“Mrs. Johnson, when Jake* finishes his nap, I need you to make sure that he folds up his blanket like this.” The concerned mom tells me as she quickly folds up her 3 year-old-son’s blanket into a neat square. “This is how I am teaching him at home, and I want him to practice here.”
“How much did Clara* eat today? Did she eat her sandwich and yogurt? I really need you to make sure that she is finishing her lunch before school is out.”
“I just don’t know what to do with this homework, and it is a bit frustrating. Sarah* goes to her father’s every weekend, and he never checks on it to make sure it is done, which means I only have the Monday morning car ride to get it done. We just can’t do it.”
Sooner or later, every teacher gets a parental request that has them shaking their head. At best, we work to try to figure out a way to work with the parents’ concerns and find a compromise that balances the needs of the classroom with the desires of the parents. At worst, we try to figure out how to best word a response that does not offend the parents, carefully working around and within cultural, social, and school norms.
Then, there are the times we, as teachers, must go to the parents to address one of our concerns regarding the Jakes, Claras, and Sarahs, from academic achievement to behavior to general health and wellness. These communications can often feel like we are walking a fine line of political and cultural correctness and classroom expectations.
It can be exhausting navigating the different types of communication and making sure that we are meeting the needs of every student, their families, the school, our co-teachers, and our own selves. We hear and parrot the phrase “Parent-teacher communication is important.” In reality though, the practice can be draining and frustrating. Through their research, Gartmeier, Gebhardt, and Dotger (2016) found that 25-36% of the teachers they interviewed admitted to struggling with parent-teacher communications (pgs. 212-213). Additionally, supporting literature also finds a large number of teachers unprepared to deal with the struggles and problems that come from parent-teacher relationships, including on-the-spot problem-solving with parents in face-to-face communications and conferences (Kraft and Rogers, 2015). This study also found that over 60 percent of parents interviewed felt that they were not given enough information about their child’s classroom work and practices (p. 50).
So why do we do it? Is parent involvement in the classroom and in academics really worth the extra time spent on drafted letter after drafted letter?
I like to think of parent-teacher communication as a 3-point system of support between parents, teachers, and the students. When one point is missing, the support system falls in, ultimately affecting all three parties, but especially the student.
Another way to picture it is imagining a child holding out his hands. On either side is a hand reaching to grab one of the child’s hands, representing the parents and teacher. When the parents and teacher are working together, those hands can lift the child and support him. However, when there is poor communication, each hand is grabbing and pulling the child in a different direction.
Supporting the Parents
When parents are kept informed of their child’s school life, their academic work, and their strengths and
weaknesses, they feel more comfortable addressing any issues that arise (Arnold, Zeljo, and Doctoroff, 2008; Kraft and Rogers, 2015). As teachers, we work with parents from a variety of economic and educational backgrounds. Unfortunately, teachers can often isolate parents with whom they cannot relate on either a language, educational, or socio-economic level (Murray, McFarland-Piazza, and Harrison, 2014, 1034-1033). This combined with the fact that oftentimes, parents feel unequipped to help their child with homework or even getting them to talk about their day, can lead to tense relationships with parents and parents who are uncomfortable getting involved in their child’s school life. Having a consistent way of informing each parent about their child’s day, week, or month gives them a starting point that can help them build bridges with their child. In return, they are more likely to communicate back with the teacher.
Supporting the Teachers
Having a classroom full of diverse backgrounds, educational, and personal needs can be exhilarating and exhausting. It can be easy to enter into and get stuck into problem-solving mode. However, remaining too long in this mode means that we miss out on the special moments that teaching young children gives. When we focus on making sure that everyone’s needs are fulfilled without engaging with the “ah ha” moments, then we are letting the problems and needs control the class instead of the discovery times. By working with parents and creating a unified team to address needs that arise, we are able to relinquish the need to solve everyone’s problems. When a relationship is formed with parents, it is easier and more comfortable to work with them to find a solution rather than it resting on us alone (Murray, McFarland-Piazza, and Harrison, 2014).
Supporting the Students
Students are always at the top of the pyramid. Everything we do as teachers and as parents is for the ultimate growth and development of the child. That is why it is important that both teachers and parents are aligned in their goals and consistent (as much as possible) in what they expect of the child. It also allows both teachers and parents to gain a more holistic view of their child so that a more well-rounded and understanding approach can be taken by the adults in their responses to the child’s work and behavior.
In the picture on the right, Luke* is working on creating a giant clock. Luke has a unique set of needs that can set him apart from other students, and at times, he can become fixated with different concepts or objects. Because I formed a relationship with his mom, we were able to talk about his interest with clocks to develop a special curriculum just for him that allowed him to work on his clocks while learning other skills, such as counting by 5s, following multi-step directions, and learning new vocabulary. However, when communication between parents and teachers fail, it places the child at risk (Arnold, Zeljo, and Doctoroff, 2008; Murray, McFarland-Piazza, and Harrison, 2014).
However, knowing the importance of solid parent-teacher communications is not enough. We need to be comfortable and confident in our communications and relationships with the families in our care. If we as teachers do not feel comfortable in our communications with parents, how are we to become competent in reaching out and forming positive relationships with parents? Gartmeier, Gebhardt, and Dotger (2016) state that in lieu of formal training, mentorship and experience are two of the best methods of gaining confidence and practice in dealing with difficult situations. Over the next few months, I will be diving into different areas of parent-teacher communications and family events, from using current technology to reach families, creating on-target emails and newsletters, to forming a successful parent and family event; so stay tuned!
*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of students and families involved.
Arnold, D., Zeljo, A., & Doctoroff, G. (2008). Parent Involvement in Preschool: predictors and the relation of involvement to preliteracy development. School Psychology Review,37(1), 74-90.
Gartmeier, M., Gebhardt, M., & Dotger, B. (2016). How do teachers evaluate their parent communication competence? Latent profiles and relationships to workplace behaviors. Teaching and Teacher Education,55, 207-216.
Kraft, M., & Rogers, T. (2015). The underutilized potential of teacher-to-parent communication: Evidence from a field experiment. Economics of Education Review,47, 49-63.
Murray, E., McFarland-Piazza, L., & Harrison, L. (2014). Changing patterns of parent–teacher communication and parent involvement from preschool to school. Early Childhood Development and Care,185(7), 1031-1052.