Research organizations, government agencies and news reporters all concur: parental involvement is one of the biggest factors—perhaps the biggest factor—in a child’s academic achievement. For teachers in training and first year teachers, parents are an important force to be reckoned with.
Parents Can Seem Like a Mystery at First
Parents can also be a bit of a mystery for new teachers. Very little in your teacher training prepares you to deal with them. The parents of school children don’t come to your teaching degree classes to interact with you. And even during your field experiences in real schools, parents are more interested in talking to the “full teachers” than the student teachers.
Once you begin your teaching career in earnest, you’ll need to quickly learn how to deal with parents. This can be complicated, because parents are all different.
Dealing with Involved Parents
These are probably the kinds of parents you imagine yourself dealing with while you’re still in teacher training. Involved parents take an active interest in their child’s learning. They receive communication from teachers gladly and attentively. They may even volunteer for school and PTA activities.
Involved parents are the type you’ll encounter the most. And in many cases, involved parents are quite easy to work with. They listen to what teachers have to say and see themselves as teammates in their children’s education.
So for the most part, you can deal with these parents in a very straightforward way. Keep communication open and regular. Let them know when action is needed on their part. Also keep them informed on matters regarding their child that require attention. But be prepared for an occasional conflict too–because involved parents can sometimes also be adversarial parents.
Dealing with Adversarial Parents
Some parents get so involved and so invested in their children’s education that they can become more difficult. They can get very emotional and pushy when teachers do things they disagree with. Some involved parents lobby for extra attention and special treatment for their children. This may not be possible or warranted. At other times, a parent, pair of parents, or whole group of parents may want to influence or change the way you do your job.
When dealing with involved adversarial parents, it’s important to keep your emotions in check. This can be hard! It’s frustrating to have someone else tell you how to do your job. It can also be quite upsetting to have your teaching picked apart and criticized. But you really do need to keep a steady eye on the needs of your students. This is always more important than “winning” any conflict with a parent.
Find That Common Ground
Focusing on what’s truly best for the children can help. This is the anchor. It’s the common ground that can help you and the parents to reach solutions to conflicts. Remember that there are mediators, mediation processes, and appropriate venues for parent-teacher disagreements too. PTA meetings can be useful for discussing different points of view between teachers and parents. And don’t be afraid to go to your principal, fellow teachers, or members of the PTA for advice and assistance.
Dealing with Unresponsive Parents
Sometimes, parents simply don’t reply to teacher communication. Some just don’t take an active role in their student’s education. Then there are those who don’t even make sure that their student completes homework or shows up to school consistently and on time.
This too can be frustrating–or at least puzzling. However, it’s important to piece together the puzzle of the unresponsive parent. There are many reasons that parents might not respond to messages and outreach from their children’s teachers.
Why Parents Might Not Respond
In the case of parents of ELL and first generation American students, sometimes the lack of response is simply due to a language barrier. There are usually a number of solutions to this kind of communication problem. School districts often have interpreters on staff. There may be other sources of interpretation too. But bear in mind that it’s best to avoid using your students as interpreters if at all possible. Having someone’s child interpret for them can be stressful and embarrassing for everyone involved.
The Over-Stressed Parent
Still other parents are overworked and over-stressed. They may be too busy to engage in their children’s education as much as they’d like to. Be patient with parents who seem well-intentioned but over-committed. Pushing these parents too hard can create hard feelings. So you want to make it clear that you empathize with the demands these parents face, while communicating with them gently and consistently.
Parents That Simply Don’t Care
Other parents can be unresponsive for a less pleasant reason. There are certainly parents who don’t see education as important. Often, these parents don’t take an active interest in their child’s learning process. And they can quickly turn into adversarial parents if they feel unfairly pressured to communicate with the school.
But it’s still your responsibility to communicate with apathetic parents. Keep communication with this parent type persistent but polite. Look for opportunities to send home praise or earnest concern for their child. Nearly every parent loves to hear good things about their kids! And even parents who don’t have much regard for education can be motivated to talk to teachers if something truly important is at stake.
Understand How Much Your Students Are Influenced by Their Parents
The puzzle of parents is part of a bigger, more important puzzle: the puzzle of who your students are, and the best ways to teach them.
Remember that every interaction you have with a parent, no matter how small, can provide insight into your students’ inner lives. For instance, knowing something as seemingly trivial as the hobbies of a parent can help you see further into your students’ lives. Or being aware of the kind of relationship a mom and dad have with each other can be very insightful. This information can actually tell you a lot about what your students are thinking and how to motivate them. And non-communicative parents—whether they’re facing personal struggles or just don’t care—provide clues to the kinds of weaknesses or insecurities your students may have. This in turn points to ways you can help your students build on their unique strengths and overcome their personal vulnerabilities.