One of the most memorable and useful professional learning workshops I did as a classroom teacher focused on building constructive parent-teacher relationships. The independent school at which I then worked hired Dr. Michael Thompson, a psychologist, to help us (the teachers) think deeply about who independent school parents are, who their children are, and how, as teachers, we could create systems that would allow for meaningful engagement around the real issues we all cared about — student learning.
At the time, I didn’t have children of my own. The things Dr. Thompson told me to do made sense. I followed his recommendations and they seemed to work. I saw his ideas as a helpful framework. Back then, I was mostly concerned with my own growth as a teacher and whether students were learning. I valued any helpful recommendations that would help me to become more effective and confident as a young teacher.
Now, fifteen years later, I am a parent with two school-aged children. They attend a publicly funded school. I’m also a teacher educator and, as I reflect on Dr. Thompson’s recommendations, I recognize them as absolutely brilliant. So far as I can tell, he was right. Absolutely right. And, I think they are relevant for any teacher, not just those working in independent schools because, at their core, they are about building human relationships.
Here are three things that I learned from Dr. Michael Thompson that I wish every teacher and principal understood about building meaningful relationships with parents.
- When parents* meet teachers, they want to know that the teacher understands who their child is. Parents come to conferences and to school open houses for that reason alone. For some perspective, teachers should recognize that each of the children in their classroom is the most precious and cherished thing in the lives of every one of the parents they meet at an open house or during parent-teacher conferences. Every one of those children represents pain, sacrifice, joy, love, hope, promise, and legacy for each of the families a teacher serves. Families entrust this most cherished child to teachers’ care every day and they want to know that these adults “get” their kid. They want to know that in the weeks since the start of the new term or semester, the teacher has figured out something about who their child is.To show parents this, Dr. Thompson recommended that teachers always share one anecdote, story, observation or insight that allows families to know that they (the teacher) knows their child. He called it “naming the child” in a way that a parent would recognize. Naming could include a description of the child’s way of thinking and being in the world, teachers’ personal observations of the child, little stories, something funny or interesting that the teacher observed the child do. The key is, it has to be authentic and it has to reflect who the child really is. As teachers, we are often so concerned with the curriculum and the gathering evidence of students’ learning that we often forget that fundamentally, families want to know if we like their child and see his/her/their humanity. If a teacher cannot show this, it is much harder to establish an authentic relationship with a parent. And, if at some time in the future, you (as teacher) have to have a difficult conversation with a parent, it is much easier to do it if, from the beginning, the parent understands that you understand who their child is.
- Everyone is busy. Families have a lot of activities to schedule, and often for multiple children. So, when you meet with parents at a parent-teacher conference, for example, be sure to set clear time limits and respect the time limits you set. Usually, working parents are juggling life’s demands on less sleep than they need. They’re moderately stressed out pretty much all of the time for an infinite set of reasons that teachers cannot truly know. So, when we have an opportunity to exchange with a parent, it’s important to honour their presence by starting and ending the meeting on time. If parents feel they have come to a meeting or to an open house and they haven’t accomplished item #1 or feel their time was wasted or disrespected, they will generally not feel happy. In future, when you have to have a tough conversation…well, the conversation starts from a more difficult place.
- Invite parents to talk about their child’s learning. Ask them if they have any questions that are most important to address during your meeting. Follow up with parents by email, if necessary, with any points you weren’t able to make. Again, families want to ensure that you (the teacher) know their child — so they appreciate it when teachers ask them for insights, and when the conversations are driven by their questions about their child.
So, tonight I attended a fall open house at my children’s school. My younger daughter has two teachers. My older daughter has four teachers. The idea of the open house is wonderful. I am happy that the school invites families in. This is essential and very much appreciated. And yet, I came away feeling really, really disappointed because the structure of the evening didn’t allow me to speak with most of my children’s teachers. There were just too many families. There were crowds of parents, actually — and with only one hour of time to see as many teachers as I could, I ended up speaking with only a couple of teachers directly and I didn’t even get to make a personal connection with either of my children’s homeroom teachers. There was no schedule. I understand wanting to keep the evening informal and yet, this resulted in many parents standing in a line to talk to their child’s teacher, which didn’t feel informal at all. Just like me, every parent wanted to make a personal connection with their child’s teacher. From the teacher’s perspective, I bet it was stressful. Teachers generally want to speak with everyone who takes the time to come to see them — but with so many families and no set schedule, some families get 15 minutes of time to talk with the teacher and others get no time. This is the way of these things. Sometimes, it’s great if you get lucky and have a chance to really chat with the teacher, but inevitably with so many families attending, the conversations are rushed at best and lack authenticity. And some will come and go, feeling that their time was wasted because they couldn’t wait it out (see the point about busy above).
So, teacher candidates, my question is, how will you build powerful, authentic connections with the families of the students you teach?
Here are some ideas for how you could turn an informal open house evening into an event that allows you to build real, authentic relationships with parents. You have to be there anyway — so why not use the opportunity to welcome families, help them get to know you, and most importantly, for you to show them that you really are getting to know their children?
- Idea #1: Send a message home (in backpacks, via email or via the content manage system) to families that explains that during the open house evening, you will prepare a short presentation that will provide all families with an overview of your program of study, your approach to teaching math, language arts, music etc. (whatever your responsibilities are) and that there will be a question & answer session for 15 minutes afterward. Let parents know when that will take place well in advance of the evening so that that every family can try to attend. A presentation ensures that every family can (a) see you, (b) get an overview of what to expect from you for the school year, and (c) have the chance to ask questions that will benefit everyone. For families who cannot attend, the slides are published to the web on the classroom website or school website.
- Idea #2: Every teacher prepares a short anecdote or conversation starters about every child in their class. These could be things such as: I really love Zoë’s art, and she has such a terrific sense of humour! Ask her about the time she forgot her math book at home and how she is developing systems that help her stay organized. OR I notice that Ellyn processes the world by verbalizing her ideas. She can be so funny! I loved the story she told about her dog. At school we are trying to help her self-regulate. She is learning when she can talk out loud and when she needs to talk to herself. OR I notice that Chris loves to read. Does he have a favourite author or type of book that he prefers to read at home? In this way, every family leaves with evidence that you are getting to know who their child is.These anecdotes can be emailed to families who don’t attend or sent home in backpacks the next day.
- Idea #3: For families who would like to chat with you personally, reserve a few 5-minute slots. Sign ups can happen in advance. Let parents know that these slots will be reserved on a first-come first served basis, but that you are always willing to meet with families by appointment.
- Idea #4: Create a question box for families. Anyone who comes by the open house but is not able to speak with you directly can leave a question for you in the question box with their name and contact info. You can follow up with these families afterward. Be sure families know when to expect a response — realistically, it might take you a week to answer all of the questions. If families know this in advance, they won’t be upset if it does take you a few days to get back to them.
- Idea #5: Create visuals that let parents know you are happy they have come. Maybe it’s a welcome sign, or a little message that every child puts on their desk to welcome families into the classroom.
Parents who feel authentically welcomed and who know that you know their children will support you. Really. It may seem like a lot of work to do these extra things when your colleagues are happy to just have parents line up in an informal open-house meet-and-greet. However, by doing these small things you can develop enduring and mutually supportive school-to-home connections with more parents.
*I use the word parent to refer to any loving, caring adult who has assumed the responsibility for the daily needs and care of a child. This includes grand-parents, aunts, uncles, foster parents, legal guardians and any other person who provides for the physical, emotional, spiritual and cognitive needs of a child.