From the February 2015 issue

Strengthening the Parent-Teacher Bond

Four keys to improve your communication with your kid's educator and boost your child's ability to learn.

Central Middle School teacher Roby Jarczewski remembers a time when the first – and sometimes only – communication parents heard from teachers about their child’s progress at school was the quarterly report card.

“When I was growing up, your parents received a report card from the teacher and that was it,” says Jarczewski, a teacher for the past 33 years with two children of her own, who works in the Plymouth-Canton Community Schools district.

Times have changed.

Today, teachers can have regular discussions with moms and dads – whether it’s through parent-teacher conferences, class emails, phone calls or notes home with the child. With more ways to connect with teachers, it’s important for parents to keep in mind how to effectively communicate and work with their child’s educators. In the end, parents and teachers share the same goal – for kids to feel successful and confident at school.

Here are four keys that can help parents when it comes to talking to teachers.

1. Consider a teacher’s POV

“We want parents to understand that education and the rearing of their child is a joint effort with teachers,” says Pamela DeNeen, a principal at Lindbergh Elementary School in Dearborn. What happens at home can influence students’ attitude and performance at school. So having a positive relationship between teachers and parents can influence children’s academic success.

In fact, parent-teacher communication is covered in future teachers’ college requirements, says Mark J. Larson, a clinical assistant professor and coordinator of the early childhood education program at Wayne State University – and a former teacher. “We have three specific courses that have to deal with teacher-parent partnerships,” he says. Teachers are training in child development at the same time they’re learning how to work with parents to collaborate on students’ success.

Teachers see parents as an integral part of educating students. They strive to make connections for students between what they’re learning at school and home life. “Teachers see parents as a curriculum resource,” says Larson. Educators use what’s happening at home and what’s important to kids to drive their interest in learning at school and to make connections. For example, if a child has a new baby brother or loves to play basketball, a teacher can pepper classroom assignments and discussions with those interests. So a child’s research assignment might focus on the history of basketball, or a writing sample might have to do with what a child did over the weekend.

“In making learning more meaningful to the child,” Larson explains, “he or she is also more motivated than when learning is more generalized.”

2. Do your homework

Attending school open houses and parent-teacher conferences in the fall can give parents a foundation for understanding what topics will be covered during the year – and classroom behavior expectations. But teachers also try to make info about what’s going on all year available to parents through a variety of online systems.

If you haven’t learned how to log in to your child’s grades online, take time to figure out the system. Contact the school with questions. These online tools give you a day-to-day snapshot of how your child is doing: You’ll see the assignments he’s turning in and his grades on them. Your child’s teacher may have a website, too, that includes links related to what your child is learning.

Reviewing these resources, along with carefully reading teacher emails and notes sent, help parents understand what topics a teacher is covering in class. For elementary school, this might involve one website; for middle and high school, you may need to visit multiple sites to become more familiar with all of your child’s teachers and subject areas.

Beyond the web, schools have other ways to watch a child’s development. “In our building, we’ve started collecting data notebooks to keep track of students’ progress,” DeNeen says. Each student works with teachers to record their academic and personal goals in a notebook, called “My Learning Plan.” Then, students develop ways to meet their goals.

Don’t know where to find these tools? Ask the teacher, call the school or check with your child. Knowing more about how students’ progress is monitored can inform discussions you may have with your child’s teacher.

3. Let teachers know

But what if you’re concerned something going on at home might affect your child at school? Or maybe your child seems upset about something at school, whether academic or social? Contact the teacher.

“I always think it’s important to address a concern as quickly as possible,” DeNeen says. “Little concerns can become big concerns if they sit and fester. It’s important for parents to talk to teachers right away. We have a variety of ways for parents to contact teachers, (like) sending in a note to school, leaving a message on a teacher’s voicemail or setting up an appointment to speak to them in person.”

For many teachers, a quick email is most convenient. “Sometimes I’ll have parents call me right after school thinking I’m free,” Jarczewski says, “but I’m in meetings. If I get an email I can see that on my phone right away versus checking my school phone voicemail.” Some teachers may have social media channels where you can reach out, too, like Twitter and Google Classroom.

The method is not nearly as important as both parent and teacher’s attitude. When approaching teachers, Larson suggests being as open as possible and letting the teacher know you want to work together. If your child’s coming home upset, Larson suggests starting a conversation with something like, “My child doesn’t seem very happy when he comes home from school and doesn’t tell me what’s wrong. I’m concerned. Do you have any insights into what might be going on?” On the flip side, be willing to be open when teachers approach them with similar questions.

“One of the things that causes parents and teachers to have communication that falters is either when teachers don’t respond right away or don’t respond in a helpful way, or if the parents come in not with an inquiry but an accusation,” says Jarczewski.

She recommends parents email a teacher and then, if the teacher doesn’t respond in a couple days, send a follow up email – perhaps the email ended up in the teacher’s spam folder or a teacher was attending conferences. If you still don’t get a response, contact the counselor. If that doesn’t help resolve your concerns, the next step is the principal.

“If you still feel like you’re not getting the answers you need, call the school district’s central office and ask for someone who’s in charge of teaching and learning, and they should be able to help you,” Jarczewski says. “You just don’t want to jump to that step.”

4. Show kids you care

Children often want their parents to have a better idea about what’s going on in school. The Michigan Department of Education points to research indicating, “Most students at all levels – elementary, middle and high school – want their families to be more knowledgeable partners about schooling and are willing to take active roles in assisting between home and school.”

That can be as simple as showing greater interest in what your child is studying.

Sit down with your child and go through her assignments with her. Let her talk about what she’s learning, her favorite subjects and places where she might be struggling. Expressing interest also reinforces the idea that school and home life are linked. “We want children to love coming to school,” DeNeen says. “And part of that is for them to understand that we all have a part in their achievement – students, teachers and parents.”

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