Tuesday, December 18, 2012

What Teachers Should Know About Parents

Last week, I wrote What Parents Should Know About Teachers based on my experiences in the classroom. Here is the other perspective, What Teachers Should Know About Parents, things that I have learned now that my kids are in school.

While teaching, I encountered three types of parents:

I’ll begin with the parents in the middle. Most of your students’ parents are great. They love their kids, they are happy with the school, and they want to support you as the teacher. You only need to know one thing about these parents: if their kids are happy, they’re happy. If you set their kids up for success, throw in some creative activities, and tell a joke or two, all is good.

There is a second group of parents, the ones with too little time. These folks are maxed out with work, with family, and with other commitments. Many of these parents belong to the first, happy group, but they really hope that you, the teacher, take care of the school thing since they are juggling so much. In general, you can help these parents by:
  • Keeping your emails short and easy to skim on their phone. I’m an involved parent, and I read all of the teachers’ emails, but even I rarely make it to the Moodle/Blackboard/Haiku page.
  • Making your homework and project instructions easy for the student to understand. These parents are grateful when their kids can knock out their homework without a lot of help.
  • Avoiding projects that require trips to the craft store. You should definitely avoid the dreaded collaborative project where the kids have to get together at someone’s house – it takes forever, and they never get anything done there anyway.

The third group of parents has too much time on their hands. These folks are very involved (some might say too involved) with their child’s education. They want to know everything that is going on, and if you don’t let them know ahead of time, they will email, call, and request meetings to find out. And you know what? They have every right to know what is going on in their child’s day. More on that later.

Here are my suggestions for keeping everyone happy.
  • Send out a class newsletter periodically, either by email, on paper, or both. Elementary students might need a weekly homework newsletter every Monday while older students might only need one monthly covering the big tests and projects. This will keep the busy parents happy.
  • Meanwhile, put everything on your class webpage or Moodle/Blackboard/Haiku page and put links in the newsletter. Now, if a parent wants to know the agenda for the day or the instructions for a project, it is easy to find. This requires extra work at the beginning of the month, but it will save you time answering questions later.
  • Make sure that the parent can check the student’s grades online and that the grades are current.

Now there is something that took me several years to learn while I was teaching; it is more important that I support a family’s parenting than it is for them to support my teaching. By that I mean it is good for parents to be intentional about the choices that they make for their children, choices about media, about time spent online, about language. If parents have chosen to raise their child without movies or television, it is not the place of the teacher to undo that by showing a movie in class or making the child write about a television show. If parents choose to shelter their children from strong language, the teacher should not undo all of that work by assigning a novel that contains those elements. For instance, Huckleberry Finn is one of the greatest American novels, but some families may be uncomfortable with the language. I believe it is best if the teacher lets the parents know early. If a parent has an issue with the book, try to find a compromise – perhaps the student can read a different book. When I taught Edgar Allan Poe in my English class, a couple of parents over the years were uncomfortable with the violence. I found that the same lesson could be taught with a different piece of literature. Every American should read Huck Finn and Edgar Allan Poe at some point, in my opinion, but it does not have to happen freshman year.

And returning to my point about the overly involved parents, they should be allowed to be overly involved. I may not choose to parent that way, but you never know if the child has a special need or may forget to do homework unless that parent double and triple checks. Or maybe that parent just wants to push the kid super hard to get into Stanford. I don’t think it is going to make that kid into a happy adult, but it is not my choice as the teacher.

One last note, this time about surprises. All parents like to be pleasantly surprised, so catch each student doing something great, and let the parents know. Make a comment or send an email letting the parent know how helpful the student was in science lab or how well she did on the test. Most parents only get called when the child is in trouble or is hurt and will love to hear that you noticed their child’s strength. Conversely, all parents hate to be unpleasantly surprised. If a student has grades that are slipping or has missed an assignment, let the parent know early and often. It does take some time to analyze student data each week, but it is worth it for everyone. Some of my worst times as a teacher were spent with angry parents whose kid was doing poorly, but there was not enough time in the semester for the child to raise the grade. This can go for behavior problems too.

Realize that even though you have taught hundreds of students at this grade level, this is only the first or second time most of these parents have raised a child this age, so be patient with them.

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