We all know that the parents are a child’s first and best teachers! Yet for some reason, we as educators have a tendency to not tap into this resource or even request it. Teachers complain that they never or rarely see the parents of the students they need to see and see too much of those parents that meddle or interfere with their teaching. Parents say that teachers claim to want more engagement from them, but discount their input. So, what can us, as educators do to improve the lines of communications with parents to begin building relationships? The following are some tips for building better Parent-School Relationships:
1. Have Parent Meetings Off-site.
Often, the best place to meet parents is at home, in a house of worship, or at a community center. The school setting can be a difficult place for parents to feel they can be open, safe, and unthreatened if they have had troubled school experiences as students.Intervention by someone parents know and trust such as a parent liaison has a far greater effect than calls from the school or requesting the parent come to the school for the meeting. The bonus of having off-site meetings is that it involves the building of relationships with other entities within the community to host the meetings.
2. Ask Parents to Teach What They Know
Teachers often forget that parents are great resources to give presentations on the cultures and customs of their home countries. As a teacher, during my first few weeks of school, I would send a “Parent survey and contract” home with my students. These forms were accompanied with a letter from me expressing the excitement I had about the up-and-coming school year. It also expressed the “partnership” that I felt we were entering together in their child’s educational interest. The contract asked the parent ways they would commit to helping their child at home. The survey asked ways they would like to serve within the classroom, i.e. be a guest speaker about a particular subject or career, volunteer as a classroom helper, or teach about their culture, etc. Every year, I would have 6 to 8 parents that would come and speak to my class about the importance of what they learned in school and how it related to the job at which they were employed or bring food from their culture and explain the significance of the food. This had a great impact on many of my students and parents who had never been asked to participate in a teaching role in their child’s class.
3. Welcome Complainers
Most teachers have had that “squeaky wheel” parent….the parent that is at your door when the school day begins and is there again when the day ends. They ALWAYS want to complain to you about either something you or the school has or has NOT done correctly for their child. These parents are my favorite. Because they are there before and after school, I know they have a precious commodity of which I, as a teacher, never have enough…TIME! This is the parent I WANT in my classroom! I begin by asking them to observe my classroom. This is such an eye-opener to the parent. I also ask for feedback from the parent. REMEMBER….you must be ready for the feedback if you ask for it! These parents are usually familiar with all the students and other parents. Many times, these parents become that “Parent liaison” that every teacher needs. They know what’s going on in the classroom, but have relationships with other parents and become the teacher’s advocate. They can help bridge the gap in building better communications between the teacher and parents.
4. Ask Parents to “Shadow” Their Child
I asked one parent to “shadow” her child for a week as a result of disruptive behavior in my classroom. This was an alternative to suspension. At the end of the first day, she came to me and informed me that I deserved MUCH more pay than she or any parent could pay for the commitment that I had to come back into the classroom day after day. She also informed me that I had her total and complete support if any other incidents happened with her child. She became my greatest parent advocate that year.
5. Offer Service Learning or Educational Projects for Parents and Kids
I don’t want to think that we are raising generations of people that do not recognize the importance of “giving back” as part of them being a citizen of this great nation, but we are! A state goal for one of the federal competitive grants that is offered by the State Department of Education is that “The grantee must offer four opportunities for both students and parents to give back or “serve” their community.” These opportunities may be as simple as a food drive for the local food bank or more in-depth. One program director was struggling to find a way to have her middle school students “give back” to those in their community that were in need. The school had purchased digital cameras and photo editing software the year before for a Photography class. She and her students came up with the idea of taking “family portraits” of the families in their small and rural communities. Most of these families had never had formal portraits taken before. The parents of the students got involved by providing nice clothing for family members to wear, backgrounds for the photos, and many purchased frames for the photos after they were printed. Now, the families who received the portraits are the ones that continue the tradition that began just three years ago.
Science projects, dioramas, and craft projects, are great ways for teachers to reach out to parents to be involved in their child’s education. Each year during the week my class learned about plant cells, I asked my students to get their parent’s help to create an “edible” plant cell, i.e. the parts of the cell had to be definable, but everything that was used to make the cell had to be edible by humans. Also, all of the parts were to be labeled. The students and parents were VERY creative! We had everything from Jell-O, fruit roll-ups, Twizzlers, jaw breakers, marshmallows, chocolate chips, etc. that was used to create these “sometimes” delicious plant cells. The day that they were due, parents were invited to accompany their child to class and see all of the cells. This was one day I knew I would have a classroom FULL of parents. The students had the opportunity to tell what they had used to create their cells either written or verbally to the class.
6. Stop Using Jargon
Speeches by principals at back-to-school nights and school fliers schools send home often require translation – not from English to Spanish, but from educational terms to everyday language. Terms such as “small learning communities,” “meta-cognition,” “cooperative learning,” “discovery learning,” “constructivism,” and “multiple intelligences” are unintelligible to people who did not attend education courses in college. The language used by school administrators and teachers can often leave parents speechless and unable to ask questions as they should.
7. Give Parents “Ideas” of How to Help Their Child
Sometimes parents need those “conversation starters” with their children to be more fully involved in their daily education. Many teachers send home weekly or monthly notes that list what the students will be learning in the coming week or weeks. These are GREAT conversation starters for parents. Rather than asking “What did you do today?” a parent can ask questions like, “Can you give me an example of a preposition?” or “What’s the product of 4 and 8?”
Parents can also start conversations by asking “Can you tell me about a story you’ve read this week? Show me a math problem you learned how to do today. What’s new in your Science world today?” Read to your child, or better yet, have your child read to you. I tell parents to “Be their child’s greatest cheerleader and sounding board.” If teachers and parents work together, school not only can be fun and challenging, it can be REWARDING!
--By Melodie Fulmer, executive director, Parent and Community EngagementSDE