By Teachers, For Teachers
A few weeks ago I wrote a piece about parent’s fears during Parent-Teacher Conferences. I had intended today’s article to be a “sister piece” of sorts, highlighting what teachers worry about when parents come into meet with us during conference time.
As time slipped by I realized that conferences have been over for almost every district and the topic might not be as relevant as it was a month ago. Nevertheless, as I chatted with my fellow teachers I realized that Parent-Teacher Conferences are not the only time of year we teachers worry about communicating with parents. In fact, the concerns I heard all fell into a few different categories.
We worry that parents will act like they have no idea what we’re talking about.
While it was common in the past for a teacher to only speak to parents during Back-to-School Night and Parent-Teacher conferences, teachers nowadays are expected to communicate much more frequently. Some school districts require teachers to send home interim grade reports; others ask teachers to touch base with parents at least once per marking period whether their students are doing poorly or well. Many teachers send home classroom newsletters, maintain websites, and contact parents the moment a potential issue arises. With that in mind, teachers I spoke to said they hated when they called a parent to discuss an ongoing issue – only to be treated like it was the first time it had ever been mentioned.
“I had been emailing a parent weekly with what homework assignments I had given their student in class and what work he owed me at their request. When I called at the midpoint of the marking period to discuss their child’s failing grade his mother responded as if it was the first time she had ever heard that he was struggling. It put me in the position of having to remind her of all the communication we had done about his work and left me feeling very attacked and defensive. I thought we had avoided all of that with the emails!”
It can be nerve-wracking enough to have to communicate about a struggling student – it’s even worse when the parents seem perplexed by an issue we’ve already told them about.
We worry that they’ll share way too much information.
I once sat in a meeting trying desperately to figure out the polite way to ask a parent to stop talking about how her son, my student, was interfering with her sex life. I’ve also held two IEP meetings for divorced parents, only to listen to both of them complain about how the other wasn’t holding up their end of whatever agreement they had made. While it’s understandable that talking about a person’s child is a very personal topic, and it might make a person more likely to talk about other personal information, I’m not the only teacher who gets a bit nervous when a parent seems like they’re going to share more information than we were prepared to hear.
We worry that parents are going to be unbelievably nice … and completely unhelpful.
Teachers worry that parents are angry, and I’ll address that in a minute, but we also worry that when we call or meet with parents they are going to be charming, lovely people who don’t seem able or willing to help at all.
“I had tried everything I could think of to help one of my student’s stay organized but nothing was working. We had tried binders, folders, pocket-charts, daily check-ins, but nothing was being done at home. When I sat down with her parents for a meeting they agreed with everything I said…yes, organization was a huge problem…yes, it was affecting her ability to succeed at school…yes, home and school needed to work together…yes, they had not been as diligent as they could about holding their daughter accountable. I thought we were having a great meeting. They were positive and upbeat. We made a plan to communicate using the student’s agenda book and that I would sign it at school and they would sign it at home. I was so pleased. Within one week they stopped following through with all of it.”
While it’s terrible when a parent is angry, it can be absolutely infuriating when a parent is a positive, upbeat contributing part of the home-school team and then does nothing to keep that going.
We worry that they’ve come in looking for a fight.
This one was probably the most common concern I heard from the teachers I spoke to. I don’t think it matters how experienced you are as an educator, when you read that email, pick up that phone, sit down in that meeting and a parent expresses anger at what you have done in your classroom with their child…it hurts. No one becomes a teacher because they want to do a mediocre job working with kids. We do it because we want to be inspirational, life-changing educators. So when we speak with a parent who wants to tell us how we’ve screwed up it can be very hard not to be defensive, angry, or sad. Teachers are willing (in fact, every single teacher who mentioned this stated that they wanted to know if a parent was worried) to hear about parent concerns. What worries them is when a parent comes in looking for a fight, rather than an answer to their concern.
We worry that parents won’t come in at all.
As I started to pull all of this together I realized that it sounds a bit negative towards parents. As a parent, I can tell you that my children are my first and most important priority in life. When they start school I will be their loudest advocate and if that means stepping on a few teachers’ toes then so be it. The point of this article is not to bash loving, involved parents, but rather to highlight some of the things that might keep teachers and parents from working together for the students as effectively as we could. With that in mind, I wanted to end with my biggest fear regarding communication with parents. It was echoed by many of my fellow educators. My biggest worry when contacting a parent is that they won’t come in at all, won’t return my call or email, won’t communicate about their child. I will gladly explain why a child is struggling in my room five times if a parent forgets that I’ve already brought it up. I will listen to them complain about their ex-spouses and tell me way more about their lives than I have any business knowing. I’ll call and email asking for a parent to help again and again. I will even take a breath and explain my classroom procedures and expectations to a parent who feels that I have treated their child unfairly and is looking for a fight.
As teachers, we will take all of these challenges on happily…because for the most part it means we have a parent who is advocating for their child. We can work from that point, we can improve our communication skills and become a team – unified by the common desire to see that child experience success and develop a love of learning that they will carry with them for the rest of their lives. What we can’t do, is work together with a parent who absent. And when we’re talking about our concerns about communicating with parents - that’s what scares us the most.