Bridging Home-School Communications: Helping Parents Begin Conversations with Teachers

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by Gayle Hernandez, BA/MEd

Gayle began her teaching career 18 years ago. Her passion is teaching kindergarten, promoting inclusion, and building classroom and school communities. This blog has been adapted and reposted with permission from Special Education Advisor. 

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A meaningful education for children begins and ends with open, honest communication between home and school. Without a positive and comfortable relationship, solid and meaningful plans for a child’s education cannot move forward. This is particularly true when the child in question is one with ”special,” or as I like to call them, ”extra” needs.

Can we talk?

Establishing this open and honest relationship, however, can be challenging for parents. There are moments when parents want to contact teachers with questions, concerns, or wonderings. Often, once at the door, parents may suddenly find it difficult to approach the teacher, because the teacher seems busy, intimidating, or impatient. Parents then begin to question the importance and validity of their initial question or concern or are made to feel unwelcome upon approach. This may lead to more tense, unpleasant,  or even volatile interactions later, which are definitely NOT in the best interest of a child. As a concerned parent, you don’t want this to happen!

First, let me say that, if any of the above has happened to you, you are not alone. It is unfortunately quite common for parents to feel apprehensive about “taking a teacher’s time,” and many parents have found themselves frustrated with a teacher, class, or school. It must be said, however, that the opposite is often true as well; teachers reach out to parents to discuss what they believe to be the needs of their child and receive little response or support in return. So let’s all focus on pursuing open, communicative relationships between parents and teachers, because that is how the children win!

Second, let me tell you how important it is to persevere. Your child is far too important to simply throw in the towel. If you have a question or concern about your child’s progress, keep trying to connect with the teacher until you get through. And, once you get there, do your best to remain calm and cool-headed while interacting with the teacher. This reinforces the fact that your concern is serious and not stemming from an emotional or angry place. You often receive back whatever emotion you lead with, so approaching the teacher with a positive attitude is more likely to result in moving forward with a positive plan that best serves the interest of your child. Because, remember, this is all about improving the daily classroom experience of your child, and the teacher has A LOT to do with that. If you can persevere in a calm manner, you *might* (if the stars align), find yourself pleasantly surprised. No one likes to be in conflict. Not you, not the teacher.

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I’d love to talk, but . . .

It is my experience that, for the most part, teachers are delighted to hear from a parent about a child in his or her class. We all come to this profession from a place of love and caring, with the intent to make a positive difference in the lives of children and families.

I tell parents of students in my class that, if they have felt apprehensive about approaching or have felt “shut down” by a teacher, they may not have chosen the right moment. Or there may be some underlying tension that needs to be discussed. Keeping quiet is certainly not the way to go.

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Tips for successful communication

I would like to share some tips I recommend to parents to help improve their chances of receiving a positive response from their child’s teacher as the school year progresses:

1.   Not a good time. Try not to approach a teacher at the beginning of a day, during the day, or any time when the children are present and require the teacher’s attention. During these times, a teacher’s attention is very much focused on making sure the needs of the children are met. Teachers will generally find it difficult to divide their attention, and (for the most part) the children will take priority.

2.   Busy, busy, busy. If a teacher seems busy or preoccupied, he or she probably IS busy or preoccupied. In a teacher’s day much goes on, and most of what is going on is behind the scenes. The teacher may be thinking about a meeting he or she is missing, the report cards that need to get written, the planning that needs to happen for the next day, the conversation that has not happened with a parent or colleague, and so on. Do not mistake preoccupation for lack of interest. Timing is everything; choose a time that allows both you and the teacher to have a focused conversation.

3.   Give a little notice. To get a teacher’s full attention, here are some suggested approaches:

· Send a note in your child’s backpack or planner requesting a phone call at the teacher’s convenience. Provide information that will help your child’s teacher get in touch with you, such as relevant phone numbers, your name, or a good time to call. Be sure to provide a little bit of information about why you would like to talk.

·  Hang around until all of the children have been connected with a parent, and request a moment of the teacher’s time to express a desire to meet privately. Once the day is over and the children have been dismissed, it is much easier for the teacher to focus totally on your individual situation. He or she is much more likely to take in what you have to say. At this point, communicate that you would like to set up an appointment to meet at a mutually convenient time. Communicate a general idea of what you would like to discuss.

· Phone the school office and leave a message for the teacher to get back to you. Most of the time a teacher will be more than happy to return a call. Generally, teachers are very interested in their students’ progress. They welcome the opportunity to collaborate with parents to help find a way to do the best they can for each individual darling that comes to them each day.

· As a last resort, if you are still feeling like you have not been heard and you have taken all of the above steps, try contacting the principal or head teacher to express your concerns. Administration is well trained in helping soothe difficult or uncomfortable situations.

4.   Be curious, not accusatory. If the topic you would like to discuss with your child’s teacher involves a question about the program being delivered in the classroom, do whatever you can to become what I call “curious.” Instead of presenting a list of needs to be changed (which will probably make the teacher defensive and shut down productive conversation), draft a list of questions. For example, if a teacher is providing reading materials above or below your child’s ability, you could say “At home I notice my child seems to be struggling with/wants more challenging texts than I am able to give him/her. Can you help me understand what books I might choose for my child at home to support his/her learning? I know you have many great ideas. What reading materials are you using with my child in class to meet his/her reading needs?”

5.   Show some support. Ask the teacher if there are ways you can support his or her program (for example, shopping for something needed in the class, helping prepare class materials, helping with bulletin boards). Lending a hand may offer you moments to have informal conversations unfocused on your child, which will help build positive relationships. When relationships are built on comfort and trust, there’s more opportunity to talk about how to make your child’s education productive.

6.   Calm and collected. If you have something to talk about with your child’s teacher that has made you feel angry, do what you can to approach as calmly as possible. If a teacher feels your anger, the conversation will often go sideways – from this place, no one wins. Try scripting what you want to say in as positive and descriptive a way as possible. Stay away from ‘blame’ as much as possible, and stick to observable facts, if you can. For example, instead of saying “My child isn’t learning in your class,” you could say, “My child is telling me s/he is frustrated by math. It is very hard for him/her. Can you help me understand what I can do at home to help him/her in this area?” If you know you can’t talk to your child’s teacher without getting angry, think about sending your spouse in to have the conversation, or take an advocate with you to speak for you. Sometimes a third party can help bridge the differences.

The most important point here is to keep trying until you are satisfied with the results. Your child is far too important, and you deserve to be heard. Your voice is an important one and can make a difference in the progress of your child.

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Gayle has had the pleasure of teaching K-12 as a teacher on call in the Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada school district for two years before settling into a very rewarding 16 years of kindergarten, where she found her passion. She has presented multiple workshops on the topic of kindergarten in the Burnaby school district, has facilitated Burnaby’s Kindergarten Network for 10 years, and completed a Master’s Degree in Early Childhood Education at UBC in 2007. Gayle is passionate about inclusion and building classroom and school communities.

 

Please feel free to visit Gayle’s blog at: http://kindergayle.wordpress.com and also feel free to contact her with questions at kindergayle@shaw.ca. We also invite you to follow Gayle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/#!/kindergayle


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