Susan TerLouw takes a proactive approach to fostering collaboration with her students’ parents.
“I have found texting to be an amazing way to get connected with parents,” says the high school special education teacher. “After not having calls returned, I tried texting and got immediate responses.”
Texting parents allows TerLouw to update them on their child’s progress before waiting for an issue to arise. It’s quick and easy, and TerLouw says the constant flow of contact with parents has done wonders for her own parent-teacher relationships.
“I have been able to move past it to actual conversations, face-to-face meetings, and a trusting relationship.”
It’s that communication and trust that are key to fostering student success, yet connecting with parents still remains a challenge for many educators. Fortunately, savvy teachers are always discovering ways of creating meaningful parent-teacher relationships, from opening a clear channel of communication with their household to drawing parents into the school community through events and programs. Here are some other ideas gathered from your colleagues about how they engage parents.
Middle school teacher Maxine Taylor says that a great way to build a successful parent-teacher relationship is to contact parents before there’s a problem.
“I call or email parents whenever a student does a particularly nice job or has been exceptionally helpful in class,” she says.
The extra effort only takes her a few minutes and does wonders for her relationship with parents. By focusing on their child’s successes, Taylor is able to equate parental interaction with positive news, ensuring that parents will be more willing to hear her out when there’s an issue.
“It helps the parents not cringe when we come into contact because they don't just expect to hear bad things.”
Jenna Bower, a middle school teacher who’s in her first year teaching, also stresses the positives with the negatives when it comes to contacting parents.
“As a new teacher I’ve begun sending out ‘HI-LO’ notes on my students’ homework packets,” Bower says. “The weekly note begins with ‘Your Student’s Success,’ and I include two things in this section. The next section is ‘Still Working On,’ and one item goes here.”
By emphasizing successes, Bower is able to get students to willingly share their school experiences with their parents.
“The best part is I have the students read to their parents, so they get to share their successes with parents,” says Bower. “Many times the parents send it back with a thank you note attached. I send out 30 notes a week and it only adds 20 minutes to my Tuesday evenings.”
“How was school today?”
Too often, this is the extent of the conversation students have with their parents about school, so parents love it when teachers go out of their way to fill in the missing experiences.
“In order to keep parents current on classroom milestones, activities and events, and to meet the technology goals of my students, I have my students create a classroom newspaper,” says high school special education teacher Heather Vanover says. “It consists of topics such as sports schedules, upcoming events like picture day and prom, school news, and classroom topics.”
And, because students write the columns and help produce the newspaper, Vanover doesn’t have to spend much time working on it outside the classroom. The end result is a successful product for parents that shows off their children’s skills while keeping them up-to-date on school happenings.
“Each edition has my contact information and a current report of any classroom issues or rewards,” Vanover says. “It’s a fun way to communicate with parents and publish students’ writing.”
Kindergarten teacher Martha Richardson uses disposable cameras (yes, they still exist!) to share experiences with parents.
“I have my kids bring in a disposable camera with their school supplies,” Richardson says. “I snap special moments that happen during the school year (things that parents miss). When it’s filled, I send it home. Parents can have it developed and send in another if they wish. It’s a great way to capture school experiences.”
If you show a willingness to learn more about your students from their parents, then they’ll be more willing to work with you throughout the school year. To accomplish this, you need to be ready to open up to parents and listen to what they have to say. Show an interest in them, and they’ll return the favor.
Mellanay Auman, a middle school language arts teacher, uses the beginning of the year as a time to get to know both parent and student better.
“The first week of school, I send home a fill-in-the-blank letter in English and Spanish for the parents to write to me about their son/daughter,” says Auman. “They get a chance to tell me about what they want their child to accomplish in my class, and about their child’s strengths, hobbies and interests.”
Since you’re asking the parents for input about their children—treating them as partners—they’ll be more willing to communicate with you throughout the year.
“The parents love bragging about their child, and this letter opens the lines of communication for the rest of the year.”
Many educators also find it helpful to include students in parent conferences.
L. Cavel Wilson, a middle school geography teacher, says that parents often bring their child with them to school conferences, so Wilson uses the opportunity to have the student discuss their class behavior and performance.
“During the conference, I ask the student direct questions, leading him to explain to his own parents what he is doing in the class,” Wilson says. “This takes the focus off teaching styles, content, or even communication issues and puts it squarely on the shoulders of the student, who has ultimate responsibility for his own success.”
And, more often than not, Wilson says the approach allows him to find some common ground with the parents.
“Unless there is a major behavioral problem or a moral issue at stake, you should be able to find common ground with parents — if nothing else, there is always your concern and caring for their child and your desire to help him succeed in your class and in life.”
Retired teacher Karen Clark works as a Parent Educator in one of the Atlantic City School District’s 9 Parent Resource Centers, where she helps organize a number of district-wide programs designed to draw in and support the entire family unit.
“The goal is to try and provide a link between the school and home,” Clark says. “We really want to provide parents a place where they can feel comfortable going. We have workshops and classes for the parents, computers and fax machines they can use to apply to jobs or check their email, resources for families who have lost their homes or are in danger or losing them, and a whole bunch of other programs to support families.”
While the Parent Resource Centers are funded through Title-1 funding, there are many ways teachers can use the same basic principle in their own schools. Delynn McCash uses an informal after-school ESL course to bring students and parents into the classroom.
“Every Tuesday Night, I invite my students and their parents into my room,” McCash says. “To prepare, I borrow all the iPads I can. Students sit on one end of the room using iPads and parents are on the other side learning English on the Smartboard. They have increased PTO attendance and the students are participating in more school functions. I am out a few hours of personal time, but I gain an immensely rewarding true teaching experience and personal satisfaction.”
If all else fails, sometimes the best approach is to offer parents the option of meeting with you in their home. Not only will most parents appreciate the effort, but you might even learn a bit more about the lives of your students and their families.
“Home visits are the best thing I ever did,” says elementary school teacher Kathy Dowd. “I am humbled by how hard our families work, and how little they have to show for it. It makes me realize why involvement is so hard for so many of them.”
When it comes to interacting and working with parents, always consider how you would respond in their situation. Understanding is one of the keys to unlocking a successful relationship with your students’ parents.
“Think of every kid as if they were your own child,” teacher Tanya Wilson-Smith says. “What would you want for your child if he or she were facing a particular situation? Every parent loves their child, but not every parent knows how to be a parent. Be gentle, be caring, be honest, but do what you do best and educate the parent too.”