A few days ago I read a post by Ron Clark at CNN.com “What Teachers Really Want to Tell Parents”. You can find it here: http://www.cnn.com/2011/09/06/living/teachers-want-to-tell-parents/
I found myself alternating between anger and sadness after reading the article. The parent side of me had a gut-wrenching, visceral reaction. And that’s when I became saddened. Saddened because here was an article painting a broad brush over parents in a way that creates divisiveness and doesn’t invite conversation or communication.
To any parents reading this blog, let me say that I am a veteran teacher who has taught elementary, middle and high school. Mr. Clark does NOT speak for me in his article. It might be what HE would like to say to parents, but not I.
The disheartening aspect of dialogue like this is that it sets up an “us vs. them” mentality and does nothing to foster open dialogue between the major stakeholders in the lives of our students. After reading Mr. Clark posit that he should be trusted as the teacher my reaction was ‘”What responsibility do you have Mr. Clark? What have you done to build a respectful, trusting relationship with parents? How have you created relationships in the community? Do you view parents as partners in their child’s education? And, if so, how do you convey that?”
I work hard to build relationships with my students and to create a classroom where students learn to work together as a respectful community. Should I not be working as hard to create relationships with their families so that trust and respect become a part of our dialogue?And how does that happen? For me, the most important step is open, honest, frequent communication-communication that starts from day one and doesn’t just happen when there is a problem in the classroom. When I taught elementary school and in my yearlong intervention class at the high school, I called every parent the first week of school to say hi and introduce myself. I wanted the first communication I had with them to be positive and to allow me to have time to focus on their child alone. Perhaps phone calls to all parents aren’t a possibility for everyone. How else can we initiate communication with parents that is inviting, positive and open?
Another important aspect for me of open communication is regular feedback. One of the best tools I was given as a teacher was the use of School Loop. School Loop allowed me to post grades, create an assignment calendar for each of my classes, upload files and create messages to students and families. Information about my class and about a student’s progress was available to both students and their families. There are numerous programs out there now for teachers and schools to use to communicate in such ways. I actually found I had fewer “complaints” about grades because there were no surprises when progress reports and report cards went home and because parents and students were well aware of what the class requirements were. How can we utilize the tools out there to help increase and facilitate communication with parents and students?
Another way I build relationships is to communicate when things are going well, just as often as I communicate when things are not going well. My amazing colleague and friend, Laura challenged me to make 2 “positive” calls for every “negative” call made. I distinctly remember making one such positive call. When I told the father on the other end who I was, I could almost hear his shoulders tense up, expecting the worst. I let him know what a joy it was to teach his son as he was one of the most polite, respectful students I had ever taught. There was absolute silence at the other end of the line. I’ll never forget the shake in his voice as he said, ”Ma’m, thank you. I have never received a phone call like this from school. You made my day.” I shouldn’t have been the first. How can we find ways to create opportunities for positive communication?
Not all the phone calls I get to make are positive. But in my years of working with kids I’ve learned I will never know them as well as their parents do. How can I make those calls an opportunity to invite parents in as my partner to get a student back on the right track? Maybe like this… ‘Hi, Ms. P. This is Mrs. Bunner, Marshall’s teacher. He had a really rough day today. It seems he’s been struggling with making good choices lately. I can’t let him keep others from learning, nor do I want him to miss out on his learning. You know him better than I do. What do you think might be going on? Do you have any ideas for how I can help him focus? What motivates him? Do you think we could work together to help redirect him in the right direction? Great…let’s talk.” Sometimes the parents are just as frustrated by the students’ choices and at a loss for what to do, but at least we are talking TO each other and not AT each other. How do we invite parents to be a part of the solutions in our classrooms and schools?
Please don’t think I never have parents that disagree with me or complaints about how I handle things. No matter what role we fill in life, we are all humans, conflict is inevitable. But by creating communication and an environment that invites and honors parents as my partners and allies in helping their child succeed, conflict becomes the exception and not the rule. And what I as a teacher want to tell parents looks and sounds very different from the message given voice at CNN.