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Response: Ways To Build Trust Between Parents & Teachers -- Part One

(This is the first in a series of three posts responding to this question)

Kanwal Sachdeva asked:

I enjoyed reading your article on 'how to make students learn to listen'. My question is- How do we make parents to listen to the teachers? You know, for the students who need more help, the parents are not available to talk or they will not really listen. How do we make them understand teacher's perspective and not believe everything that the student is saying? How do we build that trust?

Parent engagement is a critical piece in creating a successful learning environment. Thanks for raising this important issue, Kanwal!

Of course, an important way to start building that trust is for we teachers to also try to understand the parent's perspective. I would suggest that this "two-way" street could be a critical difference between parent engagement and parent involvement. I'll be sharing more about these approaches in Part Three of this series.

Before we get to that, though, there is Part One today and Part Two on Friday. In this post, Betsy Landers, National PTA President, will share her thoughts and Carrie Rose, Executive Director of the Parent/Teacher Home Visit Project, will also offer a guest response. Several other experienced parent engagement leaders will be offering their suggestions in the next two parts, along with comments from readers.

Response From Betsy Landers

Betsy Landers is National PTA President:

It's important that teachers understand the dynamic of varying family structures before deciding how to approach a situation with parents. Family structures are markedly different than they were even a decade ago. In this economy, parents may be working two jobs or vigilantly looking for jobs; they may be going to school and work; they may be single parents or raising their children with help from other family members.
Research proves that family engagement leads to student achievement. So to be effective, teachers must be prepared to collaborate with all families and family structures to support student success. Here's how.

Communicate in more ways than one. Draw upon the knowledge and strengths of individual families to communicate in a relevant way. For example, find out the best way to contact the parent. Millennial parents respond better and more quickly to email and text messages, not to letters sent home or phone calls.

Develop trust. It may sound redundant but constant communication is the key to building that trust. If you tell the parent that you'll reach out to them, make sure to follow through and reach out when you say you will. Parents will react negatively if you say you're going to call, text or email and you do not.

Focus on the child's education. Again, all families are different and will react differently to feedback about their child. Remember that the child's education should always be the priority. So, keep conversations focused on the child's academic progress and not on anything else.

Invite a third party. Sometimes a conversation between two people may benefit from a different perspective, so invite another teacher to a parent-teacher conference or a scheduled meeting with the parent. Allow the teacher to add to your or the parent's perspective. Also, don't be afraid to ask the parent to bring his or her spouse, another care-giving adult or someone with pertinent information or insight.

Continue communication. Routinely keep in touch with the parent, even if things are going well. It can play an important role in helping maintain that trust and help the child continue to do better in school.

Finally, make sure to express appreciation as progress is made. A good way to promote a continuing relationship with the parent is to say "thank-you" with their preferred way of communication. The most important thing to remember in building this relationship is that you share something important in common -you both want the very best for your student and their child.

Response From Carrie Rose

Carrie Rose is the Executive Director of the Parent/Teacher Home Visit Project. The PTHVP works with schools and districts across the country to encourage and train teachers to make home visits. Teachers and staff at our school make hundreds of visits each year as part of the Project (and I have made many over the years). You might be interested in The Best Resources For Learning About Teacher Home Visits:

It isn't hard to imagine how a family would benefit by a teacher visiting their home: both students and parents become more engaged, and the data shows us that students perform better. But how do home visits impact teachers? Does it make their job harder, or easier? Does their teaching change as a result?

Here's what teachers say they get out of it.

Tarik McFall, a middle grade teacher in Sacramento, advises:
"I would tell all teachers who want to create powerful relationships with both students and students' families to do home visits on a regular basis. Rewards include better teacher/parent communication, improved student behavior, and a stronger sense of community both inside and outside of the classroom."

Better communications

Across the board, teachers find the training and practice of home visits improves their own communications skills. Elementary School Teacher Lisa Levasseur recently commented,

"Home visits made me a better communicator: doing home visits helped me to understand what was truly important to the family. Communication with my families became easier and expectations on both sides were easier to get accomplished."

Differentiating the curriculum

Teachers say that what they've learned about the student outside of school has been invaluable in teaching to the student inside the classroom.

As Jennifer Garcia, a teacher at Jedediah Smith Elementary School explains: "Building a relationship outside of the school setting, going into the home and getting to know the culture of the family as a whole helps me make the classroom relevant to that student."

Effective outreach

Another core belief of our program is that visits are done with a wide range of students, not just the ones who are identified as having problems. Rather, visits are a time for the teacher and the family to reflect on their shared goal: their hopes and dreams for the child.

John Castro, Sacramento Teacher of the Year in 2010-2011 adds:

"I would recommend that teachers do as many home visits as possible early on in the school year or even before the school year starts. Once that parent teacher relationship is established, it really helps everything else after that and makes the year go by more smoothly."

Improved student behavior

We hear it all the time: not only do students behave better when they know their teacher is in touch with their parents, but their responsiveness increases when the teacher connects with the student at home. Tu Moua-Carroz, a Principal in Roseville, CA, remembers the impact of a home visit when she was a child:

"That one home visit by Mrs. Spolsdoff changed my perception of school. She came to my house You better believe I NEVER wanted to disappoint her after that visit."

Cultural competency

Meeting the needs of a diverse population of families means that teachers who visit learn to communicate well with people from different backgrounds than their own.

"Teachers gain cultural competency through participating in active listening with families and getting to know them," says Yun-Chi Maggie Hsu, a teacher at Wakefield High School in Arlington, Virginia, "and teachers are given opportunities to confront own (hidden) biases."

Shared goals, shared responsibility

Once teachers and families share common goals, families are more likely to trust and support the teacher, says Garcia. "It really helps for the family to get to know me, as an educator."

This shared vision for the child's success leads to shared responsibility for the child's education. And that, teachers say, can take a load off across all grade levels. Debbie Polhemus, a teacher at Wakefield High School in Arlington Virginia explains:

"The greatest advantage that the home visit makes to a classroom teacher, at least those of us at the secondary level, is that the parent goes from being an unknown to an ally in a very short time. Not all problems can be solved, even with allies, but it is so empowering to have a partner in the effort."

Nick Faber, a teacher in St. Paul Minnesota, for example, encourages colleagues to think about home visits as an opportunity to build teams among staff and provide a pathway to become more connected to the greater school community. Veteran Sacramento teacher Nancy Fong sums it up this way:

"As a public educator today, the stress to succeed with measureable results for all children comes from families, principals, district, state and federal agencies; but even more, you as a teacher put pressure on yourself. A responsibility is given once you become a class teacher. That stress and responsibility is shared with the partnership I have established with the family through home visits. It's still a joy riding into school everyday and I owe much of this to home visits!!!!

Please feel free to leave a comment sharing your reactions to this question and the ideas shared here. As I mentioned earlier, I'll be including many in Part Three of this series next Wednesday.

Thanks to Betsy and Carrie for sharing their responses!

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it's selected or if you'd prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

Anyone whose question is selected for this weekly column can choose one free book from a selection of twelve published by Eye On Education.

Since I'll be posting Parts Two and Three in this series over the next week, the next "question of the week" will be posted in ten days.

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