the teaching journey: creating relationships with parents

August 27, 2013

{Out of sensitivity to some people, some names, numbers, and years mentioned have been changed .)
** This weeks post is all about things that a teacher can do. Stay tuned next week for a post specifically on things that parents can do**

I am going to be brutally honest here. Up until "that" year of teaching (I taught for seven years) I had excellent relationships with my students parents. When I would hear that other teachers would have issues with various parents or they would say that they felt like they were facing "a firing squad" I would silently shake my head and think maybe that teacher was exaggerating. I mean, we all know the helicopter parents exist but honestly it couldn't be as bad as my colleagues were saying. 

And then the "that" year came. 

And there are absolutely no dramatics when I say that I thought about quitting the profession all together. The profession that I loved, was passionate about, and would have (like any teacher I know) put her life on the line for any of my students. All of a sudden I understood THIS CNN article with a scary intensity. I spent more time crying in the first two months of that year alone than I had in my entire teaching career. I prayed unceasingly for wisdom, patience with the parents, and peace. A co-worker(who was dealing with the same set of parents) and I memorized and would remind each other daily of the verse that speaks about living at peace with others as far as it is possible with us. I tried to respond to the hateful emails that I received with kindness. I went above and beyond more than I ever had to try and diffuse anything I thought would bring conflict. I prayed about not re-signing my contract. And at the end of the day I would lay awake in bed brokenhearted that despite ALL of my attempts it was impossible to develop relationships in the way that I always had before with this particular set of parents. I still describe that year as a "heart-battering" year. Thankfully I had wise people in my life who encouraged me to resign my contract and this led to one of the sweetest years that I had in my entire teaching career. But I did learn a lot through both the good and the bad and it breaks my heart when I continue to hear that I am not the only one that has experienced such a year. Today I wanted to share with y'all a few tips and thoughts that I and some lovely friends have shared with me that I hope will help you. If you are a teacher in the midst of a trying year like I was I hope and pray that this will encourage you and give you some practical ideas. You are the unsung hero. If you are having a great year I hope that this will give you some additional thoughts to strengthen the bonds that you already have! 

1. Back to School Night is a more formal gathering than an open-house. Be professionally dressed and prepare for what you are going to say ahead of time.

2. Have extra copies of your syllabus handy.

3. Make sure your room is organized and neat.

4. Announce that due to time constraints that there are no private conferences, but give the parents a way to contact you if they want to set up a conference. (There is always the one parent who thinks that they are an exception to this so have a plan for the end of the evening.)

5. Always be very clear about what your expectations are for the classroom.

6.Be sincere and make eye contact.

7. Show your enthusiasm for not only the subject but for the children in your classroom.

8.If a child is going to have to pay for something in your classroom be up front about that immediately. In this day and age when things are so expensive and money is tight it is helpful for all parents to know this upfront.

9. Talk openly about how you want issues resolved in your classroom. 

10. Encourage and remind parents that this is a partnership.

11. Remind parents that school is still hard work (just like when we were in school) only now there are 1,000 different distractions thanks to social media. Before one parents meeting I asked the students in my classroom to write out what their study habits looked like and then shared a few (anonymously) that evening. The students had said that studying is the book/notes open with computer on, ipod music playing, and only being interrupted by "important" texts from friends. Add in the social trends of instagram, twitter, snapchat, and a thousand other things and you absolutely have no studying happening. I stress this point because this will often help relieve comments of "the test was so hard" or "he/she is such a hard teacher".

(These tips are for "little" issues - for "Big" issues (drugs, abuse, etc.) consult your supervisor)

1. Encourage face-to-face communication. People say things in an email that they would never dare to say to your face. (Example: I once had a parent tell me in an email that I was destroying their child's soul. In a face-to-face meeting they didn't even remember they had written it.)

2. Listen.Listen.Listen. Really hear what the parent is trying to say and work as hard as possible to meet them. Sometimes this isn't possible but many times the more that you listen without saying a word accomplishes miracles. (I often think of the precious verse from Exodus 14:14: The Lord will fight for you, you only need to be silent.)

3. Remember what your final goals in the situation are. Throw out the emotional baggage and hurtful comments and stick to the facts. (I had one parent write me the most scathing email and it attacked my personal character and went completely off of the subject of Middle East History. When they came to the face-to-face meeting I requested I let them just keep talking and finally they became quiet. They finally said that they weren't even upset with me but the fact that the school was raising tuition.)

4. Watch your body language when meeting with parents. 

5. Every parent believes that there child is the best and is right. A common thing for parents to say is: "this has never happened with another teacher before" or "well he/she has A's in every other subject". Don't get caught up in this- again stick to the subject at hand and throw everything else.

6. Always have a third party (department head, principal,etc.) at a meeting that involves tension.

7. I started a practice of always copying my department head to important e-mail communication. This sometimes can diffuse problems before they become to big.

8. Join the PTA if possible. It gives you a unique view and can help you understand from a parents perspective general issues that are occurring in the school.

1. Communicate to let the parents know the good as well as the bad. I kept a notebook and I would make sure to let every child's parents at least one good thing a semester. Sometimes this would be an achievement - good test grade or other times it was simply an action done, or a mature behavior witnesses.

2. Write thank you notes for little and big things done that parents do.

3. Try to attend at least one sport function, one drama/musical performance, etc. every 1-2 weeks. This is an excellent way to connect with your kids, but also parents see that you care about their children as a "whole person". Don't get caught up in issues at the event but instead make a point to say "hello". 

4. Be friendly. Yes, there is a ton of things going on but try to remember that parents have a lot going on too.

5. Utilize technology and social media in ways that will benefit the classroom. I have friends who use Twitter, have created websites, etc. Anything that can help communicate to the parents information and still help your students in the classroom.

6. Establish an open-door policy.

7. Do your best and then at the end of the day commit the days and times into the Lord's hands. 

What about you? Are you a teacher? Any tips on how to create strong relationships with parents? Are you a parent? Like I mentioned above this weeks post was all about things that a teacher can do. Stay tuned next week for a post specifically on things that you can do to build a strong and healthy relationship with your child's teacher!

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