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Building Proactive Parent-Teacher Relationships

José Vilson

It's a well-known stereotype that parents in urban communities don't participate as frequently in their child's education. They "leave it to the school" to take care of all the students' academic needs and only care if the students are passing or not. Yet, for some reason, every year, there are always one or two parents in my school who become notorious for the way they interrogate and disrupt the normal machinations of the schooling process. They come in demanding answers for questions teachers might not have answers for, or flipping the comments we make about the students' behavior into a "What are you doing to help?" They're the parents that the adults in the building always tell the next teacher, "Watch out for the mother / father of this child. Woo boy."

I've had better success in working with these parents than many of my colleagues.

Other teachers ask me how I do it, and I tell them it's simple: Stay proactive and maintain your professionalism.

I didn't get that my first year. During the first semester, I called up all 90 parents of my students, but I underestimated one. Her child didn't behave very well, but she had been a middling performer throughout the year. Beyond trying to call, I didn't make any extra effort to reach out to her because I had 89 other parents to contact. I didn't see her for the first parent-teacher conference session nor the second, and assumed that she didn't care. That is, until she showed up at the school and I finally met her face-to-face. As it turned out, she was a veteran educator who had similar work hours to mine, not to mention two children and very little help.

After that moment or realization and embarrassment, I decided to get more proactive in my relationship with parents. I kept thorough files. I sent progress reports monthly. I made sure to call homes on occasion. Also, I made sure to be clear, concise, and hopeful about the child's performance, no matter where the student was.

This helped with another tough parent, whose daughter had just started at the school and already had a reputation of defending the child to the point of immunity. Upon first meeting her at parent-teacher conference, I introduced myself as I did with most parents by saying, "Hello, how are you? My name is Mr. Vilson." She brushed aside the civilities: "Take a seat and let's talk about my daughter." In Spanish, this sounded even scarier. But after waiting out the tough talk, I pulled up the girl's test scores, behavior records, and phone log to jog her memory about our prior contacts. At first, I didn't think this had much of an effect because she maintained her tough exterior, but soon she switched the focus from an aggressive voice to a collaborative stance with me. This in turn helped me gain respect from the student (who normally gave all her teachers headaches).

Parent involvement is one of the missing links in school change, and we as educators have to find ways to activate parents into a collaborative role. Surely, it's going to take a cultural shift in resources, job stability, and language acquisition to even approach 100 percent reliability on the parent voice, but the tide is starting to shift in that direction. As parents learn how to use their own voices for positive change about their child's education, teachers need to learn how to harness that power into a well-rounded accountability system for all people involved.

José Vilson is a math teacher, coach, and data analyst for a middle school in the Inwood/Washington Heights neighborhood of New York

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