A parent’s first impression of their child’s teacher is make-it-or-break-it. If you start off on the wrong foot, there is no redeeming yourself – if you somehow manage that impossible feat, it will be too late in the school year to make a difference.
Interestingly, while it’s rarely possible to overcome an early snafu in the parent-teacher relationship in the eyes of the parent, it is entirely possible to fall out of a parent’s good graces at any point during the school year. And once that happens, the odds of getting back in the black are slim to none.
No pressure or anything, but your first impression will set the tone of your relationship with every child’s parents or guardians for the entire year.
You already know this. The question is: What can you possibly do to win over the parents who are already on the defensive, the parents with the all-teachers-are-evil mindset who are impossible to please? The reality is, some of these parents are people you wouldn’t ordinarily care to interact with, let alone win over. But you’re facing a whole year in the classroom with their children, and these parents are the ones who can make the next nine months of your life a living hell.
In the healthcare world, some providers and organizations have terms for these parents (the healthcare equivalent being the caregiver or family of a patient), such as “white knights.” Some have good intentions and just want to ensure their children/loved ones are receiving the best possible education/care, while others are seemingly impossible to please and have an uncanny ability to find a problem with every single thing that you do.
You probably won’t please everyone, but you can set the stage for the most positive parent-teacher relationship possible. These five strategies can help you cultivate trust and encourage parent-teacher collaboration. Elementary teachers will be able to utilize these tactics for all students. If you’re a secondary education teacher, you can easily adapt and scale these tactics to suit your larger number of students, or utilize them where necessary with especially challenging relationships.
1. Keep a Student Strengths file.
A Student Strengths file is a record of positive tidbits of information about your students. It can be a simple notebook, or you can use a fancy digital tool for documentation. Essentially, it’s like a positive feedback jar for each of your students that you can use throughout the year.
Try to document bits of information about each student’s learning style, strengths you discover in class, or personality characteristics that make each student special. When communicating with parents, either at the beginning of the year or during one of those inevitable times when you have to break bad news, reference your Student Strengths file. When you’re able to share something positive along with the bad, it softens the blow.
If your difficult-parent radar is going off at the beginning of the year, reach out to these parents with something positive about their children or share why you’re excited to have their child in your class this year.
“Sarah is such an incredible storyteller. Her classmates were riveted when she read her short story aloud. I always enjoy her presentations.”
2. Let parents know that you’re in this together.
The start of a new school year is filled with anxiety for both students and teachers. Letting parents know that this year is as new for you as it is for your students can help to build rapport.
You’ve taught this material before, but you’re teaching to a whole new set of students with different strengths and weaknesses, so you’re adjusting your teaching style to meet their needs as much as they’re adjusting to your teaching style. When you help parents understand that you’re all embarking on a new journey together, you position yourself as a partner rather than an opponent.
“I’m so excited to be sharing this journey with you and your child this year. I can’t wait to learn more about your child through the projects we’ll be doing in class this month.”
3. Send out a parent survey.
At the start of a new school year, parents can be your most vital source of information – if you can get them to share. A simple parent survey inviting parents to share their children’s strengths and weaknesses, rate their children’s current skill level, and share any concerns about their children’s readiness for the subject matter or potential to succeed in your class is a relatively easy way to arm yourself with important information about each of your students – and their parents.
Think about the information you can glean about a parent based on the information they offer on such a survey. Should issues arise, you can target your approach to both student and parent based on this background knowledge.
“Learning more about your child’s individual strengths and weaknesses will help me target my instructional approach to help her succeed this year.”
4. Create a communication plan.
This can be done in conjunction with the parent survey, but even if you don’t use a beginning-of-the-year survey, you should establish a communication plan with parents. Parents come from all walks of life and have varied working schedules. Some prefer phone calls; others avoid the phone like the plague and prefer email or hand-written notes.
Ask parents how and when they prefer to be contacted, and provide them with the same information about you. Give them a policy-approved phone number (yours, the school office, etc., based on your district’s policies), your email address, and the best days and hours to reach you.
Most importantly, stress that you want to hear from them if your child is struggling with your class so that together, you can be proactive about ensuring his success. Finally, describe the different forms of communication parents will receive throughout the year from you. Do you send progress reports for every student each grading period? Will you send a note before making a phone call? Setting expectations upfront sets the stage for effective communication.
“Everyone has busy schedules, so by sharing your preferred method of communication and the best times to reach you, I can be sure to get in touch in the way that’s most convenient for you.”
5. Be a helpful resource.
Put together an information packet for parents at the start of the school year that outlines key concepts your students will focus on and learn throughout the year. Not only does this set expectations on what proficiencies students will be expected to develop, but it gives parents a deeper view into the subject matter for the year. This presents an opportunity for discussion if a parent feels her child isn’t ready for the content.
Additionally, this information packet can include resources for parents, links to websites, book titles, and any other resources or activities that can be used outside of class to reinforce learning. Not every parent will use it (most, in fact, won’t), but those who want to take a more active role in their child’s education can do so. Finally, what goes on in class becomes slightly less of a mystery, making parents feel a little less like outsiders.
“These resources and activities are helpful for reinforcing the concepts we’ll be learning in class this year. Please get in touch with me if your child seems to be struggling with any concepts we’re learning in class throughout the year, and we’ll work together to create a targeted set of reinforcing activities and materials to help her succeed.”
You won’t win over every parent, but you can set the stage for open lines of communication and a collaborative parent-teacher partnership. By setting expectations and demonstrating that you have an interest in their child’s success, you’ll increase your odds of setting a positive tone for the upcoming school year.