Good communication between teachers and parents doesn't just happen. It requires special skills on your part — skills such as good listening techniques, tact, kindness, consideration, empathy, enthusiasm, and an understanding of parent-child relationships. No matter how you interact with parents and the community at large — through conferences, telephone conversations, e-mail, written notes or reports, lobbying or fund-raising efforts, working together in the classroom — good communication and interpersonal skills will enhance your efforts.
Veteran teachers stress the importance of effective communication skills. "When working with parents, be honest," advises Pennsylvania teacher Laurie Borger. "And be sensitive! Remember that you are talking about their most valuable family resource — their family's future."
Adds Frank Garcia of California: "Always be tactful with parents. Think and plan what you are going to say to them, and how. Never be confrontational. Always speak in a pleasant voice, yet with firmness and authority when needed. Keep in mind that parents really love their children."
The Right Attitude
Garcia is right. Parents really DO love their children. That's just one of several important ideas to keep in mind when establishing partnerships with parents. Writing about at-risk families and schools, L.B. Liontos lists other "beliefs" that teachers must adopt to work effectively with families:
- All families have strengths.
- Parents can learn new techniques.
- Parents have important perspectives about their children.
- Most parents really care about their children.
- Cultural differences are both valid and valuable.
- Many family forms exist and are legitimate.
Further, former teacher Oralie McAfee offers the following guidelines for working with families:
- Recognize that schools and homes have shared goals. Both are committed to the nurturing, development, and education of children. "Teachers must believe that parents have a crucial role in their children's education, and parents and teachers must trust each other," McAfee stresses.
- Respect caregivers and communicate that respect. Tone of voice, word choice, facial expressions, body language, expectations, how long we make people wait — all these communicate respect or lack of it. Many parents have personal, family, work, health, or other problems that we know nothing about. Avoid being judgmental, and give parents the benefit of the doubt.
- Acknowledge the changes in the American family. In most families, both parents work outside the home, including the families of school teachers. Yet many of us still think of this common lifestyle as an aberration. Further, millions of American school children come from single parent homes. Still others live with relatives or in foster homes.
To the above lists, add one more important item concerning attitude:
- Be positive! "Parents enjoy positive communication," says West Virginia teacher Jane Baird. "Most teachers only make contact when something goes wrong." Other veterans heartily agree. "Make sure if you give negatives that you also give positives — positive phone calls, letters, and so on," suggests Jane Kelling of Houston.