Parents are the most important partners teachers can have. They, like you, want what is best for their kids. Still, they will occasionally act in ways that make your job tougher. Here are some surefire ways to fix or prevent the most common parent problems so that you can be the best partners possible in your students’ education.
No one reads your newsletters.
Problem:You spend hours compiling class information, and yet parents still have no idea that today is the class field trip!
Solution: Diversify and simplify. Pernille Ripp, a middle school teacher in Oregon, Wisconsin, gives parents the option of receiving paper or e-mail newsletters. Also, she includes only the most important information in those weekly updates. “I try to be very picky with what I send so that people know if I’m sending something, it’s something they’ll need,” she says.
A parent thinks you’re singling out her child.
Problem: You make a phone call home about a problem at school, and the response is, “Why are you always picking on my kid?”
Solution: Send out general reminders to everyone. When Ripp noticed dress-code violations starting to pop up in her classroom, she didn’t call individual kids’ parents. Instead, she sent out a note reminding all families about the rules. The move saved her time, and ensured that kids didn’t feel they were being individually targeted. “It usually solves 95 percent of the problem,” Ripp says.
Language and cultural barriers.
Problem: You wish you could talk to all of your students’ parents in their native tongue, but you’re limited to English.
Solution: Embrace diversity. Even if you can’t become fluent in a half-dozen languages in time for parent–teacher conferences, you can still create a welcoming multicultural environment. Thomas Hoerr, an education author and administrator at a private school in St. Louis, recommends printing greetings in multiple languages, holding some school meetings in community spaces, and serving different ethnic foods at school functions. You’ll also want a translator on hand for important meetings.
Problem: A parent has a bone to pick, and he shows up unannounced during your prep period wanting to discuss the problem—right this minute.
Solution: Schedule a meeting for a later date. “Surprise visits aren’t good,” says Nicholas Provenzano, an English teacher in Grosse Pointe, Michigan. He recommends saying you already have a meeting scheduled, and then suggest finding a time that works for both of you. Invite a third party like a counselor or an administrator to the meeting. The point isn’t to blow off the parent, but to ensure that you have a productive discussion instead of an argument.
Communication via e-mail is nonstop.
Problem: A parent is clogging your in-box with three or four e-mails a day, requesting everything from behavior updates to homework clarifications.
Solution: Set a 24-hour reply policy. Even if you check your e-mail twice an hour, let parents know at the beginning of the year that they can expect a response from you in about a day. “That way, parents know they’ll hear back within 24 hours, but if they have something urgent, e-mail is not the way to go,” says Jason Flom, an administrator at a private school in Tallahassee, Florida. If parents still e-mail every day, he recommends batching your responses at the end of the week.
To deter the worst offenders from sending multiple e-mails, set up an automatic reply that directs parents to your class website for homework updates and other class news.
Problem: You’ve heard rumors of this mom’s or dad’s existence, but you’ve never actually met the parent.
Solution: Include them in an early project. John Spencer, a middle school teacher in Phoenix, gives students a get-to-know-you assignment at the beginning of the year and encourages them to involve their parents.
“Kids will videotape their parents cooking, or working on their car, and it gets parents involved in telling their story,” Spencer says. "That helps me to get to know the parents.”
Many parents may be hard to track down because of busy schedules—some may work multiple jobs or have crushing family responsibilities. To accommodate these parents, Hoerr suggests scheduling both daytime and evening opportunities to attend the school play, conferences, and other important events.
Arguing a grade.
Problem: You gave that essay a B? A parent begs to differ.
Solution: Request a face-to-face meeting. Provenzano says it’s “easy” to complain about a grade over the phone or in an e-mail, but that most parents will let a grade stand rather than make their case in person. “Over 12 years, I’ve had maybe three or four parents come in to discuss the grading of an essay,” he says.
Provenzano recommends having a clear grading rubric to back you up: “You add up the columns, and it equals a 92, and it’s an A-minus.” Hard to argue with that.
A reluctance to let go.
Problem: Call it “helicoptering,” “snowplowing,” or just old-fashioned babying. A parent insists on tying the child’s shoes for him every morning, and doing a thousand other things that he should be learning to do himself.
Solution: Gently point out age-appropriate skills. Pinedale, Wyoming, first-grade teacher Cori Ann Lloyd tells parents, “At this point, most kids are hanging up their backpack by themselves.” Parents usually respond positively. “They want their kid to be successful,” Lloyd says.
Parents go silent in meetings.
Problem: You hold a meeting to discuss a student’s individualized education plan, and the parent doesn’t seem to have any thoughts or opinions.
Solution: Demystify the process. If a parent gets quiet, she may simply be trying to decipher a stream of “teacher-speak” acronyms being tossed around the table. Jeffrey Benson, a Boston-area education consultant, recommends inviting parents in for a premeeting—before the official IEP meeting—to help get them up to speed.
The parent has heard only half the story.
Problem: A kid has told his dad the truth…just not all of it. (Hint: Your side of the story is the one that’s missing.)
Solution: Ask the child to tell the story in front of you and the parent. “With middle schoolers, the story changes a million times,” says McCalla, Alabama, teacher Amanda Dykes. “I always tell parents, ‘I’ll believe half of what they say about you if you believe half of what they say about me.’”
Dykes says that kids usually get a lot more honest if they have to tell their story in front of a parent and the teacher at the same time.
Image: Illustration by Victoria Roberts