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September 11, 2014

Engaging Parents is Tricky Business, But Can Work Magic

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We’ve all had “that parent” in our teaching careers. Whether it be an email every single day to make sure Tommy handed in his homework, or accessing the parent portal to check Suzy’s average 80 times in the first few weeks of school, helicopter parents (those who hover and generate noise) make even the most veteran teachers cringe. However, these parents are the exception, not the rule. Parents aren’t sure how to communicate with teachers, aren’t sure what to do to help their child, and most importantly, don’t have a good idea what is happening in our classrooms. Until my son entered kindergarten, I didn’t truly believe parents who said their children wouldn’t tell them about school. I have a chatty daughter who gave me a play-by-play of the day’s events, so when Oliver’s answer to “How was your day?” was ALWAYS “Best day ever!” I knew he was telling me what I wanted to hear so he could drop the backpack and head to the Legos. My meaningless conversation with Oliver only underscores the necessity of teachers to take the lead with parent relationships.

I’m what you might call the teacher version of an over-sharer. I warn parents that if you sign up for my email loop, you may have to block me. I send my students and their parents the handouts, PowerPoints, links, and review guides that I use in class each week. If I notice that your child is having a bad day, I tell my parents through a quick email. I’ll send them the video of their child’s presentation. You may be thinking that my communication is overkill. And for some, it might be. However, I have experienced time and time again the relief parents feel when my classroom becomes transparent, assignments clear, and expectations and feedback delivered often.

One of my teaching partners said to me, “When you reach out like that, you’re bound to create problems for yourself.” On the surface, this might appear to be the case. But, when parents become engaged in their child’s education, not desperately seeking information, amazing things can happen. Parents who are aware are able to support their children. Parents who are in the dark look to the teacher to “teach” them what their child is missing. When there is a partnership between home and school, fostered by communication and authentic relationships, students are successful.

The tricky part in creating these relationships is that many teachers and parents are unsure what their relationship should be. Is it too pushy to ask about what is going on at home? Is it too pushy to ask about what is going on at school? You can see the obvious dilemma. Establishing the relationship is crucial, but there is an awkward element, just like when you go out with a new friend for the first time and don’t know where she sits in the movies, or what types of food she eats, interacting in that over-polite way. Everyone is different, every parent coming to their child’s educational experience with their own memories, trials, and triumphs. The balance must be navigated by both teacher and parent, but the teacher should open the door, both literally and figuratively.

Share My Lesson has great resources for teachers who are just beginning to explore the possibilities of what happens when parents are engaged, as well as those more experienced and looking to take the relationship to the next level by making parents fellow facilitators. A great place to start is with NBC News Parent Toolkit Webinar. It is an interactive presentation that provides the foundations for parent engagement. Sometimes the difficulty with engaging parents in a child’s education is because of real or perceived differences, particularly culturally. Many educators are unsure of how to reach out to parents who are not fluent in English. Colorin Colarado’s Educator Toolkit: Reaching Out to Parents of ELLs is written in both English and Spanish, including a website with loads of resources for parents and teachers. This content partner is largely supported by the AFT, and provides some scaffolding to help the teacher/parent collaboration be effective, particularly where language and culture could be a barrier.

Have you ever noticed that there is a disproportionate number of “helicopter parents” who have high achieving students? For a long time, I believed that these parents must be putting tremendous pressure on their children because they sure were putting it on me. Then, my own kids came along. They are both high achievers, both with their share of quirks. When I felt like I needed to ask their teachers a question, or pursue something for them, suddenly I wondered, “Am I that parent?” Luckily, my children’s teachers have always been willing to differentiate and collaborate with me to make the school experience most worthwhile. However, if I feel uncomfortable at times, and I am a professional educator, imagine the trepidation that parents could experience.

One of the best resources for parents—which you can provide for the “overachievers”—is 48 Essential Links for the Parents of the Gifted Child. It is a comprehensive list of websites that parents can use to deepen a gifted child’s educational training. When parents and teachers work together with resources like these, the collaboration will pay huge dividends for everyone. I can’t promise the “helicopter parents” will fly away, but I can promise that the engagement of your other parents will magically drown out the noise with engaged communication.

Amber Chandler

Amber Chandler is a National Board Certified middle school ELA teacher in Hamburg, New York with a Master’s Degree in Literature, as well as a School Building Leader certification.

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