It’s the only first month of school, but already you have one of those phone messages or emails you dread: Your child’s teacher is in touch about academic or behavior issues he or she wants to nip in the bud.
Believe me, I understand the butterflies in your stomach. I am on the sending end of this type of message, and it’s no easier to be in my seat. So before the school year starts off on an awkward note, here are a few tips for communicating effectively with your child’s teacher.
1) Be proactive. Ideally, you should initiate the first communication. Don’t wait until you have a problem or question. Get in touch at the start of school and use the way you prefer to be contacted — phone, text or email. Let the teacher know the best way to reach you during the school day and right before and after school.
At the start of the year, teachers are scrambling to compile lists of phone numbers and email addresses for parents. If the teacher does not have to track down yours, it’s one less task amid room decorating and meet-the-teacher night preparations.
If your child has any issues — health, academic or something else — be sure to mention them. Yes, the teacher will be getting loads of information from the school administration about students’ health needs and special education plans. But even if your child’s issues don’t rise to the level of an official school document, it doesn’t hurt to make the teacher aware.
During my first year of teaching, one parent emailed a video explaining a rare digestive problem her son struggled with. I also received a write-up from the school nurse about the child’s needs in the classroom. But the video brought the situation alive to me. And seeing the student in the video gave me a visual, so I recognized him the first day of school.
2) Remember that people have different personality types. There are many personality types, and yours may or may not mesh well with the teacher’s. Maybe you are so outgoing you share your life story with anyone in the grocery line who will listen. Or maybe you are so sparing with the details of your life your siblings aren’t sure what your kids’ middle names are. Keep in mind the teacher does not have to be your social friend — just someone who understands and does his/her best for your child.
I learned this during my first few months of teaching, when I set a goal for myself to email two or three parents each afternoon about how their students were doing in class. An extroverted educator who had not only been a teacher and principal but also a school district superintendent suggested I use this strategy to get to know families in my new district. She used it and said she had always had success.
While most parents were delighted to hear from me, a handful were startled by an out-of-the-blue message from the teacher. I remember sending a very positive note to the family of a quiet boy. The father wrote back to ask if it was a joke. “No one has ever said anything like this to anyone in our family,” he said. I assured him I was serious and we went on to build a solid relationship.
3) Recognize that your child acts differently at school than at home. I can’t remember how many times parents have responded to my calls and emails about behavioral issues with the words “But my child never …” And I believe that their child at home never throws pencils across the room, pretends to pass gas while an adult is talking or pulls out a phone and starts playing games at the wrong time. But remember, school is a place where children imitate other children, experiment with crazy stuff they have seen on YouTube and even come up with their own new experimental behaviors.
Once, an intelligent and popular boy grabbed a paperclip and inserted it into a wall outlet in my classroom. We all knew because of the blue flash and burning smell. The student’s reasoning? He liked science and wanted to see what would happen. Fortunately, only his pride and social life were injured after he was disciplined by the school and grounded by his parents for recklessness. If not for the blackened wall around the outlet, even I might not have believed this happened.
So please believe the teachers when they call or write with reports of behaviors you do not see at home. Teachers really don’t have time to make this stuff up. All they are looking for is backup at home to help ensure the behaviors don’t continue.
4) Make reasonable requests. One of the strangest parent communication anecdotes I have heard comes from a kindergarten teacher friend. One of her students has divorced parents who never speak. One day after school, the student’s mother emailed the teacher and asked if she could get in touch with the student’s father. Why? Mom was hoping Dad would drop off a pizza along with the child later that evening. Obviously, the answer was no.
Other unreasonable requests include asking teachers to “round up” grades or allow students to make up months-late homework and assignments. Some parents will call to ask about children’s grades before tests and quizzes have even been reviewed.
5) Please call the teacher before complaining to the principal. Teachers’ lunchtime conversations occasionally include stories about parents who fly off the handle and run to the principal — or worse, the school board — about classroom issues that could have been resolved with the teacher. If you are trying to build a good relationship with the person who spends much of the day with your child, make that person your first point of contact when you have a concern.
When I first began teaching, I took part in what the Arizona Department of Education calls its teaching intern program. The program is for people with college degrees in areas where there are shortages of teachers. It helps with the state’s teacher shortage because it allows people to work in the classroom under the supervision of a mentor while they take university-level education classes for two years. There presently are about 1,500 people in the program.
You can imagine my shock when one parent, who was unhappy when his daughter received an in-school suspension in my class, complained to the principal that I was unqualified for my job because I did not yet have my full teaching certificate. He said he planned to report me to the state school board. Of course my paperwork was in order, but the complaint created stress and extra work for the people who supervised me.
I could not help but think the issue could have so easily have been solved with a simple phone call or email. We could have reached a better understanding of the student’s behavior. And I could have emailed the parent a copy of an article I had written about my participation in the state’s teaching intern program.
6) When a teacher calls, listen. Teachers are busy. If they are taking time out of their day to call or email about your child, it’s not because they have time to waste and have decided to pick on your child.
I hear teachers discuss children before school, at lunch and after school every day. I have yet to hear a single teacher make an unkind remark about a struggling child. But I have heard plenty of teachers mention they are sad parents are not receptive to feedback about students who need extra help.
So when a teacher gets in touch, take a deep breath and prepare to listen. Take a few notes and ask questions. If you are surprised by what the teacher has to say, offer to speak with your child and schedule a time to call back. When you talk to the teacher again, be prepared to come up with a plan of action.
And, of course, there’s a chance the call or email might be a positive communication from a teacher like me — one who likes to tell parents what is going on with their student and surprise them with a compliment from time to time.