Parent/Teacher Communication

Sure, it can be tricky. But here are real-life prescriptions for a healthy teacher-parent partnership.

By Megan Othersen Gorman

Jim Taylor may have left the flock years ago, but he still relies on much of what he learned in the ministry to manage his classroom parents. "One of the first lessons we learned in the seminary is to validate the experience of the person in front of you," says Taylor, now a kindergarten teacher at Wyncote Elementary in suburban Philadelphia. "Secondly, we learned the importance of setting appropriate boundaries when dealing with troubling situations"-a fitting descriptor for the time (two times, actually!) Taylor caught a parent volunteer snooping around his desk.

"One parent decided to use her time in the classroom to look over the things on my desk," says Taylor. "I didn't confront her initially. But the second time she did it, there was no mistaking it. I approached her and said, ‘I'm so glad you're here to read with the children. But I've noticed twice that you were looking through my desk. My desk is off-limits to the children-and it needs to be off-limits to you as well. I appreciate your understanding.'"

And, apparently, the parent did understand: She stopped snooping-and even continued volunteering. Read on for more real-life solutions (think of them as your "lesson plans") to real-life teacher-parent problems.

Parents who ... either have little interest in your classroom, or way too much.
"I've found that parents who appear disinterested-those who don't return phone calls or who bypass me to go to the principal-are often parents with very little knowledge of what I teach," says Kerry Filsinger, who until recently was a music teacher at South Davis Elementary in Orchard Park, New York. "And the same is true for parents who appear to be hyper-interested or even skeptical of what I do."

Lesson Plan
"I try to create a music community both in and out of the classroom to spark the interest of families," says Filsinger. "Each month, I send a newsletter home that includes songs the children have learned and suggestions for incorporating those songs into daily home life (such as, try singing ‘London Bridge' in the car as a round). I have a website featuring student recordings that parents can access. Students have told me that the website often leads to jam sessions with parents and siblings, much like our jams in school!"

Parents who ... are upset about a grade.
"I understand why many parents fixate on their children's grades," says Karen Shaffran, a seventh-grade biology and environmental science teacher at Cedarbrook Middle School in Wyncote, Pennsylvania. "But I'm a teacher who's more interested in the experience the children have in my classroom. I'm process-oriented as opposed to grade-oriented. Still, I do give grades and sometimes they upset parents."

Lesson Plan

"When a parent comes in to discuss her child's grade, I show her the work and explain why I graded it the way I did," says Shaffran. "I also show her work that received the grade she felt her child should receive and explain the difference between the two. Then I typically ask the parent what grade she thinks her child should receive-and I tell her that's the grade I'll give her child. I mean it when I say I'll give her child the grade she thinks her child deserves-but it's never once happened that a parent took me up on my offer. I find that if you give back the power, there's no struggle."

Parents who ... oppose the curriculum.
"I'm a science teacher, which means I'm often at the epicenter of a parent's ideological struggles with the curriculum," says Steven Elwood, chair of the science department at Roosevelt Middle School in Monticello, Indiana. "They don't want me to teach their kids about sex. Or creationism. Or, in other cases, evolution. I even had one parent who took exception to Newton's third law-that for every action, there's an equal and opposite reaction!"

Lesson Plan
"Here's my equal and opposite reaction: When a parent pushes me on an issue, I don't initially push back," says Elwood. "I listen patiently from the moment they begin until the time they're done. Only when they've stopped speaking do I say, ‘May I explain my point of view?' By then, they're usually ready to listen themselves. I explain the curriculum and how it's presented in the classroom. I share the texts and materials we use. And I try to give them a sense of the very open discussions I enjoy and encourage in the classroom. I stand my ground. But I listen first."

Parents who ... gossip about teachers or other children in the class.
"They know whose mom is getting divorced, which teacher is leaving," says Barbara Buswell, a second-grade teacher at Hillcrest School in Oakland, California. "It's like The Nanny Diaries out there-only with teachers!"

Lesson Plan
"I make an effort to communicate directly, face-to-face, with these parents," says Buswell. "I go out to the schoolyard with my class at the end of the day, and I use that time to schmooze with parents. It's very political in a way, but it's the politics of caring. It works to allay the anxiety of those parents, who are communicating that anxiety to their children. I also say, ‘Here's my phone number, here's my e-mail. Call me, and let me know if there's a problem.' That's something that isn't very popular with some of my colleagues, but I've found that often parents don't even use the numbers-it's enough that they just have them. Besides, a lot of things you might think are ‘best practices' may not be popular with your colleagues!"

Parents who ... want rankings of every child in the class.
"Parents in general have anxiety about their children and their prospects of success, but it's especially true in the upper-middle-class environment in which I teach, where many parents are career-driven and highly competitive," says Buswell. "When parents volunteer in my classroom, one of the primary reasons they do so is to check out where their child stands in the class-to ascertain who the stars are, who occupies the lower tier, who can read, and who can't. And at parent conferences in November, they always want to know how their child is doing vis-à-vis the group."

Lesson Plan
"Reading fluency is the big emphasis at my school," says Buswell. "As a result, a child's reading fluency score is one of the only numbers on the report card. In November conferences, I explain what the score means, then show parents a class list-on which the names are shielded but everyone's fluency score is on it. Parents get to see the range of scores and where their child falls within the group, and I get to preserve the privacy of every child in the classroom."

Parents who ... want to help their child too much, too often.
"As a seventh-grade teacher, I'm in a unique position on this issue, because seventh grade is the last year in which children can really flounder without serious consequences, since high school placement is based on their eighth-grade performance," says Shaffran. "Many parents believe that if a child needs help, an adult should intervene right away. But I believe in giving a child the option of helping himself first."

Lesson Plan
"I always try to appeal to the child directly before I go to his or her parents," says Shaffran. "I feel I have better success with kids who feel as though they have a relationship with me that is independent of their parents, at least initially. Of course, I understand how awkward it could be if I were to go to a child three or four times with no success, call in that child's parents to explain the problem, and have the parents ask, ‘Why am I only hearing about this now?' So I try to balance the two approaches by informing the parent at the outset that I'd like to work independently with their child on an issue and promising to keep them apprised if things don't turn around quickly. Most parents just need to feel as though they're in the loop."

Parents who ... complain that their child has too much homework.

"This is really a difference in expectations-a parent's for their child and the school district's for the student," says Marisel Elias-Miranda, administrative director of the Miami-Dade County Public Schools' Office of Early Childhood Programs and a former teacher. "Homework is the ‘evidence.' But a parent who thinks her child has too much homework is typically a parent who thinks that the expectations for her child are set too high."

Lesson Plan
"In Miami, we set up a group meeting with all the parents in the class the very first week of school," says Elias-Miranda. "During that meeting, we explain in detail the expectations of the particular grade, and we very formally ask the parents' support in helping their children meet them. In fact, we hand out a compact to parents and ask that they sign it. The compact represents in a very tangible way the partnership between the teacher and the parents."

Parents who ... want to micromanage classroom activities or homework.

"I had a parent last year who is a former PTA president-let's call her Shannon," says Buswell. "The day my first homework packet went out, I arrived home and my cell phone immediately started ringing. Then my home phone started up. I answered, and it's my principal, who told me to call Shannon immediately. Apparently, I'd indicated on the packet that the homework was due in two weeks instead of one, and Shannon had marched into school and confronted my principal with this evidence of my incompetence."

Lesson Plan
"I felt I couldn't feel bullied and do my job well," says Buswell. "Plus, I had to make sure I didn't have issues like this one all year long. So I sent an e-mail to the whole class with a correction, then I made sure that I talked to Shannon-the next day, when I was ‘back on the clock' (a boundary I feel has to be drawn very clearly for some parents). I asked Shannon if she had asked her child when the homework was due and found that she had not, so I encouraged her to listen to her child; kids have to be responsible for their own assignments to some degree. And I told her that I am always there at the end of the school day, so she can always come to me with issues. Building a relationship is your safety net. By hanging in there with Shannon instead of retreating, I ultimately made it better for both of us." 

Parent Talk
We asked parents what they most need from teachers.

"I want teachers to communicate with me honestly and to inform me as quickly as possible if there are concerns. A bad report card shouldn't be my first heads-up." -Margaret Wooten, Lawrenceville, GA

"I want my child's teachers to teach me how to open up the world for my child." -Robyn Savage, San Francisco, CA

"When I hand over my daughter to a teacher, I want that teacher to treat my child the same way she would treat her own child." -Maureen Boland, Elkins Park, PA

"I most want open lines of communication, a two-way dialogue. I want to know what the teacher sees of my child at school, and I want the teacher to know what I see of my child at home." -Brad Douglas, Leawood, KS

"Please be more compassionate to boys. Give them an opportunity to be loud and enthusiastic, to work as a team. Give them an opportunity to add joy-fist-pumping, muddy, shoulder-bumping joy-to their learning." -Marcia LaFond, Medford, OR

"I want my child's teacher to understand that I don't expect him/her to go it alone, however, I do expect him/her to communicate." -Rhonda McFee, Charleston, SC

Do Your Homework

  • Encourage Parents to set the bar high at home  According to a study published this year in the journal Teachers College Record that looked at all the previously published research on parental involvement in children's education, kids in grades K through 12 who have parents who are actively involved in their schooling-who routinely supervise homework, who set household rules, and who regularly attend school functions, for instance-tend to have markedly higher grades and test scores than their peers whose parents are not involved. Not exactly hot-off-the-press news.

  • High expectations and plain talk  But the aspects of parent involvement found to have the greatest impact on student achievement were more surprising-and more subtle than you might think: (1) parental expectations and (2) plain-and-simple parent-to-child communication. Study author William H. Jeynes, professor of education at California State University, Long Beach, and author of Parental Involvement and Academic Success, urges teachers to share this info to parents: "High expectations and communication are the most important things when it comes to their kids' academic success."


Scholastic Teacher Magazine

Six issues per year filled with practical, fun, teacher-tested ideas for your classroom. Keep up with classroom trends, get expert teaching tips, and find dozens of resources in every issue.