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The Secrets of a Good Parent – Teacher Communication – A Brief Handbook For Teachers
The difficulties faced by teachers
Besides the obvious challenges of classroom management, curriculum development, and ever-growing piles of paperwork, teachers often have to face the difficulties of working with a parent who doesn’t want to work with them.
Although many parents are helpful, cooperative and responsive, there are some who can be extremely challenging, especially when your contact with them comes at the end of the day and you are both already tired. These parents may yell, blame, criticize, be belligerent, entitled, defensive or, conversely, fail to maintain contact altogether. Understandably, many teachers are left confused, hurt and angry by this behavior. Some take it personally and wonder what they have done. Others may reject it and thus neglect to pursue this relationship at all, which in the long run does not help anyone at all.
Why do parents react the way they do?
This may not make the behavior more pleasant, but it can help teachers engage with these parents by understanding that parents sometimes come into the classroom with ideas that predispose them to be defensive or difficult. They may expect to have a negative experience for reasons that have nothing to do with you.
Perhaps their childhoods were harsh, or academics were particularly grueling or punishing for them. Maybe as adults this is their chance to finally rebel and draw the line in the sand, even when it no longer needs to be drawn. Many adults cover up their own insecurities by acting angry or unresponsive. If a parent has had a negative experience with school or feels ashamed of their own level of education, this may show in an attitude with their child’s teachers.
People most often do not consciously choose aggressive or dysfunctional behavior. They learn them and usually come from an environment where the behavior was necessary, adaptive, and helped them survive in some way. This is not an excuse for that, just an explanation. And when we understand what drives people, we can better help them.
Common traps and pitfalls
Fighting fire with fire:
When we respond to anger and frustration with more of the same, we perpetuate and magnify the problem. If a parent needs to vent their suspicions, criticism, and confusion, let them. Unless you know you made a mistake and are covering it up, it’s definitely not personal. A parent who is furious about their child’s difficulties in class was almost certainly furious before entering your classroom. A parent who expresses helplessness and makes you feel responsible has almost certainly done this elsewhere. Look at the person and the problem before you with indifferent compassion. If you’ve actually made an honest mistake or there are things you don’t know or understand about your student, it’s your job to say so and let the parent know how you’re working on it. Call the parent union. He or she knows the child better than most. Let the parent know what an important and valuable resource he or she is.
At a Glance:
When you only see what’s in front of you and forget where you want to go professionally with your students, you start lecturing instead of listening, acting before evaluating, and getting to the point instead of taking the time to develop a relationship. Get to know the parent sitting in front of you. It is true that your time is limited. But if more than one visit is needed or you need to enlist the help of your school social worker to make home visits more convenient for the parents, do so. Keep in mind that some people are very comfortable with home visits and others are not. Unless there is a strong reason for a more emphatic position, don’t force it. Offer it as a service, not an investigative tool.
No teacher knowingly sets out to talk to a parent. But when you’re rushed, tired, overworked, or used to operating in “teacher mode” all day, this can easily happen if you’re not vigilant. No one, including teachers, wants to be taught or judged.
Refereeing on the Knee:
Everyone but everyone makes assumptions. It is how people engage socially in a complex, rapidly evolving culture. We make decisions based on how someone dresses, walks, talks or smells. Some of these assumptions may turn out to be right, some wrong. We judge people based on limited information, even though we know it’s not that accurate and much less useful in many cases. It could be a rumor, a person’s performance, or a difference in social status or culture.
We must be very aware of this tendency within ourselves and be ready to receive new information that may change the course of the parent-teacher meeting and, in turn, the course of the child’s academic career.
Helpful tips to avoid common mistakes
1. Establish your position early – let the parent know you are a contributor. Send a card, chat, call. Express your excitement about working with the child. Make it clear that although you are the educational expert, the parent is the expert on their child and that you welcome, even need, their input.
2. Switch gears – Take a deep breath and take a break from the rest of the school day. Working with a parent is a peer process. Do a little self-examination of your inner attitude and tone: Had a rough day? Are you annoyed about something at home? About something to do with the parent? Can you create a sense of calm and hospitality? Sometimes a trusted colleague can be very helpful in providing a reality check.
3. Dealing with Defensiveness – If a parent comes in angry and you respond with anger, you can be sure it will escalate. Even if you feel attacked, you don’t have to fight back. Accept that it’s not you causing the reaction, it’s about “school,” parenting frustrations, anxiety, past experiences. If the parent is really mad at YOU, make eye contact, listen to them until they’re done, and try to understand what’s motivating them and if there’s actually something you can fix.
4. Listen and Empathize – Detaching makes it easier to listen calmly and emphatically. When we do, it’s amazing how people suddenly soften and calm down. Careful listening is also the smartest and easiest way to discover the real problems and not be misled by what is presented.
5. Keep an open mind – set aside any assumptions. The truth is, for the most part, we really don’t know the whole story. We get parts from a variety of sources, many of which also get it second hand or third hand. Preconceived notions, like prejudices, can get in the way of a productive relationship.
6. Assume the best – at least until proven otherwise. Clearly, if you must respond to a dangerous or seriously negative situation, it is your legal and moral responsibility to do so. Until then, however, accept that the parent wants what’s best for his or her child—even if they themselves aren’t sure what that is—and actively seek a way to connect, educate, and collaborate.
7. Make time and make time for you – this means on both professional and personal fronts. Give yourself enough time to comfortably meet with a parent, if at all possible. And give yourself the time you need to relax with your peers, spouse or alone. If you are terribly stressed, take a break. Give to yourself what you give to everyone else.
° S. Judith Acosta, 2009. All rights reserved.
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