During my second year of teaching, parents of one of my soon-to-be students scheduled a meeting before the start of school to discuss their son. Facing the mountain of work at the start of the school year, I was not looking forward to a meeting with parents anxious as to how we teachers should act to get the most out of their child. I was both surprised and inspired when the boy's mom said, "Please don't hold anything back from us. There is nothing you can say about our son that would shock us."
Matt had some behavioral struggles, but his mom’s words and the wisdom behind saying them to a teacher have stuck with me since, and I admit that I make a point to say something similar to my child's teachers each year. The wording changes from year to year and teacher to teacher, but the core message is: I do not think my child is perfect and I would appreciate you sharing both the celebrations and the struggles so I can help support at home the amazing things you work with her on at school. As a parent, I welcome open and candid communication about my child's progress and development. As a middle school head, I know that defensiveness about a child's struggles can be a very effective way to cause a teacher to hold back valuable information about a child's progress.
Remember, 99 percent of the time, you and your child's school/teacher want the same thing: to help your child grow, learn, and mature into their best self.
In addition to this story, I've taken many notes on strategies—ranging from effective to undermining—that parents take both with their children and in engaging with the school.
The following are some of my key recommendations for good communication to help you and your child get the best out of their school experience.
1. Forging and fostering strong parent teacher relationships pays huge dividends. You know how nice it is to receive a personal note from your child's teacher sharing a positive moment from the day? Sending a note of appreciation or conveying a celebration about the teacher/lesson/activity told to you by your child goes a long way and can take the edge off future difficult conversations with the teacher.
In general, "my child could use help/support with ___. What can I do to help?" is better received than, "there is a problem. what are you planning on doing about it?"
2. Remember, 99 percent of the time, you and your child's school/teacher want the same thing: to help your child grow, learn, and mature into their best self. When communicating with the teacher/principal, share the efforts you are making towards a goal and focus the conversation on what "we" can all do to help. When you have a concern, make your first priority to try to understand the different sides or components to the issue at hand. Each situation is different, but concerned parents who enter a conversation looking to gain a deeper understanding of the situation will end up with a much better chance of a positive outcome than one who assumes they already know the situation.
3. While we all would like to believe that our children are always acting ethically, acknowledge that your child makes mistakes, isn't always completely honest, has lapses in judgement, and doesn't always treat others as well as we would hope. It's okay. And so are the consequences when those arise.
4. Know what you want out of your conversation. Is it to understand policy/procedure so you can support at home? Is it sharing information with the teacher? Is it to learn more about a situation? Whatever the purpose, clearly state that with the teacher/administrator you meet with and follow up any conversation with an email summarizing the action plan and timeline.
5. Many schools have a communication "chain of command" that is meant to help direct you to the right person at the right time. Most of these direct parents to teachers first for classroom issues, then to principals or other administrators if the same issue persists. When parents approach me before communicating directly with a teacher, I usually refer them back to the teacher. However, before I do that I listen to their concerns and often offer suggestions on how to approach the subject with the teacher so their concerns can best be heard. Successful resolutions worked out with the teacher help strengthen the trust that great teaching and learning is built upon. Given the importance of the teacher-student-parent relationship, investing in that often will help guide parents on how they can best share their concern with the teacher.