Samuel A. Southworth

Building a positive, strong relationship with parents or caregivers can pay enormous dividends as the year goes along. But speaking with them for the first time may be a nerve-racking experience, particularly for a new teacher. What should you say? What will they say? How can you build their trust and cooperation as you work together to make a child's school year a great success?

Call Early

You can start by telephoning parents even before an open house or face-to-face meeting at school. Teachers Dyan Hershman and Emma McDonald, in their book ABC's of Effective Parent Communication (Inspiring Teachers Publishing, 2000), share the sample conversation below. For more suggestions and books, call 877-496-7633, or visit www.inspiringteachers.com

The First Conference

Henry Utter, a sixth-grade teacher from Chelsea, Massachusetts, recommends that teachers start the first conference by asking parents to share some of what's going on at home, with questions like "How was Julie's summer?" and "What types of activities does she like?" The idea is to acknowledge that each student exists in a context beyond school.

Always begin your discussion of the child's work at school with a positive statement which indicates that you notice and regard him or her as a unique individual: "I notice that Kelly works really well with other children," or "Jonah seems to have quite an aptitude for drawing."

Utter also recommends the use of inclusive language, such as, "I look forward to working with you to make this Mark's best year ever." If a behavior problem has arisen, statements such as, "We should work on this together," or "I need your help to solve this" will make your agenda clear and invite parent participation.

Many teachers suggest that you should be careful about note taking during parent-teacher conferences; it can make parents nervous. Consider jotting down notes right after the conference or making photocopies of your notes "so we can all remember what was said and what our goals are."

Begin by Listening

Awareness of cultural differences, values, and parenting styles can smooth the way to a good relationship. Brantley Powers, an occupational therapist at Newton Memorial School, in Newton, New Hampshire, points out that "talking with parents really begins with listening. Sensitivity to individual family values is key to building relationships with parents or caregivers. You can inadvertently put a family on the defensive simply by not knowing what they believe to be important in their child's development. I always find it helpful to ask parents what they see as being their child's most positive attributes, as well as areas in which they would like to see improvement. It is all too easy to make judgments regarding how people are raising their children, and to let that color your view of a child's performance. Partnerships are strongest when educators acknowledge and accept diversity amongst families, and work to help shape the child within that framework."

Powers also urges teachers to have an awareness of changes in family units: "Notice that I use the word 'family' rather than 'parent.' Many adults are helping to raise children as part of a family unit, but do not perceive themselves as the child's parent. Often, I am communicating with, say, the father's girlfriend or the child's grandmother."

Enlisting Parent Input

One difficult topic that may arise during initial contact with parents is the request for a change into a higher group in a particular subject. You might want to ask the parents why they think their child would benefit from such a placement, and if they have materials from the past (test scores, projects, writing) that would indicate that a change in placement is justified. Assure them that your goal is to keep every child challenged and at the appropriate level.

Parents may also complain that their child has "too much homework." You can ask them to make a daily record of the amount of time the child spends on each subject. This will help to determine if the child is truly struggling in one area. On the Web site Teachers Helping Teachers
(www.pacificnet.net/~mandel/ClassroomManagement.html ), one teacher recommends reading the entire cumulative file of each student. This can be handy if a parent insists, "My child has never had any academic problems before now." It can also serve as a jumping-off point for future discussions.

Your first talks with parents are likely to make you nervous, but these meetings can be a powerful tool in understanding each student as an individual and in building a good working relationship with the caregivers who are the most important individuals in a child's life. Your teamwork will help every child to succeed.

Hello Mr./Mrs./Ms. (name of parent/caregiver),

           I am so excited to have (name of child) in my class this year. He/she seems to really (positive comment). We are going to be doing some interesting activities this year that I think (child's name) will really enjoy.

(If the child is already exhibiting negative behavior, this is the prime place to mention it.)

           [I did want you to know that I have noticed his/her tendency to (describe behavior problem here). Have you had experience with this in previous years, or do you have anything to add about this type of behavior? I know that together we will be able to solve this problem and make this a successful year for (child's name).]

           I am hoping for open lines of communication between us, so if you have any questions or concerns, please do not hesitate to call me right away. The best time is from (time) to (time) every day. Before we hang up, do you have any questions or comments about (child's name) for me right now? It was great talking with you, and I look forward to working with you and (child's name) throughout this year!