Without regular parent-teacher interactions at school or face-to-face conferences this fall, both parents and teachers might be feeling in the dark. We all now have to rely on online communication which can sometimes be difficult to manage and interpret. Parents might wonder how often is too often to email the teacher, should they make an appearance in their kid’s Zoom call, or how much should they be involved overall.
To help navigate these tricky times, I spoke with a few local teachers to address some of these issues and discover the best ways for everyone to stay informed and strengthen parent-teacher relationships during this strange new reality.
Best practices for contacting teachers
Teachers are expecting more questions, concerns, and emails from families this year. While most districts have set aside time for family outreach, teachers often spend that hour calling or visiting families who have not yet connected with the school. Answering other phone calls and emails is then relegated to before or after working hours. Realizing this, parents often wonder how to balance the need for communication and the desire to not bombard teachers with questions.
This year has been harder for teachers to get to know their students, so any opportunity to see and talk to kids in a smaller setting is cherished.
If your child is struggling in class or dealing with mental or physical health problems, weekly or sometimes daily communication may be necessary. If this is not the case in your family, limiting emails to once a week or twice a month is a good goal. If an issue comes up, draft an email, but wait a few days before sending it. If other issues come up throughout the week, add questions and concerns to that draft. Once you decide to send, review the email and delete any resolved items. Allow the teacher a couple of days to respond before copying the principal. Including a principal on an initial email puts the teacher in a defensive position, and you will be less likely to receive a candid response.
While some teachers are choosing to give their personal phone numbers to families, (often done out of desperation when there are no easy ways to reach families), email is usually best. It gives teachers time to put together the most thoughtful response.
Have your kid be the communicator
Prompt your child to ask for help or clarification when they need it. This an essential learning skill, and teachers would rather educate their students directly than filter through parents. High school teachers may not be excited to answer dozens of emails from parents, but daily messages from students are encouraged, welcomed and prioritized. Even the youngest elementary students can learn how to send their teacher a message or ask a question in class.
How to handle online conferences and parent-teacher meetings
Without the ability to make personal connections in the classroom, family conferences are more important than ever. Many high school teachers took tips from their elementary colleagues and started the year with individual, virtual parent-teacher-student conferences. If your child is participating in such a conference with you, let him or her talk. This year has been harder for teachers to get to know their students, so any opportunity to see and talk to kids in a smaller setting is cherished.
Virtual open house or curriculum nights are not the place to discuss larger issues like returning to in-person learning or school attendance policies. Teachers have little control over these decisions. A great question to ask instead is ‘how can students stay involved with the school?’ Many schools are holding Spirit Weeks, Student Newscasts and community challenges on Facebook or Instagram. (Be sure to find the official school account. Fake school Instagram accounts have been popping up and disseminating false information.)
When to interrupt during a Zoom class
Synchronous learning time is usually not the time for parent involvement. If a teacher is struggling with technology and you can help, prompt your child to ask “My mom can help. Do you want her to come on camera?” before jumping on to assist.
“A lot of parents are managing their kids' behavior on Zoom,” a local elementary teacher told me. “Telling their kids to sit still or other things that I would let go in the classroom. Little ones are going to wiggle. That’s okay,” she said. Parents should also avoid helping their child answer questions or participate in class. Teachers are constantly assessing, and if parents feed answers to their children it will ultimately result in less learning.
At the high school level, however, teachers appreciate it when caregivers help sleepy teenagers wake up and get on their laptops, ready for school.
Extending the school community spirit at home
There are times when family involvement has been an unexpected bonus to online learning. English language teachers love that families often practice new English words along with their children. Parents have confessed to history teachers that they enjoyed that lecture on the Haitian revolution, for example, and caregivers have snuggled up with elementary school children to listen while teachers read aloud to the class.
While teachers don’t expect families to listen and learn alongside their children, the idea that learning extends beyond the ears of students and impacts whole families warms the hearts of teachers and makes this time of distance learning seem a little bit more bearable.