Interested in fostering a solid relationship with your child’s teacher? Here’s what not to do, as experienced by Kim Parker, an English teacher at a public high school in Cambridge, Mass., two years ago.
A parent, dissatisfied with the B minus her child had received from Parker on an honors English class assignment, approached the principal in protest after Parker refused to change the grade.
Some parents are so consumed with getting kids into selective colleges that “they’re not afraid to challenge grades” and intervene.
After the discussion, the principal changed the grade to an A.
“It was an eye-opening experience,” said Parker.
While this type of parent interference (and the principal’s response) is an exception to parent-teacher interaction, some parents are so consumed with getting kids into selective colleges that “they’re not afraid to challenge grades” and intervene, said Parker.
Steven Sheldon is associate director of the National Network of Partnership Schools at Johns Hopkins University, which works with educators to engage families in education. “When parents come in guns blazing and storming the front door, it tends to shut down conversation and collaboration more than open the lines of communication,” he said.
But the right kind of family involvement can be valuable: Numerous studies have found a correlation between parental involvement and higher test scores and grades, including a 2012 analysis of over 50 studies, he said.
“When there is a positive relationship between parents and teachers, the student is likely to have a positive relationship with the teacher, translating into better behavior in the classroom and more effective learning,” he said. A 2014 study in Child Development also found that parental involvement improved adolescents’ academic and emotional functioning.
These tips can ensure that parents’ involvement with teachers is the most beneficial.
What Parents Should Do
Attend curriculum nights and conferences. It’s a chance to introduce yourself to your child’s teachers and gain insights into teaching styles and what they expect from students. Read all communications sent home to understand the teacher’s expectations.
Set a positive tone. Sandy Kreger, who has taught elementary school in Ann Arbor, Michigan for 26 years, suggests emailing your child’s teacher at the start of each school year. Ask the teacher how you can help, especially with activities you can undertake at home to make your child’s school year a success.
Give the teachers a heads up early on about any issues that affect your child, whether it’s severe allergies, medical conditions, learning disabilities or a difficult circumstance at home, such as a divorce or death in the family.
Amanda Satchell of Franklin, Wisconsin, is the mother of a child with ADHD. Early in the school year, she emailed the teacher to ask if her daughter could have a snack at 2 p.m. each day. She realized during the previous year that her daughter’s medication took her hunger away earlier in the day, making her hungry — and prone to misbehavior — by that time. Satchell said the teacher responded positively to the request, which helped a great deal.
“I was choosing to let them in on our life even when it was not pretty, so they could understand if my child was quiet or teary.”
Rachel Ezekiel-Fishbein, a mom of three in Elkins Park, Penn., said she always emails her children’s teachers when her kids are going through a hard time, such as when her parents were dying. “I was choosing to let them in on our life even when it was not pretty, so they could understand if my child was quiet or teary.”
Ask your child’s teachers their preferred form of communication. While many prefer email, be concise when you do contact them this way. Briefly state the issue and request an appointment for weightier matters.
Kreger provides her cell phone number if parents need to text her in case of emergency. “They have the security of knowing they have that option. A few people abuse it, but not most,” she said.
Dru Tomlin, parent of a sixth grader, is a middle school principal and director of middle level services for the Association for Middle Level Education, a non-profit educational group. He said an in-person conference is better than an email, since written language can often be misconstrued and escalate situations.
Teach your children to role-play. Even at the youngest ages, it’s best kids learn how to advocate for themselves. Leslee Brooks, a parent of three and an academic organizational specialist in Wellesley, Mass., recommends parents practice being the teacher. They should ask their kids, “What are you going to say to me?” and “Is there something on your mind?” Then let the child discuss the problem.
Parents can nudge kids into using less confrontational language if they don’t quite get it right. The exercise gives them confidence to approach an authority figure, Brooks says.
What Parents Should Not Do
Don’t expect an immediate response to emails. Teachers often have as many as 150 students. They’re busy, especially during the first few weeks of the school year. Many try to respond to emails within 48 hours, sometimes sooner; but it can take longer during hectic times.
Don’t immediately confront teachers when concerned about a grade. Start by speaking with your child. Then, if that doesn’t help, ask the teacher how you can help your child or ask if you can learn more about the assignment and how the child can improve, Parker says.
“Every grade tells the story and you want to know the story,” she says.
Tomlin recalls how some students would text their parents after a test grade came in and then, 30 minutes later, the parent was calling the teacher about it. “That’s the kind of helicopter parenting that doesn’t help the relationship between home and school progress in a natural manner,” he said.
Within hours of the grades’ release and before assignments had reached students, some parents emailed her to question their child’s grade instead of discussing it directly with the child.
Karin Edelson, who has taught sixth, seventh and eighth grade language arts for 22 years in Farmington Hills, Michigan, experienced the same problem when she released her grades online on Sunday nights before returning the assignments to students the next day. Within hours of the grades’ release and before assignments had reached students, some parents emailed her to question their child’s grade instead of discussing it directly with the child.
Now, she hands back assignments in class and doesn’t release grades online until two hours after school gets out, allowing time for parent-child discussions. On curriculum night, she explains her policy, encouraging parents to look at the graded assignment and the rubric with their child before contacting her.
If parents insist on emailing her afterward, she suggests a meeting between her and the child to discuss their work. She even teaches children how to approach teachers and ask for a meeting.
When she worked in elementary school, she was more receptive to parent meetings. But as children approach middle school, “it’s important to say these are their grades now and have them take ownership,” she said, adding, “I welcome involved parents, but I also feel part of our job is to teach kids how to talk to adults in a reasonable manner and take their education into their own hands.”
Don’t head to the principal or guidance counselor immediately.
Approach teachers first if there’s an issue, since they’re most familiar with your child and they’re generally responsive, Parker says.
She recalled the teacher saying, “I bet I am intimidating. I’ll try to pay attention to that issue.” The issue was resolved.
Brooks recalls a time when her son told her he was worried about asking for help in class; he said his teacher was intimidating. She had never met this teacher before, and after she expressed the concerns to him in an email, he phoned her and mentioned that he was a big, heavy man. She recalled him saying, “I bet I am intimidating. I’ll try to pay attention to that issue.” The issue was resolved.
If you can’t resolve the issue with the teacher, Tomlin says it’s okay to go over his or her head. He suggests language such as: “I talked with the teacher but it hasn’t been handled, and I need your support on the issue.”
Brooks said her son, a high achiever, once complained his high school teacher was treating him poorly. A friend verified this, telling her son, “She really hates your guts.” She contacted the teacher, letting her know her son was concerned about her perception. The teacher responded he was a wonderful student, yet the problem persisted.
So she alerted the guidance counselor. The teacher was fired the following year; Brooks said she had treated other students badly as well. “If your boss turns out not to be so great, you don’t want to step over him, but sometimes you have to if your child is not thriving.”
As a general rule, parents should be most involved the younger the child is, beginning to backing off as the child reaches upper elementary school.
Laurie Barron, superintendent of the Evergreen School District in Kalispell, Montana, recalls a time when she was principal and an emotional parent approached her, levying personal attacks against their child’s teacher. While she feels parents should approach teachers first, in this instance she was able to diffuse the situation, then called in the teacher and refereed the dispute.
She says principals also should be alerted if there is an extreme safety issue, like bullying.
As a general rule, parents should be most involved the younger the child is, beginning to backing off as the child reaches upper elementary school, Kreger says. She says when a child is in elementary school, volunteering in the classroom provides an opportunity to see your child in action.
By the time your child hits middle school, in-class volunteer options are more limited. Even during elementary school years, parents should coax children to be responsible for bringing in assigned work.
“Let your kids do a little bit of figuring out and struggling,” Kreger says. “A helicopter parent will try to organize all things for the child. In the upper elementary grades, this is a disservice.” She also says not to contact the teacher every time your child has a disagreement with another child, unless there is an apparent danger. “Social dynamics often shake out in the end, if not five minutes later,” Kreger says.
With new middle school students, there’s a mixture of academic progress and social/emotional and behavioral progress, says Tomlin. Parents should seek help from teachers if they quickly see a child struggling with organization or study skills before it translates to poor grades.
Similarly, if children express difficulty with bullying or making friends, they should approach teachers or a school counselor “before it becomes a full-blown thing.” Many times, Tomlin sees parents who ask their kids to tough it out at this age. But as a school administrator and teacher, he says that tends to lead to a child bottling up emotions and the problem “blossoms like a Venus fly trap.”
Tomlin says there’s a misconception that middle school students are ready to be independent; he argues that they need help in learning how to get there, including writing down assignments in a planner. Parents should continue to stay involved, and ask about volunteer opportunities. But he stresses that every child is different at this stage; some parents need to be more active in their children’s lives depending on their needs, and whether they have disabilities.
Satchell agrees. “I won’t be a helicopter parent, but I will be involved until my son is in college. They may look grown up, but they’re still kids.”
By high school, parents should back off as much as possible. Barron says at this age, parents who try to micromanage their child’s work become a frustration for teachers and do a disservice to kids.
Parker’s encounters with some parents made her decide to stop teaching honors English and instead focus on more disadvantaged kids. Though she had some difficult experiences with hovering parents, she said she would take that any day over an uninvolved parent.
Edelson agrees that the more frustrating experiences are when a student is struggling and a parent is nowhere to be found. Involved parents care about “their kid’s lives and education. That’s a process that better equips their kids for their future. It’s a win win.”