Ep 75 Why building strong parent teacher relationships is non-negotiable

One of your strongest and most helpful allies as a teacher are parents. They can rescue you when you need help creating materials for your class, volunteer to help chaperone events, and run fundraisers for your classroom. They can also question your teaching practices, make excuses when their child misbehaves, and go over your head and complain to your administrator.

Either way, it’s important that you build strong relationships with your students’ parents right from the start. But how do you do that? What if you’re uncomfortable with or intimidated by them? How should you handle conflicts with them? In this episode, I go over everything I’ve learned about creating positive parent relationships as well as how to deal with issues when parent-teacher conflicts arise.

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Many of you know that I’m both a parent and a teacher, so like many of you, I’ve experienced this push and pull. One the one hand, there are times when I’ve unfortunately been that parent, and of course I’ve also been that teacher. Why? Because I didn’t know any better. Because I want to protect my darling child. Because I want to stand my ground as a teacher and be bullied.

And because I’ve been a crazy parent and an unreasonable teacher, and because I’m super reflective and always want to improve, I’ve gotten better and have seen the faults in my ways. It’s crazy to me when parents email or contact me about silly things, and I remember when I was that way when my daughter was in elementary. Yup, I put on my teacher hat and questioned what her teacher was doing. Can you believe that?

And of course, I’ve been a teacher that thought that some parents were being ridiculous when, in fact, they did exactly what I did to my daughter’s teacher. So needless to say, you guys are going to learn A LOT about how to deal with these situations so that you don’t quit and run for the hills.

But first, it’s important to review how both parents and teachers points of view when it comes to a particular student.

Parent’s Point of View

  • Parents know their kid better than anyone else
  • Parents want what’s best for their kids, but they don’t necessarily know what that looks like educationally. They vaguely remember what their education was like, but they probably don’t know what it’s like now. And obviously, things have changed.
  • They want to believe the best things about their child. Even when they know that their child is doing something wrong at school, it still hurts to hear it. So we have to keep that in mind when we’re sending those emails or notes home, or even calling them to deliver some bad news.
  • They’re biased and don’t realize how their need to protect their child can actually do more harm than good. Many parents don’t want to see their child struggle or fail or be sad, so they become lawnmower parents. This is where they’ll remove any obstacles that could get in the way of their child’s happiness and success.
  • And of course this happens! Very few parents ENJOY seeing their child be sad, anxious, or upset! But they forget that the productive struggle is actually good for the child and necessary for their growth.
  • Am I making generalizations? Absolutely. But these are based on what I’ve seen and the many emails I receive from parents when their child has an A- instead of an A.

Teachers’ Point of View

  • Teachers are subject-area experts in the field and want to be treated as such
  • It can be frustrating when parents second-guess a teacher’s judgment since that teacher knows what’s best for their students at that grade
  • Some teachers are afraid of dealing with parents and will avoid it at all costs. This means they won’t communicate when a student is doing something wrong and will just immediately send them to the counselor or principal to deal with. They’re either intimidated by parents, don’t want to be hassled, don’t know how to handle parents, or some combination of all of the above. DON’T BE THAT TEACHER! Ironically, these are the same teachers that also appear to have a lot of the “problem” students. It’s a strange phenomenon that I’ve witnessed over and over again.
  • On the other end of the spectrum are teachers that become combative with other parents. They HAVE to be right and are completely unwilling to see the situation from the parents’ point of view even if they’re parents as well! They typically have many meetings with the parents and their administrator, and may even have a reputation for being a difficult teacher in the parent circles.

As you can see, nobody can really be blamed for parent-teacher struggles. Both sides are operating with different priorities and stereotypes about the other. So how can we be proactive so that we can prevent conflict, as well as deal with problems when they arise?

Setting the intention for positive communication

When you’re starting out the year, establish a habit of reaching out to the parents because communication is key. If you communicate early and often, then parents feel like they know what’s going on with their student and are more at ease. It could be as simple as reminders before an assignment is due, a monthly update on what you’re working on in class, a calendar with school events and important deadlines in your class. They should regularly keep in touch with parents so that the parents aren’t in the dark. You’re less likely to have issues if a parent feels informed and a part of their child’s education.

Also, don’t be afraid to ask parents to let you know about anything major that’s happening in their student’s life. Parents may be going through a divorce, have a newborn in the house, a family member is terminal or has passed away, or the student has high anxiety or depression. And don’t just ask at the beginning of the year since situations change all the time. This can give you insight on why a student is acting a particular way, and you’re better equipped to help them or refer them to someone who can.

From time to time, explain how things work in your school. You’d be surprised how little information a school provides about things like what to do if a parent needs to take their child out of school early for an appointment, how to report an absence, how to contact a teacher, how to add money to the child’s food account. Informing parents about this will create a lot of goodwill since many are uninformed and anxious about what happens at school. You could add this as a tip to parent emails or in a classroom newsletter. 

I especially recommend this if you teach a major transition year, such as kindergarten, 7th grade (or 6th if your middle school starts with 6th grade), and 9th grade. Parents are hungry to know what’s going on, so they’ll definitely be relieved with this type of information.

Another tactic that I need to do more of is contacting parents with good news and not just bad news. I used to pick 10 students every Friday and send a short message home saying something positive about their progress that week. That meant that by the end of the year, each student had received two positive messages from me.

For whatever reason, I’ve fallen out of habit of doing this, but I definitely plan to pick it up again! I do this even for the problem students because it’s nice for them to hear something positive from a teacher.

When you need to contact a parent with bad news

First, teachers need to be strong communicators. You don’t want to avoid parents or be afraid. Sometimes younger teachers are intimidated by more outspoken and often older parents. While you may feel this way, you have to be kind but assertive if you want to be taken seriously.

You don’t want parents to walk all over you, but you also don’t want parents to think that you’re incapable of controlling a class. They’ll automatically peg you as incompetent and begin challenging your decisions.

So remember that when you’re corresponding or talking to parents, you do it with compassion and grace while being forthright and honest. Beating around the bush leads them to believe that nothing is wrong with their child, so when a serious problem comes up, they won’t believe you.

When problems do arise with a student, try to handle it in-house first and document what steps you took to deal with the issue. This is important so that you can track patterns, as well as have some evidence for when you need to discuss it with the parents.

If you do need to contact the parent because their child is misbehaving, try to first understand how the parent will take it and where they’re coming from. Use this frame-of-mind when discussing it with them so that you don’t automatically put them on the defense. When conflicts arise, work on finding a middle ground. Don’t just dig in your heels so that you can win or have the last word. Honestly, it’s not worth the stress, and you could be inviting yourself for more drama down the line.

But also be ready for parents who won’t believe you and will defend their child to the bitter end. For me, it’s been about half-and-half in terms of parents that are apologetic and have a serious discussion with their child and parents that think that I’m the problem.

I’ve had parents who, after prodding and through lengthy conversation, finally admitted that their child has had issues all throughout elementary. However, when I told them about how their student behaved in my class, they had a whole slew of excuses. Even with the type of documentation that I’ve mentioned in previous episodes, they still think I’m picking on their student. Even after showing them the comments of other teachers who had similar issues with that student, they wouldn’t believe us.

At that point, you just follow the disciplinary protocol. If after so many infractions you normally assign detention, then do it. If they persist and the next step is being sent to the assistant principal, then do it. But before you get to that point, you want to try to repair the relationship with the student like I mentioned in Episode 62. Doing this instead of just writing them off will also help repair the relationship with the parent, which is important if you want to get them back on board to support you and their child’s success.

It’s important to also keep in mind that when these types of situations do arise, it’s not okay for parents to be abusive towards you, but you need to realize that tone and intention make a WORLD of a difference. These don’t come across very well via email unless you’re good at being diplomatic online, and if we call after having a tough day, we may be unintentionally short and snippy. 

So stay calm and realize that escalating or getting dragged into an argument won’t help the situation. Come in with the intention of working out a solution and not just telling on that student. That doesn’t mean that you should let the parent walk all over you either. In episode 29, I explain how to handle angry parent emails and the drama around it.

And if they want to get into an argument, don’t take the bait. Be very matter-of-fact, and if they become belligerent, just tell them that you’re going to hang up now and then let your administrator know. At this point, you need their help because some parents can make your life hell if it’s not resolved properly.

Getting past pre-conceived notions

Often both parents and teachers make assumptions about the other, which can be cleared up with purposeful communication. Parents assume that a teacher is incompetent and difficult, and teachers assume that parents are unreasonable and overbearing. How do we get past this and find common ground?

First, it’s important to keep in mind that both parents and teachers are dealing with the exact same struggles. Have you ever thought, I’m tired, I’m overwhelmed, there’s not enough time to get everything done, I don’t have enough help or support, I’m doing everything myself, I’m doing my best,  I’m constantly stressed out, I feel like I still have a job after work?

Guess what? BOTH parents and teachers feel this way! When you send that email or make that call after school, the weight of the day comes through in your message. When a parent comes home after fighting traffic, making dinner, and paying the bills, their frustration comes through in their response.

I can’t change how they’ll respond, but I can do my part to finesse my message so that parents are more open and reasonable to what I have to say. So tone and delivery are key here.

If you’re explaining how a student violated a policy, consider how you word it. You may have a strict late policy for assignments, but you want to word and present it in such a way that’s fair and that doesn’t make parents call foul. While students do need to learn responsibility, it’s still important to be human. Sometimes parents create the problem or situation where their student can’t do the assignment on time, so it does nobody any good if your policy makes both the parent feel guilty and the student resentful of that parent.

If you sound like a stickler and unyielding, then a parent may equally dig in and go over your head to complain. All you wanted to do was let them know that Liya was out of her seat multiple times in a period and all of a sudden you’re stuck in a parent/teacher/administrator conference.

Also, how school should work is not the same in all cultures and sets of values. In some cultures, teachers have more authority and reverence than others. While you may have an idea of how parents and students should treat education at home, you ultimately can’t control that. You need to listen and learn about the norms and work together to find middle ground. Your policies may be truly foreign to them, so when you explain, don’t do it in a condescending way as if they’re stupid for not getting it.

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