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The Parent – Teacher Relationship

The parent-teacher relationship is a lot like an arranged marriage.  Neither side gets a lot of say in the match.  Both parties, however, share great responsibility for a child, which can lead to a deeply rewarding partnership or the kind of conflict found in some joint-custody arrangements.

                                                            Sara Mosle, “The Parent-Teacher Trap”

Tingley-021 colorAs we finish the first semester of school, teachers and principals have already had the opportunity to meet some parents under less than ideal circumstances.  These meetings tend to cluster around academic or behavioral problems a child may be experiencing and can be difficult for all concerned.  In her essay in the New York Times, Sara Mosle offers a number of suggestions to parents to help them establish and maintain good working relationships with their child’s teachers.  Some of her ideas seem like simple common sense, but I know as both a parent and a school person that it’s easy for both sides to become defensive, critical, or even angry during a parent-teacher meeting.

One of Mosle’s suggestions to parents is to let the child try to resolve a classroom problem herself before the parent steps in.  Speaking up can be scary, but parents can help prepare the child by practicing what to say to the teacher and how to say it.  If the child is unsuccessful, the parent can then step in and talk to the teacher.  I would add that if the parent does have to step in, the next time the child talks to the teacher, he may have more success.  Teachers who honestly encourage students to resolve conflicts and calmly accept students’ concerns help students become more independent and self-sufficient.

Mosle suggests that parents need to be careful about communicating to their child’s teacher only via email or text.  While the asynchronous nature of this kind of communication is convenient to both parents and teachers, it’s easy for both sides to fire off a text or email when they are annoyed or angry.   In addition, electronic words can convey a negative emotion not necessarily felt by the sender.  Mosle reminds parents not to copy in the principal or anyone else on email unless they really want to annoy the teacher.

In my book, How to Handle Difficult Parents, I work the other side of the equation – teachers and their ways of communicating with parents.  Regarding emails, I would add that parents can be tempted to email or text every day over small things because it’s so easy.  Teachers should not feel obligated to respond to serial emailers on a daily basis; instead they can wait a few days and handle all concerns in one brief response.

Parent-teacher-conferenceMosle brings up the concern parents often express that if they complain about a teacher, the teacher will retaliate by targeting their child.  I almost never see this situation develop in the classroom.  What is more likely is that the teacher will become more circumspect and less spontaneous when working with the child so as not to draw the parents’ attention again.   This distance between the teacher and the student makes it difficult to establish a strong learning connection.

Finally, Mosle, a sixth grade teacher, reminds her colleagues to build on a student’s strengths when talking to his or her parents.  Here I heartily concur.  No parent wants to hear a lengthy complaint about everything the child can’t or won’t do.  In fact, it’s a good practice to insist that teachers begin parent conferences with some positive feedback about the child.  One of the reasons I like to have older children at conferences is that they can hear about the good things they’ve been doing as well as participate in plans for improvement.

Perhaps the parent-teacher relationship is like an arranged marriage – at least the analogy suggests an equal partnership.  The bottom line is that kids have the greatest chance of success when the home and school work together.  A partnership is definitely better than joint custody.

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in Practical Leadership are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.