I don’t know about you but I found talking to parents particularly intimidating when I first started teaching. Having no children of my own and being in my early 20s, I was unsure of myself and it showed.
Here are some tips to get the most out of communicating with parents:
- Make contact before official events such as parent teacher conferences or report cycles. Get in contact to let parents know about your class, your expectations with regards to homework and show them their child is in good hands.
- Do not bombard them with information. People these days get a lot of emails and text messages. Keep it short and to the point. Rule of thumb: The older the students are, the less the parents really want to read about what they did in class.
- Praise students to parents. Send pithy emails or postcards about how great their child was. I sent a few off at the start of the year with what turned out to be a difficult class of 15 year olds. The most difficult of the students actually carried that postcard around with him for months. You can usually find something that a student has done well.
- If you need to convey difficult or hard-to-hear information, don’t try to soften the blow with teaching euphemisms. I ran some of my best jargon past a friend of mine and she had zero idea that I was even giving bad news. If you need to say, “Your child is ruining every lesson with their poor behaviour,” only sugar-coat this information lightly. Consider, “Johnny’s poor choices often mean he does not make any progress and makes learning harder for other members in the class.”
- That being said, I am a big fan of the ‘praise sandwich’. Praise-bread wrapped around a criticism-filling. Even though a child’s conduct is usually not a reflection on parenting quality, parents become defensive. If you can demonstrate you recognize their child is a work in progress and has particular strengths, parents are more likely to listen to reports of poor organization or social skills.
- Don’t be a ‘yes’ man. If a parent is wrong, it is okay to let them know. Obviously you would not talk to them like they were a child. However, an adult-to-adult professional conversation should not always end with you agreeing to whatever the parent says. I watched in awe as my old boss talked down a parent who was insisting that his son should not have been suspended for a disciplinary issue because ‘everyone else was doing it’. She was masterful. She was gentle and polite but she was firm and gave no ground. And in the end, the parent agreed with my boss.
- Sometimes parents are (rightly or wrongly), upset and lose their cool. The best thing to do, if the situation is safe, is to keep the conversation about their child. Keep the focus on what can be done in the future and how best to help. Any diversions into speculating about your professionalism don’t help with the matter at hand. If they are upset to the point of aggression, terminate the meeting immediately and go somewhere safe. If the aggressive communication has occurred over email, paradoxically, calling for a face-to-face meeting often defuses the situation (but meet in a place with others around just to be safe)