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The New Teacher Advisor

Developing Positive Parent Partnerships

I'm in my car when the cell phone rings and immediately my mind goes to one thought, "Something is wrong with my son." I pick up the phone, hoping it won't be the school nurse -- or the school principal. Luckily, it's just a friend calling to chat.

As parents, our foremost thoughts are of our children, whether they are babies, adolescents, or teens. We worry and fret over how they are doing in school, the kinds of friends they are making, how our words and actions (or the words and actions of their teachers) are affecting them, and so much more. Our children consume our thoughts.

Parents are their children's first teachers -- and they are life-long teachers. As classroom teachers, we only have a particular child for a quarter, a semester, or a year; usually no longer than that. We are a brief light in each child's life and, as such, a brief light in his or her parents' lives. If we are to reach our goal of producing successful students, we must partner with the people ultimately responsible for the children in our care.

How can we develop and foster such a partnership? The most important point to remember is keep parents informed. Having spent so many years intimately knowing their child's actions and whereabouts, it is very difficult for parents to be kept in the dark. It's especially frustrating for parents to have no idea what's happening in school for five or six weeks and then to suddenly receive a phone call detailing bad behavior or bad grades. Parents want to know the minute their child begins to have behavior or academic difficulties so they can begin to work on those issues at home and support what you are doing at school. If parents have gone weeks without a word from you, and all of a sudden receive a phone call stating that their child is failing, it's folly to expect their support.

Make it a priority to call home when you first begin to see behavior or academic problems. Be sure to begin the call with a positive statement about the student. Parents need to be reassured that their child is okay in at least one area before being able to offer you their support in areas in which the child is not successful. If you barrage them immediately with your concerns, you'll trigger their defense system, which ultimately ends with the parents defending the child against your "accusations." You'll hear the dreaded, "Oh, my Johnny would never do anything like that." If you take a little time, however, to reassure parents that their child is witty, tries hard, has a fun personality, or possesses some other positive trait, parents will be better able to listen to your concerns and move forward to help their child overcome his or her negative issues.

Phone calls are not the only way to keep parents informed of what's happening in your classroom, however. You also can send home a newsletter, either bi-weekly or monthly, outlining what you will be teaching, upcoming special events or deadlines, and other information you want to share. I like to include an activity parents can do with their child at home, one that reinforces what we're learning in class. You also might include study tips.

Another form of communication is the academic planner. Many schools provide those for their students. Others simply use a weekly handout to help students stay on top of their assignments. Use a planner to communicate praise and small concerns to parents; for two-way communication, invite them to respond in the planner as well.

You'll also want to welcome parents into your school and into your classroom. Many teachers do not encourage parents to visit because they fear that they will have "overly helpful" parents. I don't understand that attitude. I'm routinely swamped with administrative tasks, along with the mundane chores of copying, cutting, pasting, and otherwise preparing the materials I need for my lessons. I welcome with open arms any parent who wants to help me with those tasks.

School visits help parents feel more involved in their children's live -- and they can make your life easier as well. With the right attitude, you can see those helpful parents not as a burden to be endured, but as a great asset to be appreciated and encouraged.

As a new teacher, I never understood the need to contact parents. My job was the students, not their parents (or so I thought). I took phone calls from parents, but I didn't make many attempts to initiate calls. To be frank, I was petrified of the parents. After the first report card, I had a lot of angry parents on my hands, and I spent the rest of the year defending myself and my teaching strategies.

I learned the hard way. I learned that if I took time at the beginning of the school year to phone each family to introduce myself, offer a few positive statements about their child, and let them know what was happening in class, I had fewer problems during the year. In fact, communicating with parents turned them into advocates for me and for my students -- a helpful resource rather than a dreaded hindrance. In short, we became partners.

Guess who wins when we partner with parents in a positive way? Our students win.