Six parent to-dos now with steps to build students' independence down the road!
1. Be Up-Front About Deadlines
Now: Provide families with an overview of the major events of the year. Include big tests, project due dates, and field trips. Ask for families' support in keeping their students organized and on track. Explain what responsibilities you want students to handle themselves, such as remembering their supplies and doing their own research, and when it's okay for parents to pitch in (driving their student to a nature park to collect leaves for a science project, for example).
Later: Encourage students to take greater responsibility for their own schedules and workload. You might start the year by breaking down a bigger project into smaller steps and giving students a checklist for each step. By the end of the year, students should be able to break down a project on their own.
2. Share Your Goals
Now: Whether it's at open house or in an introductory letter home to families, explain your teaching philosophy and what you hope to accomplish this year. Include why you went into teaching, what you love about your job, and the major benchmarks kids will need to reach over the next nine months. Also share the importance of students taking ownership of their learning process and becoming independent learners. If you anticipate a helicopter mama or two, provide a set time frame when you will respond to e-mails and phone calls.
Later: As you dive into your year together, have students keep a record of their learning process. This could be a journal, blog, wiki, or long-term project. Invite them to reflect on the importance of what they are learning to their own lives, present and future.
3. Address the Tough Topics
Now: Parents new to middle school are often concerned about the issues that go along with their kids growing up, such as puberty, friendship drama, bullying, dating, and even drug and alcohol abuse. Ease their concerns by explaining what supports your school has in place, such as guidance counselors and age-appropriate social and emotional curriculum. Encourage parents to contact you or a counselor if they have any questions, and recommend books that tackle raising teenagers. An oldie but goodie is Anthony Wolf's Get Out of My Life, but First Could You Drive Me and Cheryl to the Mall? For concerns about Internet safety, we like Nancy E. Willard's Cyber-Safe Kids, Cyber-Savvy Teens: Helping Young People Learn to Use the Internet Safely and Responsibly.
Later: Throughout the year, stress to students that the key factors to independence are honesty, openness, and communication. Tell students they can come to you if they have a problem, or to another trusted adult in their lives. If suitable to your curriculum, you might share examples of age-appropriate problems and possible solutions from literature and film.
4. Talk About Technology
Now: Share your policies about cell phone use and online behavior with parents. Explain when and how students will use the Internet in your classroom, along with any other cool tech tools you're lucky enough to own. If students will complete schoolwork online away from your classroom, ask for parents' cooperation in enforcing privacy policies and appropriate behavior.
Later: Talk with kids about the reasoning behind your policies. Stick to your cell phone rules and don't be afraid to confiscate when necessary. Explain that students should see anything they post online as published work that anyone can see, and together develop a few questions for students to ask themselves whenever they work online (for example, "Is this something I would say in real life?" "Is it written clearly and rationally?" "Would I be embarrassed for my mom or a future employer to read this?").
5. Keep the Future in Perspective
Now: Tell parents how the work you're doing now will help students achieve in high school and beyond. Middle school is an important developmental step toward later academic goals, and parents need to know what is at stake. But they may also need to hear that a C on a sixth-grade geography test doesn't preclude admission to Princeton down the road. Be honest about your expectations as well as the up-and-down realities of an average middle schooler's day.
Later: Continue to couch the skills kids are learning in terms of what they will need to succeed in high school, college, and the real world. This is the time many kids start to feel that school isn't relevant to their actual lives, and it's up to you to get in front of that idea and show them algebra and grammar do matter.
6. Welcome Volunteers
Now: While the middle school classroom may not offer as many volunteer opportunities as the endless celebrations and parades of elementary school, be clear that participation is not only welcomed but encouraged. Provide parents with a schedule of opportunities to help throughout the year, whether it's chaperoning a field trip or serving as a guest speaker on a particular topic. If you're stumped for ideas, trust us-veteran classroom moms have a lot of practice making copies and tracing patterns, so hand off some of the prep work for your next classroom project.
Later: In your rush to include parents, don't forget to have students help in the planning of field trips, special events, and projects. Discussing these logistics offers many real-world opportunities for students to practice reading, writing, and math skills, and boost the independence you are working so hard to achieve.