Teachers: engage with parents – they’re on your side

Given that our job is to educate their sons and daughters, it is hard to fathom that formal communication is kept to one (or at most two) parent-teacher meetings over the course of the year. This can’t be right. Early in the new year I gather the email addresses of at least one parent of each student and contact the parents with a general welcome message. Usually it is no more than an introduction and an open offer to parents to contact me by email or text if they have a question about anything to do with my class, but particularly if they have a concern about their child coping in my class.
Later I let them know what I expect from students in relation to behaviour and progress in class, homework policy etc. I also let them know where they can access class notes, what to do if they are missing class for any extended period (see previous post on using timelines), how best to revise, and occasionally give advance notice of upcoming class tests.

Getting feedback from parents who let you know that their child has a particular passion for Science coming in to the school does serve to make you conscious that you have a role to live up to here, but that can’t be any bad thing. I once had a parent ask me if I was likely to inspire her child. I was a little taken aback and the initial response was ‘how dare she?’, but on reflection I thought it was actually a wonderful question, so I answered her as honestly as I could. “I don’t know”, I said, “but I’ll certainly try my best”.

The usefulness of the emails can vary from class to class and year to year, but one thing which doesn’t change is the parents’ appreciation of personal contact. This is most notable with the parents of first-year students, for whom this may be their first experience of secondary education since leaving it themselves. It’s not unusual to get feedback from a parent who claims this is the only communication they have ever had of this kind over their child’s entire primary and secondary education. To be asked to give their own feedback is both a novelty and an affirming experience for these parents who can all often feel that they are  outside the tent when it comes to their children’s education.

Now inviting feedback from parents (or from anyone else for that matter) can leave you a little exposed. I was recently taken to task by a parent for checking his daughter’s homework and, on noticing that she wasn’t able to do some questions, mentioned that I would do them on the board after I checked everybody else’s. By the time I got around to everybody else I had forgotten about this one girl’s issues and proceeded to begin the class proper. The dad informed me that both she and he had spent a large amount of time on these questions the previous night and he wasn’t too impressed that I never went back to explain them in detail. There were a number to points that I took from this.

  1. I probably do this more often than I realise.
  2. The daughter wasn’t surprised that I didn’t go back over the questions – she just assumed that if she couldn’t do the homework this was her problem. This just makes my behaviour so much more disappointing.
  3. While it wasn’t pleasant to hear this, it most definitely was something I needed to be pulled up on. The dad wasn’t being rude; I had told all parents that I welcomed their feedback and he was merely obliging.
  4. What was much more disquieting was the thought that I have probably been doing this for years and would never have changed if it wasn’t pointed out to me. I assume my homework is relatively straightforward but in hindsight this is very presumptuous of me and is something I need to be careful about in the future. While all the time keeping in mind that there is a large body of evidence out there which calls into question the effectiveness of any homework I set.

So for any teachers out there reading this who haven’t already done so, why not send out an email this week to the parents of just one of your classes, setting out to do no more than initiating contact and offering them your email address – what’s the worse that could possibly happen?

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4 comments

  1. I love this post! I have had experience of a school which seemed to go out of its way to keep parents from teachers. I once requested the physics teachers’ email address to add to an application form for a course in UCD..as per the instructions on the form. Said physics teacher wrote to me to say he couldn’t possibly be expected to give out his email address to parents…I guess because of a fear that we’d all be emailing him constantly! Unfortunately, the same logic applied across the board and contributed to extremely bad relationships between the school and several families. When parents are repeatedly fobbed off by school secretarial staff without any reassurance that their message will be relayed to the teacher to whom they wish to speak, tensions rise quickly, which does nothing to help anyone. We eventually removed our children from this school and what a difference we met!

    Each teacher in our current school has an official school email address and parents are encouraged to use it. What we quickly learned is that this is a win-win situation. We, as parents, have the reassurance that we can contact any teacher at any moment, should the need arise, so we are less anxious and emotional. When sitting down calmly to write an email, one tends to put some thought into it too, rather than use the opportunity to have a good rant, as you might when you finally get to talk to a teacher who has been dodging you for days/weeks! It might be just a quick one-liner to give a teacher a heads-up on an issue or to say thanks for something they did. From the teachers’ perspective, they can read the message at a time of their choosing and can respond calmly when they have gathered the full facts, where necessary. They can also send a quick message to parents if they need to flag an issue or ask a question.

    Contrary to the belief of the first school, when parents know that the channels of communication are always open, they are probably easier to deal with. We are most definitely on your side!

    1. Hi Catherine, funny how it’s the simple things that can make such a difference. I think we as teachers need to take a step back from our whiteboards every so often and ask ourselves one simple question: what can we do (without much effort) to make our work more beneficial to all? I do see it changing, but relatively slowly.

  2. It is so wonderful to hear a teacher acknowledge that parents have views, feelings etc in relation to their child’s education. And I think you are very brave and honest admitting that you’re not perfect and attempting to rectify the situation in the future. Of course parents are not perfect either but we don want the best for our kids. I think that that is all many parents ask. We would rather hear a teacher say “sorry I don’t know I’ll get back to you on that” than fob us off. So many school simply don’t communicate at all. The primary school my girls attend has virtually no communication. We do not have teacher’s email addresses and therefore can only see them after class (if they are not to busy). For the last 2 years I have been trying to get some help for both my daughters in relation to maths. Neither teacher has offered much advice except to say “don’t worry she’s good at English” or don’t worry it’s just not her thing. She can do basic maths at High school”! I find these kind of statements so unhelpful. What’s more I was accused of dropping in to often when in fact I had only seen this particular teacher 3 times all year as she was away on leave. Twice I came for updates on my daughter’s progress and once for an unrelated issue. Having an email address where a teacher encourages you to get in touch with any problems etc would be outstanding! It is only something I can dream about as our teachers are reluctant to engage at all…

    1. At least it’s not just Ireland 🙂
      Interesting how education is so similar across the (western) world, despite so much of it being outdated. There seems to me more reluctance to change in Education that in most other areas. I wonder why that is?

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