Add This

Thursday, January 03, 2008

How to improve parent-teacher communications

My respect for the teaching profession runs deep. I had teachers from fifth grade on who encouraged me in my writing and provided emotional support when I was an awkward teenager, assuring me that someday all the angst and insecurity would pass (at 40, I think I'm getting close). There also are many teachers in my extended family and a large part of my work revolves around teachers and education.

However, I've also realized as a parent with a kid in high school, middle school and elementary school, where there's room to push and room to grow. I've frankly been around plenty of teachers who hide from parents and plenty of others who simply lack the ability to communicate one-on-one. They are great standing in front of a classroom of kids or parents, but have no idea how to talk to them as individuals.

So of course I was interested in this piece in Education Week about improving communications between parents and teachers. The author's points about teachers recognizing that parents are partners is critical and, by and large, I think most teachers do recognize the partnership.

But there are expanded ways that teachers can improve such a partnership.

1. Resist the urge (no matter how tempting) to stereotype or judge a student. Teachers can be incredibly close-minded and quick to judge. There is nothing quite so infuriating to a parent as listening to a teacher say, "Has he ever been tested for ADD?" or "He's more an athlete than a scholar." If you teach 8- and 9-year-olds then you should know that little boys and probably little girls of that age tend to be a bit wiggly, especially when they are overheated in a stifling classroom, packed in like sardines and deprived of their outdoor recess because of inclement weather. Use your head before making such statements. I'm sure there are children who do suffer from ADD, but I also think that educators must accept some of the blame in pushing the over-diagnosis and medication of young people for attention disorders. One of the first grade teachers at my older boys' elementary school was famous for her diagnosis of ADD or ADHD among nearly every boy she taught.

As to the second comment: That was shared with me by my freshman son's favorite teacher at parent-teacher conferences. I wouldn't dare tell him how this teacher really feels because my son worships him and has aspirations of being a teacher himself. Apparently, eight weeks into his high school career he has already earned the label of "dumb jock." Never mind that up to that point he had never received lower than a B on a report card or that his Ohio Achievement Test scores show that he scores advanced in reading and science and accelerated in social studies. Because he was never taught study skills in middle school, I've spent a lot of my time this first semester teaching him how to study. Hopefully, his semester grades will reflect that improvement. It won't matter to this teacher, however, because he's already made up his mind.

2. If you want to be considered a professional, then act more like a professional. The author writes: Teachers are generally highly trained professionals with a deep understanding of the content they teach and the instructional methods to make that content approachable for students of different ability levels. That may be true, but today's professional world operates via e-mail and cell phones and the Internet. These communication tools are your friends and could simplify organizing everything from scheduling parent-teacher conferences to alerting parents of missed assignments or informing parents of marked improvement. If you really want to turn off a parent, just tell them at open house that you, "Don't do e-mail." The rest of the world does, so suck it up and get with the program. And please respond in a timely manner. Perception is reality. When parents hear that union renegotiations revolve around the squabbling over parking spaces or the resistance to extending the school day, it's hard to feel any sympathy for teachers as "professionals." I once sat in a staff meeting in which the teachers complained about having to "dress professional." If you want to be considered "professionals" then consider losing the blue-collar mentality.

3. Is it really about the kids? There are plenty of incredibly dedicated teachers who routinely go above and beyond for their students. I wish there were more. Building off of points one and two, there are a number of teachers who just want to shut their doors and do what they've been doing for 20-plus years. Education, like everything else around us, is evolving. Teachers need to be evolving with the times. Keep it relevant, refresh your skills often and recognize that the way you've been teaching may not work for all or may not work anymore. It's scary, I'm sure, but all professionals face scary industry changes at one time or another.

4. Let's be honest with one another about testing. I'm grateful to have a teacher who wants to do so much to improve my third-grader's reading. But I also recognize that what's driving that need is his low reading test score. Give parents a little credit for knowing their children. I do have a son who struggles in reading and I know what that looks like. I also have a son who can't stand taking tests when it's 90 degrees outside and 95 degrees in his classroom, like it was in early September when they took their first OAT. Let's just say that his attention span is impaired under those conditions. When I got a call the week of Thanksgiving break about giving him one more test, I suggested that wouldn't be an optimal time for testing. Hopefully, his teacher listened to my suggestion. My son is reading well, much better than his older brother did, but he is also lazy. I'm sure he didn't pass the proficiency test because he was not engaged in the process. But I recognize that in a district like ours, not passing is not acceptable. It's not acceptable for me either. I'll bet dollars to donuts, that my son skipped entire pages in an effort to just get done with the test. So let's try to keep things in perspective. How is is doing day to day? Is his work acceptable? Does he complete tasks on time and accurately? Is his homework done properly? Is he respectful in class? Does he seem excited about learning? If so, then what are we so worked up about?

5. Give kids the benefit of the doubt. Sure, parents can do a better job of giving teachers the benefit of the doubt, but teachers can also do a better job of giving students the benefit of the doubt. If a child feels he or she is being judged by an adult (whether fairly or not), they will internalize that feeling and as a result will believe that any effort they make will not be recognized because the teacher has already made up his or her mind about what the student is capable of accomplishing. We've all been there. It's highly demoralizing in school and work. Most students arrive on the first day of school ready to learn. If teachers are honest with themselves, then they need to ask how their actions may hinder that enthusiasm or readiness to learn. Do you constantly roll your eyes at your students? Both verbal and nonverbal cues can impair a child's success. Think about it.

I will share an anecdote I observed last year. A boy who had transferred from a Cleveland school to an inner-ring suburban school was quite a handful and while he was a sophomore by rank, he had severe learning issues and read at a third-grade level. He was a gang-banger in Cleveland and wore a house arrest bracelet on his ankle (something he was happy to show off to his classmates). He was disruptive and disrespectful. But I saw him get what he gives.

He was wandering down the hall, well after the tardy bell had rung. He knocked on a classroom door and the teacher said, "You're late. Go get a pass." He stepped back, waited and then knocked again, "I said, you're late. Go get a pass," said the teacher. So the boy casually meandered down the hall and I figured he was good as gone for the rest of the day. A few minutes later, he came back down the hall, pass in hand. He knocked on the door and the teacher said, "You're late. You can't come in." At this point, he started yelling, "I got a pass. You told me to get a pass and I got a pass." He created a scene, security arrived and he was escorted off the premises for unruly conduct. But I felt sorry for him. Because he did what he was told and he was punished for it. How could that teacher, clearly highly annoyed with this student, have altered her behavior to turn that situation into a positive experience?

6. Admit your mistakes. We all make mistakes in life. Don't act as if it never occurs in your classroom. If you mishandled a situation with a student, then let the parent and student know and apologize. Maybe you didn't sleep well the night before and were short-tempered. That's understandable. We all can relate. But don't brush over your mistakes as if they never happened. This extends to administrators as well, particularly those responsible for discipline. Encourage your students (particularly at the high school level) to hang on to their graded work to make sure that all grades have been recorded accurately. Let them know that you're not perfect and that retaining the work will ensure all grades are recorded properly.

7. Recognize your teaching biases and learn how to adapt to unfamiliar territory. I once had a middle school teacher tell me that she just didn't get boys. Of course, I laughed, but I stopped when I realized that she was serious. My son had told me that she didn't like the boys (believe me, teachers, they feel it no matter how hard you may try to hide it), but I just chalked that up to his exaggerations. I told her that boys really were not that complicated. But with her face wrinkled up, I could tell she was really struggling with how to reach them and how to handle them. She was very young and I'm sure only a year or two into teaching. I don't know if this is the case, but I'm guessing she had no brothers and really had no exposure to 13-year-old boys. That's fine, then take some workshops and get some professional development to learn strategies for teaching boys. Otherwise, 50 percent of your student population is not adequately being served. Administrators and veteran teachers need to encourage newer teachers in this area, especially during those critical middle school years when boys are more likely to disengage from learning.

8. The boy bias. This is related to the above and probably worthy of its own lengthy post. My oldest son was in first grade when I first heard the anti-boy bias in education. He was in Catholic school at the time and I just assumed it was a problem there. But as experience has shown, the anti-boy bias (as evidenced in point number seven) exists everywhere. Teachers are always going to play favorites, but again I would say: Recognize your biases, get training and development when you need it and be honest with yourself and parents about how you struggle. Maybe parents can offer suggestions for how to help.

9. We all work hard. I was remarking recently about how one of the administrators in our district is always at the school. Some may look at that as dedication, but it makes me wonder whether or not work is being done in an efficient manner. Is it necessary to stay until 9 p.m.? I've heard teachers routinely say how hard their job is and how hard they work. I don't doubt that for one minute. But I will say that most working people work hard, it's not a character trait reserved solely for educators.

10. Giving thanks. Teachers have tremendous power and influence over our children. I am so thankful for the job they do. Parents can do a better job of thanking them. But it's hard when the relationship is such that the first thing you hear is what your child is NOT doing. Of course we're going to be advocates for our kids. If we aren't, who will? But if we feel less adversarial and more collaborative with teachers, that message of thanks will come through loud and clear.

11. If I've said it once, I've said it a hundred times. Certain information bears repeating. Certain information bears repeating. From age 16 on down, students need to be reminded of deadlines for projects or that test preparation information is on the Web or that hall passes are required to attend special study sessions. I'd like to believe I could tell my kids to do something once and it magically gets done. But that is not true. Similarly, students do not—upon entering high school—automatically possess study skills or organization skills. These are developed and nurtured over time and the steady encouragement of and practical suggestions in this area would be greatly appreciated. Now, I also believe that sophomores, juniors and seniors need to be responsible for their work and their academic responsibilities. It's called being resourceful. But freshmen need that transition year and the support it requires in order to become resourceful.

1 comment:

RHurst said...

This is such a great article! I am currently working on scheduling parent-teacher conferences for my two kids. I will have to make sure to bring these questions up when I speak with their teachers!