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.
Trevor is in trouble at school.
You are Trevor’s teacher. What is going through your mind when you place the call to Trevor’s parent?
You are Trevor’s parent. What is going through your mind when you get the call from Trevor’s teacher?
You are Trevor. What is going through your mind when your teacher tells you she’ll be calling your parents and when you hear the phone ring?
What did the experience look like from the perspective of each participant? How would perspectives impact each person’s choice of behavior as they deal with the problem? One of the common feelings is fear. Maybe the teacher doesn’t like delivering bad news, especially when she doesn’t know the parent and isn’t sure how he will react. Maybe the call upsets the parent who is also having problems with the child at home and he is worried that you think he is a bad parent. Maybe…Trevor is scared about being punished both at school and at home,. He knows the home punishment will be physical.
Fear and insecurity are major impediments to developing a relationship. We do not know what the parent’s earlier experience with school has been and how they view schools as an institution and teachers in general. But we can imagine what it may be like for parents to get dressed for a meeting at school, to go into the building, check in at the office, walk down the hall, wait until it is time to go in, walk into the classroom, sit down across from the teacher, and then listen to what she has to say about their child. Many things could be going through the parent’s mind- and your mind- to make you both distrustful and on edge. This fear and insecurity can manifest in defensiveness with a poor choice of words, harsh language, aggressive body language and facial expressions, raised voices, and, in the extreme, threats of violence, and it interferes with meeting the goal: to help the child take responsibility for his actions and do better in the future.
The Good Before the Bad
Since teachers are responsible for keeping parents informed about their children’s progress, successes, and transgressions, they need excellent communication skills. Trevor’s situation would be more comfortable and productive if the teacher had already experienced a few positive interactions with the parent. Casual and newsy communications help the teacher and the parent become familiar with each other. The interactions reduce those understandable fears and develop a level of trust that lets them work as a team for the child. The trick is to use the positional power that comes with being the teacher through a lens of empathy and compassion.
The goal then is to do things that set up a foundation of trust that creates a working partnership between teacher and parents, which ultimately benefits the child. Here are some ways to do this.
- For younger students, make home visits or send them postcards before school starts.
- Send home a welcome letter that expresses your hopes and expectations for your year together and that invites parents to participate.
- Use a system of student agenda books or folders sent home daily that includes homework assignments, notices, personal notes, and a place for parents and teachers to communicate with each other.
- Write or have the children write a class newsletter or Friday note to take home.
- Design homework assignments that involve parents in a fun, meaningful way.
- Host a mini open house for your classroom or grade level a couple of times during the year.
- Use parents as classroom volunteers to help with projects, read with students, chaperone field trips, share their knowledge, talents, and jobs.
- Invite parents to visit the classroom for small performances such as dramatic presentations of a story or an author’s tea.
- Welcome parents to parent/teacher conferences by putting chairs and a desk outside the classroom where they can wait.
- Include some books and school projects for them to look at while they are waiting, and maybe a bowl of hard candy for a dry, nervous mouth. (This works for you, too!)
- And one of my favorites…the good news contact: make random phone calls and send notes home that celebrate the child’s successes or to just show appreciation for who they are.
Parents are concerned about their children, and so are we; they have a profound responsibility, and so do we; they know a lot about what makes their child tick, and so do we; they want a bright future for their child, and so do we. It is just plain natural that we should work together as a team.
Part Two: Preparing for a successful parent call or meeting.
*Parents is a generic term for those who have custodial responsibility for the child.