Editor's Note: Voices in Education is an occasional series highlighting the perspectives of people in the education world. The views expressed are those of the author.
I am going to let you in on a little secret.
School conferences can be filled with watered-down commentary on your child’s challenges and an overemphasis on his strengths. This is all done from a place of love for your child and a fear of dismantling the delicate parent/teacher relationship. It is not always, however, what the teacher really wants to say to you, what she really needs to say about your child and, well, about you as a parent.
This summer, I interviewed educators in Washington, California, New York and Colorado about parent-teacher conferences. Here are a few tips from experienced educators to improve the partnership between family and school:
Honor the expertise: Teachers see your child in ways you never will
Why don’t we trust teachers like we trust our pediatricians, mortgage brokers, dentists, even the local barista?
Teachers want parents who recognize and honor that in each classroom live educators with years of experience and knowledge about curriculum and childhood development.
Teachers want parents who listen openly during parent/teacher conversations, engage in problem solving and solution finding and are willing to then support the school effort on the home front.
What complicates a parent’s ability to honor the expertise in a school is that we are talking about your baby!
Teachers understand that for parents, kindergarten, reading challenges, awkward social dynamics, math frustrations and puberty are new experiences. But while a parent’s angst about these experiences is real and deeply felt, they are part of a teacher’s professional work, multiple times a year, with dozens of students, year after year.
Each child is a unique individual, but his academic, social and emotional growing pains are not. They are part of a development cycle with which teachers are intimately familiar.
So how can you honor a teacher’s knowledge, while also being an invested partner in your child’s education?
It starts with a committed effort to “let go” of a specific ideal of what should happen in a school and believe that when there is something that you need to be intimately involved in, the school will share. What a parent might perceive as a boulder in the road to academic achievement, a teacher, calling on hundreds of past data points, knows is just a pebble that will soon roll away.
While “letting go” may feel like too big a leap of faith, teachers want you to know there is equally the need for you to proactively seek the expertise of the school.
Ask questions of your child’s teacher about the curriculum, your child’s day, his achievements and struggles.
Part of trusting your school and your child’s teacher is being fully open to what you might not want to hear. The difficult day comes for all parents when they find out their child is human, replete with gifts and flaws. Any parent can bask in the glow of all that is going well for their child in school. Repeatedly, teachers share with me that when difficulties arise, they hope for parents to “parent the child they have, not the child they wish they had.”
It is the parent who can be open to hearing difficult news about their child’s development that will stand in true partnership with a teacher.
Honor communication . . . that old fashioned, face-to-face kind
The demand for constant, detailed communication is one of the greatest challenges required of schools today. The problem with constant communication from a school directly to parents is that it defeats one of the main purposes of school: Educating a child to be responsible. And part of learning responsibility is remembering what you are supposed to do, or choosing not to do it and suffering the consequences.
In some cases, the demand on teachers has inched into the territory of daily emails to parents, alerting them to homework assignments. The argument from parents is that now they know exactly what their child needs to do and can accurately follow up and help. The lament from teachers is that the student has been cut out of the process, and thus his or her responsibility has been lifted.
Here is some advice, echoed by many of the teachers, on how to communicate to ensure a healthy, happy working parent-teacher relationship.
- Face-to-face connection: A few times a year, attempt to connect in person with the teacher. This fosters mutual respect. It is so much easier to have a thoughtful dialogue over email when you have already established a personal connection.
- Compliment your teacher: I always coach parents to notice the effort put into class projects, curriculum development and field trips. It is easy to communicate when things are going wrong, but it takes work to remember to comment when things are going right.
- Share the family experience: The more teachers and administrators know about what is going on at home —interests, frustrations, divorce, death, health concerns – the better the school experience. There is nothing more disheartening for a teacher than finding out a pertinent piece of information about a child at the end of the school year. Yes, it can be difficult to share for fear of being judged or of your child being labeled. But remember, teachers have worked for years with hundreds of families. It is rare that there is a situation they have not dealt with before or may see again.
Personal independence is necessary for ultimate school success
When kids perceive that their parents, coaches, therapists or tutors are doing all the managing of information, organizing of the day, worrying about homework for them, they figure they are off the hook, no personal responsibility needed. In reality, we want them on the hook, sweating the hook. It is the job of the parents and school to determine for each child that fine balance of subtle support vs. complete project management.
If things go wrong . . .
The golden rule of a parent/school relationship is that if something is not going well, talk to the teacher first before involving an administrator. The teacher knows each child best and, unlike an administrator, understands all the pieces of the classroom puzzle.
When a teacher is circumvented, s/he can feel that a family has little faith in her/his abilities and may enter the ensuing conversation from a place of defense versus open dialogue. When this dynamic has been established, it is difficult to have an honest, positive exchange.
If, after a parent and teacher have talked, issues remain unresolved, parents, as well as the teacher, should ask for administrative support.
When speaking with a teacher or administrator publicly, remember that a child will reflect a parent’s behavior towards his teacher and his school, so a respectful tone is a must. Children are sponges; they see, hear and repeat everything around them, particularly when observing their parents.
When disagreements occur, a child should not see, nor feel the parent’s dissatisfaction; it erodes respect for her teacher and school. When children believe that their parents and the school are at odds, it can create feelings of insecurity.
Fall marks the infinite possibilities of a new school year –children tucked safely back in their teacher’s care, a return to sleep schedules, daily entertainment and enrichment provided by other adults. As the year ebbs and flows, I hope the relationship you and your child’s teacher build is one of mutual respect, engaged partnership and an honest understanding of who your child is this year (it may change next year).
Going to school is truly a family affair.
Eva Allison Frank is Assistant Head of Seattle's Bertschi School and the mother of two daughters.
Related article: 5 Resources for Parent-Teacher Conferences