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Keep Your Students Close But Your Parents Closer

This is the first of a five-part conversation on how teachers can communicate effectively with parents.


Eoin Lenihan

There is a dearth of university seminars and professional development opportunities to help prepare both the novice and experienced teachers build positive relationships with parents. Too often, outside of mandated conferences, parents and teachers meet only in times of conflict.

Such conflict is something that all parties would rather avoid. New teachers are particularly disadvantaged in dealing with this. It is easy to forget that not so long ago parental conflict, for them, meant staying out too late or not tidying their room. Having to manage disgruntled parents is new and daunting.

Conflict with parents will fit into two general categories: interpersonal conflict, and academic-related conflict. Here are two simple strategies for dealing with each type.

Interpersonal Conflict

Interpersonal conflict is best avoided through direct contact.

Always teach with the classroom door open. This sends a powerful message to parents. It says, "Welcome, please join us." Where your school has a weekly homeroom period or celebrates seasonal events, invite parents to work on recreational projects with their children or help manage the process.

This allows you to build informal personal relationships with parents and demonstrates clearly to them that you care for their child. This is crucial in an era where many parents see their child as their friend and abdicate disciplinary responsibility by being unquestioningly accepting of any story that their child brings home from the school.

Equally important, recreational time together allows you to assess your student's personality and behaviour in the family context. This gives you an essential understanding of the familial norms of each child. Such a policy becomes even more important in the higher grades where parents are traditionally less involved on a day-to-day basis, and where students are challenged by puberty and dramatically changing school structures.

It may feel daunting at first to invite parents into your classroom. To avoid feeling observed, create a classroom climate where, when parents enter the room, they are expected to become involved in the lesson and do not have the option of being passive. For informal events this allows you to build relationships. If a parent wishes to join during an academic lesson, terrific, you have just recruited a teaching assistant. Fully involve the parent in an academic lesson, sharing your planning, what methods you wish to employ and what goals you have set, and he/she is guaranteed to leave your classroom with a profound respect for just how challenging it is to teach.

Academic Conflict

As for academic conflict, a good practice is to make the formative-assessment process visible. Too often, parents have little idea of their child's achievement until a letter or numeric grade comes home at the end of the term. When a child achieves poorly, a parent will be understandably upset that they were not given an earlier indication that there were difficulties.

To avoid conflict, make student understanding (not just grades) visible and accessible. With intuitive and free online applications, it has never been easier to give parents a direct role in the formative assessment process. For example, VoiceThread is an application that allows teachers and students to make their work visible online by invitation. If students are preparing for a presentation, they can place their work on the VoiceThread canvas and all invited members can record or type comments about the piece of work.

You, as the teacher, can make your grading rubrics and criteria for the project available alongside the students' presentation so that parents can make informed and criteria-driven comments on the students' work. By presenting clear goals, criteria, grading rubrics and a safe open forum for feedback, you involve parents in their children's learning in a way that allows them to identify successes and challenges in that learning well in advance of a grade in the mail.

When we open up our classroom and our teaching to parents, we build mutual trust and respect and avoid the nasty business of conflict.

Eoin Lenihan (@EoinLenihan) is a lecturer of Pedagogy at the University of Augsburg, Germany. He has previously taught at the International School of Augsburg and the Bavarian International School. For more see: www.eoinlenihan.com.

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