I was pretty stupid at the beginning of my teaching career. Not that I don’t occasionally do dumb things now, but I made enormously big mistakes back then that still make me cringe. One of them was to see parents as adversaries instead of partners.
I particularly remember a conference with a parent during which I gave a recommendation for things that could be done at home to improve the child’s academic performance and behavior. At one point, I recall the parent looking at me with frustration and disbelief saying, “You don’t have kids of your own, do you?”
I think I redirected the conversation or ignored the question. But inside I was thinking, “No, but I have a college education and a masters degree, so I’m pretty sure I know what I’m doing!”
Dumb, dumb, dumb.
After I became a parent, I realized what a condescending idiot I had been.
Don’t get me wrong – I don’t think that childless teachers are incapable of being great teachers.
I do think that condescending know-it-alls can’t be great teachers.
That parent who writes us a nasty e-mail, calls to berate us, or complains to our administrators about us, cares about his or her child. Presumably, we do too. So, it’s our responsibility as teachers to build on that common ground. Even if, from our perspective, the parent seems completely uninvolved, that doesn’t mean we are the only ones who care or know what is best for that child.
Now, I often seek the advice of parents. For example, if a student seems to have trouble focusing in my class, and the parent says they don’t have that problem at home, I will say, “What do you think might be different at home? What can I do in the classroom to help your child to have that same concentration displayed at home?”
If the situation warrants it, I invite parents to sit in on the class to observe and tell me what might be some changes I could make to help their child succeed.
In my teacher education, I don’t remember being taught how to work with parents, only how to “deal” with them.
It’s easier for me now to empathize with parents because I am one. But empathy doesn’t require that you have the same exact experiences. You can empathize with someone whose grandparent has died even if that has never happened to you, because you have probably experienced loss and separation from someone you loved before.
Have you been criticized about something into which you put your whole heart and soul? Then you know what it’s like when parents are told by a teacher about what they should be doing, implying that they are not raising their child correctly.
Have you ever had to listen to someone berating you for mistakes you have made? Perhaps you thought, “Hey, you don’t know the whole story.” That’s how parents feel when they are called into a conference where teachers spit out a bunch of data and never once ask, “What do you think?” or, “How do you feel about your child’s progress?”
I had to find out the hard way that caring about a child is only one factor in helping him or her to be successful. Another one is to create a strong relationship with the student’s parents.
Teachers may not all have children, but most of us have had parents – and we know what happens when teachers and parents aren’t working together.
Of course, it goes both ways. If you are a parent reading this article, then you should know that trying to work with a teacher instead of complaining about him or her in front of the student will promise greater success. A parent who models a lack of respect for the teacher will be encouraging the child to feel the same way.
It’s not always easy. Negative human emotions can threaten the parent/teacher relationship. But, to be honest, it is far, far, easier to proactively work on creating strong bonds from the beginning.
Sometimes I think, “Wow, parents respect me so much more now that I have some years of teaching under my belt.” But then I think, “No, parents respect me more now because I respect them more.”
And I wish I hadn’t wasted so many years figuring that out.
Note: I tried to find an image to use for this post online, but in every one labeled “for noncommercial reuse” it was easy to identify the teacher – the person talking “at” the parents, a subtle reminder of the roles sadly played in many parent/teacher conferences.