So, Trevor is in trouble at school. It’s time to contact his parents.
You want to get the parents to work with you to find a solution, so keep in mind that you are talking about an emotional issue–the welfare of their child. This conversation relies on your communication skills and ability to empathize. Hopefully you have had some of the positive contacts with Trevor’s parents, like those mentioned in Part One, before this problem arose and you have to make the call home. This foundation of positive experiences serves you well when you have to contact parents about unpleasant situations and field their calls and visits when they are unhappy. This helps you go into the situation with the frame of mind and self-confidence that something good will come of your joint efforts.
As the teacher (the professional in the relationship), you can do a lot to make these kinds of phone calls and meetings successful. You have the power to set a positive, respectful climate conducive to problem-solving. Being prepared boosts self-confidence and your chances for success, so take time to prepare for the call or meeting. You are more relaxed and communicate more effectively if you know what you want to say and how to say it in a straightforward, kind way. You are also better situated to actively listen to the parent.
When there is a problem or concern:
- Wait until you calm down before you call.
- Choose your words carefully; use non-labeling words that describe the situation instead of disparage the child, especially if you are sending something to the parents in writing, including email.
- Review what you want to say.
- Keep in mind that if the problem happened at school, the school has the primary responsibility to solve it, not the parent; you are looking for insight and help.
Initiating the Call or Meeting:
- Have a paper and pen ready to take notes.
- Take a minute to put yourself in the parent’s place.
- Be friendly, polite, and professional and begin the call on a congenial note.
- Address parents by their correct name (check the records first).
- Be aware of cultural differences.
- Share your genuine concern for the child and your wish to work toward a solution.
- Convey that you want to help through your choice of words and tone of voice.
- Be honest and tactful. Avoid blaming or making accusations that put the parent on the defensive.
- Establish a calm, professional climate.
Discussing the Issue:
- Calmly explain the situation and/or have the child explain it.
- Let the parent talk and listen carefully to what he or she says in words and between the lines.
- Jot down ideas during the conversation.
- Put a realistic, yet encouraging, spin on being able to solve the problem.
- React calmly to parents if they are upset; keep in control of your own emotions and responses.
- Invite them to come in to talk if they would like.
- In person look at body language, facial expressions, and signs of agitation and relaxation.
- Assure them that you know it is not easy for them to hear their child has a problem.
- Ask them if they have any thoughts about what happened.
- Listen to them and stay understanding of their perspective.
- Confidently share your professional assessment of the issue. Educate the parent to the possibilities, and make suggestions.
- Remain professional and positive.
Finding a Solution:
- Share school expectations, services, and policies.
- Ask about approaches that work at home.
- Discuss the approach you will use.
- In a tactful way, discourage suggestions for punishment and other non-productive ideas.
- Set a time to check back with each other to see how the plan is working.
- Ask them if they have any more questions.
- Thank them for their support of the plan and for working with you.
- Remain professional and positive
Concluding the Contact:
- Have a three-way meeting with the child to explain how you and his parents are working together to help him make better choices.
- Send a letter home that summarizes the problem and the solution, and that thanks them for their help (run it by a colleague or principal first).
- Sign and date it, and keep a copy for yourself.
- Implement the plan and do what you can to help the child be successful.
- Provide progress reports to the child and parents.
- Contact the parents at the agreed upon time to assess how the plan worked, and make changes if needed.
- Stay in touch.
- Remain professional and positive.
You need parents and they need you, and your students need both of you. If you work confidently from a place of professional expertise, openness, and empathy, with the belief that parents love their children and ultimately want to do what is best for them, you will make parents feel welcome and valued and you will discover the power of a strong parent/teacher partnership.
Take a minute to think…
How do you feel when your students walk into your classroom? What do you see when you look at them? What is going through your mind? What do you expect to happen?
The answers reveal your core beliefs and attitudes about children and being a teacher, and you might not even be aware you feel this way.
How we consciously and unconsciously treat our students is not lost on them, and we wind up getting what we expect. The lens we look through determines how they respond to us and how we experience our time with them. Nowhere is an optimistic, generous attitude more important than in what goes on between a parent and a child, and a teacher and a student. And we are responsible for what happens under our watch.
If we approach teaching with the attitude that students are a problem because they:
- don’t listen
- are disrespectful
- refuse to take responsibility
- have no manners
- don’t want to learn
- can’t be trusted
- need to be managed
…we interpret all that happens in this light. We expect them to not listen, to take advantage if given some freedom, to show no interest in what we are teaching, and to need strict discipline. They can tell how we feel, and their attitude toward us and school reflects the messages we send:
We are adversaries struggling for control.
But if we believe students are precious human beings that are:
- inherently good
- sensitive and vulnerable
- interested in learning new things
- responsive to encouragement
- capable of learning better behavior
- at our mercy
…we treat them with compassion and concern. We expect good things from them, believe in our power to influence, see all the positives, the growth, the breakthroughs, and, the sometimes ever so slight, continuous progress. They can tell we like and enjoy them and their attitude reflects this:
We are collaborators sharing power.
These essential understandings are simple but not simplistic. We know that how we treat others and how they treat us determine our relationships with them. We also know that sometimes when we are in the midst of all the demands and stresses of teaching and life, we forget that the basics of a positive working relationship are mutual care and concern, and that we get what we model and expect.
We want good things to happen in our classroom and, if we show and expect, we will get back:
- And teamwork
When I Was a Kid
Think back to your own childhood experiences as a student, preferably the age level you teach. Picture yourself as that child and what you liked and what bothered you, and why you felt this way. If I were doing this exercise I might think of my 6th grade classroom where I liked being allowed to work on projects with a small group out in the hall because it gave me freedom and a chance to talk and be creative. I also might recall how I did not like it when this same teacher punished the entire class with a surprise test when only a few kids were fooling around.
What kind of things did you recall? Did the associated feelings come back? Did certain teachers stand out as memorable while you wish you had never had some of them? Take this insight and apply it to the way you interact with your students. If you shared these findings with others and listened to their perspectives, you would likely discover universal experiences most did like (free-time, coloring, being read to, encouragement from the teacher) and most didn’t like (copying notes from the board, yelling, being put on the spot, sarcasm). You can use this insight as you make decisions about your own classroom.
First Rule of Thumb: “I didn’t like it when I was in school, so I won’t do it to my students.” Make it your mantra, the foundation for creating a classroom climate that is purposefully inviting for students.
Yet there is a twist.
You would also likely find differences in what others liked and didn’t like. While you might have loved recess because you were a good athlete and popular, another might have hated it because the some kids teased and excluded her at recess. Look at the implications of these differences. While you couldn’t wait to get outside, she got a pit in her stomach just thinking about it.
The primitive fight or flight part of the brain was at work and feelings like this likely interfered with her ability to participate fully and learn. Fear overrides the part of the brain where reasoning and processing happen. If I am afraid of spiders and you are afraid of snakes, we each click into panic mode when confronted with the source of our fear. In the presence of something scary, that is all we can think of. Our fears should be acknowledged and each of us treated accordingly.
Since we do not have the same history and might not share the same perceptions and feelings, we should, in kind, avoid assuming things about children. We have to observe, ask questions, and listen to truly know someone.
Second Rule of Thumb: “Children do not all have the same likes and dislikes and personalities.” Make it your practice to know your students and what they are about, have empathy, and treat them accordingly.
Find more on this topic and other useful ideas in my book, Teaching is a Privilege: 12 Essential Understandings for Beginning Teachers. (And you don’t have to be a new teacher to enjoy it!)
Review of “What if the Secret to Success Is Failure?” a 9/14/11 New York Times article by Paul Tough
The author of this article mentions, often with little or no insight or analysis, some of the most critical issues in education today including the nature and nurturing of character development (the basis of violence prevention), competition and collaboration, and intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, including reward systems and report cards.
To summarize the “plot” of the article, the author explored the efforts of two atypical New York City schools – the private and prestigious Riverdale Country School for the affluent, and the free KIPP charter school with enrollment open to all NYC students (by lottery). Both focus on preparing students for college and turning out people who are successful in life. Not liking the results they were seeing, they each identified the need to look more closely at character development, and ways to teach those essential character traits typical of a high functioning, autonomous adult.
Using Martin Seligman’s work on positive psychology and his 800-page book (tome) on character strengths and virtues, the headmaster and superintendent of the respective schools looked at the practical benefits of teaching both:
- “Moral character” – high quality values such as honesty, integrity, compassion, and fairness, and
- “Performance character,” – high quality behavior such as persistence, team work, self-control, and something researcher Angela Duckworth calls “grit.”
The Good Idea:
The KIPP School ultimately chose the seven of Duckworth’s 24 identified character strengths that were the most predictive of “life satisfaction and high achievement.”
- social intelligence
While life satisfaction and high achievement are not synonymous with living a life of high moral character, the list is useful, especially if social intelligence encompasses positive moral traits and pro-social beliefs and skills.
KIPP then took these seven strengths and converted them into 24 statements, such as the student:
- Is eager to explore new things.
- Believes that effort will improve his or her future.
- Allows others to speak without interruption.
- Remains calm even when criticized or otherwise provoked.
The intent was to use these statements as goals for behavior, and to gauge a child’s progress toward high moral and behavioral character. As we read over the list, they sound like the qualities we’d like to see in everyone.
But then they took a wrong turn.
To be continued…