Working with parents is one of the most important things that school leaders do and it can also be one of the most intimidating. Whether they are emanating anger, sadness or concern, it can be very troubling when those emotions are directed solely at you.
As a leader, you have to accept that parents are always going to be emotional when it comes to their children: they are talking about their most precious treasures. Indeed, it would be more worrying if they were indifferent and not engaged.
Also, regardless of our personal impression of the parenting skills of the person we are interacting with, we should feel confident that they are doing their best. Rather than judging them on what they do at home, we must figure out the best way to work with them so that we can help our students perform to the best of their abilities. This is our responsibility regardless of our feelings towards the adults. And so here is a four-step guide to doing just that.
Build a relationship before you need it
If the first contact that a teacher has with a parent is negative, it takes a huge amount of effort to overcome that initial impression. Making personal phone calls home to introduce yourself to parents before the year kicks off will get you off to a good start.
Another option is to send a complimentary postcard home near the beginning of the school year detailing something specific the student has done.
If you have a back-to-school or open-house night, make sure you give parents the impression that you will take care of their child. Whether the student is 5 or 17, that is still the essential message that needs to be communicated at this early point in the school year. This does not mean explaining your discipline system or grading policy; it is about smiling, welcoming everyone and ensuring that each parent feels their child matters to you.
Among other things you can make sure that every parent has your email address, the school phone number and, if you really want to make a positive impression, your mobile phone number. Demonstrating trust towards parents can encourage them to reciprocate.
Sending regular newsletters home, having a teacher or class Facebook page and using Twitter for daily communication can help parents feel as though they are in the loop. These techniques can also increase the responsibility parents feel, since they no longer have to rely on the student as the sole conduit for information about what takes place in the classroom.
Additionally, it is essential to inform parents in a timely fashion if a student is not behaving appropriately or not progressing as they should. Rather than waiting to make a formal progress report, calling or emailing the parent immediately can keep them from being surprised and can also ensure that they take appropriate responsibility for their child's actions and learning.
The best way to get in the last word
When things do not go as well as intended or a parent seems upset when they call or contact you, use one of the best disarming tools there is: apologise. If you are wrong, admit it; if you are not, saying something like "I am sorry that happened" is a way to retain power and yet help to re-establish trust. Whenever we deal with an irate person we are sorry it happened, even if we are just sorry because we are having to interact with them. This approach can be very soothing.
Teaching is an intense profession. It takes time and energy, and can be exhausting. But it can also be rewarding, energising and satisfying. Each of these words also describes parenting. Focusing on the fact that the teacher and the parent want the same thing - what is best for the child - can help us work together to create the best possible environment for our students. Parents and teachers collaborating can provide the support every young person needs to be successful in school and in life. Our students deserve it. That is why we chose to teach.
Todd Whitaker, a former mathematics teacher, is professor of educational leadership at Indiana State University in the US. He has written many education books, including What Great Teachers Do Differently. www.toddwhitaker.com
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