents later. You can also jot observations on postcards to send right away. As school psychologist Dale Munn says, “Parents like to know you’re invested in their child and see the child as an individual.” When you make a connection with parents, they are more likely to pause before being critical of your decisions because you’ve demonstrated that you know their child and care about his or her progress.
2. Write Positive or Encouraging Comments
Try writing upbeat comments on students’ work, even (or perhaps especially) if the work isn’t outstanding. Comments like, “You need to study these words!” or “I don’t think you read the story” may be true, but remember that written criticism is powerful and often appears harsher than intended. Parents may interpret a steady stream of negative comments as discouraging to their child. Sometimes “Please see me” is the most effective comment you can write on a student’s paper, suggesting that while there are errors, you will work with the student one-on-one to correct them.
Note also that generic comments like, “Good work” aren’t nearly as effective as “I can see you studied for this test” or “Every word is spelled correctly!” Written praise is powerful too, especially when it demonstrates that you notice improvements or accomplishments.
And if you haven’t done so already, get rid of that red pen. It may remind parents of the way their own errors were corrected when they were in school. Green, blue, or even pink markers get kids’ attention, especially if you vary the color. And all kids — even middle schoolers — love stickers.
3. Provide Timely Updates and Information
If a child is struggling in math or having a difficult time socially, you don’t have to wait until scheduled parent conference days to share that information. Some teachers make an introductory phone call at the beginning of the school year before any issues arise just to introduce themselves and to encourage open dialogue between home and school.
Parents appreciate the opportunity to intervene or correct a situation if they can. Even if they can’t, they’re likely to be critical later on if they weren’t even given the opportunity to try before things got worse. Of course, parents particularly appreciate when you also have suggestions to improve the situation. Maybe the child who is doing poorly in math needs to work on his number facts with his parent each night. Maybe the child who is bullying her classmates needs to join a youth soccer team to help her learn to be a team player. “I try to give a balanced report offering some praise and some constructive criticism for every student,” says social studies teacher Thomas Fayle. “I just see that as part of my job.”
4. Invite Parents to Lend A Hand in Your Classroom
Some parents love to volunteer in the classroom or on field trips. As long as you are clearly in charge and your guidelines are well defined, parent volunteers are not only helpful, they are good ambassadors for you in the community. Making sure that parent volunteers are appropriately involved takes planning on your part, but the effort can pay off.
Of course, some parents have neither the time nor the inclination to volunteer, but would still like to be invited. If you use the same parent volunteers for every activity without inviting others (even though they decline) you may be accused of favoritism. So make sure that the invitation goes to everyone, even if the same people volunteer every time.
5. Give Parents Plenty of Lead Time
Some parents have no problem coming up with $5 by the end of the week for a field trip or a book from the book fair. Others may need to plan ahead, especially if they have more than one child in school. Still others simply may not be able to come up with extra cash at all in these trying economic times. It’s important to take into consideration the family situations of all of your students when deciding on an activity that will cost extra money.
Parents also appreciate requests that are reasonable in terms of time. No working parent will be happy with a note from school on Wednesday requesting two dozen cupcakes by Friday. Of course, maybe you did send the request home well in advance and it languished in the bottom of a book bag until Wednesday! Make sure all your notes home are dated.
6. Send Home Good News
With all the responsibilities you have (including phone calls for unacceptable behavior or poor performance), a note about how Jennifer improved her math score or how Alex helped a younger student find a book in the library certainly adds to an already busy day. But nothing pleases a parent more than the fact that you noticed something good the child did. It’s like money in the bank for the day you may need to report behavior that isn’t so admirable!
Again, remember that the written word is powerful. Some schools provide special note cards that teachers can use to surprise parents with good news about their child. “Even if I have to call a parent about a problem later,” says one teacher, “they remember that card and know I notice good things too.”
7. Go Beyond the Regular Curriculum
Go beyond the regular curriculum to give students a different experience. For example, after kindergartners listen to a story about Johnny Appleseed, they might make their own applesauce. Eighth-graders might read about World War II in their history books and then interview a local veteran. Fifth-graders might see slides of paintings by Renoir, then draw their own pictures with colored chalk in French Impressionist style. Most of these activities require creative thinking rather than extra money and are likely to be what students talk about when they go home.
8. Have Clear Rules and Consequences
You know that children make mistakes and your role is to help children learn from them. While student discipline is the area in which you are most likely to run into conflict with parents, on the whole they appreciate teachers who correct children firmly, but kindly and who believe in consequences, rather than punishment. Consequences help students see the connection between what they did (or didn’t do) and the results. For example, the consequence for a second-grader shoving a classmate may be a challenge to develop a plan to improve her behavior. Punishment, on the other hand, might require her to sit with her desk facing the wall while everyone else goes out to play. Repeated offenses will usually call for progressive consequences, including getting parents on board.
8 Principal Habits that Parents Love
If you can develop habits that parents love, can administrators develop habits that you love? The answer is yes! An informal survey of teachers at a recent conference revealed eight great administrative habits that you appreciate and respect.
Seeing administrators is important. “I like when administrators are in the halls talking with students,” says teacher Jennifer Myers. Students are better behaved when they know the principal is present, she adds. Visible administrators earn a good reputation, especially since teachers can stop them for a quick word instead of setting up an appointment to discuss a problem.
2. Quick Response
Teachers expect to handle garden-variety disciplinary issues themselves. But when a student’s behavior is serious enough to warrant removal from the classroom, teachers appreciate the administrator who attends to the matter quickly. Even when the principal is unsuccessful in contacting a student’s parents or guardians, teachers appreciate knowing that action is being taken.
A verbal acknowledgment that indicates the administrator has noticed good work warms a teacher’s heart. Teacher Michel Gravelle notes, “It doesn’t need to be public. I really appreciate it when an administrator sends an e-mail acknowledging something I did.” Teachers often tuck these notes in their desk or tape them to a file cabinet. “It matters,” says Gravelle, “that your supervisor notices your work.”
When decisions will affect them directly, teachers appreciate being asked their opinion. “I don’t expect to make the final call,” says one fourth-grade teacher, “but I appreciate being asked.” Also, she notes, teachers are closely involved in daily operations and may be aware of unintended results or details that might be overlooked.
Teachers who share information about their students expect that it will not be shared with anyone else or become faculty room gossip. “It’s an issue of trust,” says a teacher who recently left the classroom to serve as an interim middle school principal. “I’ve seen this issue from both sides,” he says. “Once that trust is broken, it’s impossible to restore.”
Teachers recognize that meetings are part of their professional lives, but they appreciate when the principal starts on time, has an agenda, and sticks to it. Additionally, they appreciate not meeting if the information can be handled in a memo or, better yet, via e-mail.
Administrators who take action when a teacher is challenged by a parent earn respect. Teachers appreciate administrators who make themselves available for consultations, sit in on conferences, run interference, and refuse to allow teachers to be abused.
Teachers say they admire administrators who are enthusiastic, who believe in the school, and who share a vision with the school community. “When you know that your principal wants your school to be the best, it makes you want to put in the extra effort,” says math teacher Kris Cole.