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Parents: Allies, Not Enemies

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I’ve been teaching the first-semester course in a teacher education program since 2003. This is the very first course that students take after they’ve been admitted to the teacher education program. On the first evening of class, I always ask the students to work in groups to answer the following questions:

  1. What are you most excited about?
  2. What are you most nervous about?

Every semester, one of the most common answers to number 2 is: dealing with parents.

Why Are Parents Scary?

New teachers are scared of parents for lots of reasons. Probably the real reason is because they imagine their own parents angry at them, and they feel like caught, powerless children in the face of that. But bracketing the psychology of this, it’s likely that new teachers are only imaging parents as yelling at them.

There are some real issues with parents. Media reports on helicopter parents, tiger moms, and other formidable stereotypes take an oversized role in new teachers’ minds. New teachers also always imagine themselves on the defensive with parents: trying to justify some action, grade, or event they can’t easily explain.  In reality, the vast majority of parents are concerned, busy people trying to do their best for their children. Just like teachers.

What Should Teachers Really Think of Parents?

Teachers should, and most do, think of parents as allies. Parents and teachers have the same goal: the best interests of the child. Yes, some parents have significant challenges–financial, emotional, medical, and worse–and we have to work with them. If a teacher has these issues and they interfere with their work, the teacher is let go. Parents rarely get fired. And teachers (and children) have to work with what they get.

That said, most parents are there for their kids, and doing the best they can. Teachers should treat them with respect and kindness. And, they should expect parents to be part of their students’ education. It would be nice if parents also treated teachers with respect and kindness, but this isn’t required. Parents can behave pretty much any way they want. And a few really push the envelope. THOSE are the parents new teachers are imaging. But they are not common.

Advice for New Teachers

New teachers should think of parents as allies in their students’ lives and educations. I have had many, many conversations with parents over the years, and the majority of them have gone very well.  Here’s some advice for teachers:

  1. When parents call, listen very carefully to what they say. If they think their child is being treated unfairly, it’s important that you truly appreciate their position.
  2. Repeat their concern back to them, so they know you understand them.
  3. Explain your response respectfully, clearly, and not defensively.
  4. Expect a respectful response.
  5. Sometimes teachers are wrong. If you are, admit it graciously and make the necessary apologies and adjustments.
  6. ALWAYS say something you like about the student. MEAN IT! See here for more on that.
  7. When you call a parent, clearly explain the issue, but start with something nice about the student. Again, see here.
  8. Here are some ways to voice concerns:
    • Johnny is not working up to his potential, and I’m concerned he’s not getting as much out of the class as he should be.
    • Jeannine’s behavior is interfering with other students’ learning.
    • Jamal has missed so many classes, that I’m concerned he is going to fall behind his classmates.
    • Juanita isn’t focusing in class, and I’m concerned that she isn’t getting enough rest to succeed.
  9. If you have any trouble with an unreasonable parent, be respectful, hang up, and speak with your department chair, principal, or a trusted senior colleague for advice. They’ve been there.

The point here is that teachers should care about what parents’ concerns are, and they should express concern about their students’ well being.  Teachers and parents have the same goal: the well being of the child.

Parents aren’t anyone to be afraid of: They are teachers’ allies. It’s not teacher vs. parent. It’s the student, teacher, and parent against the curriculum to be conquered!

BONUS: To read one of my favorite authors writing about how teachers can engage parents as allies, see this article by Cathy Fleischer and her colleague.

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