10 Tips for Tough Conversations between Home & School

I was devastated. It was my first email from a parent expressing unhappiness, and I struggled to take it in stride. After all, I was devoting all my intellectual, emotional, and even physical capacity toward my students’ success and well-being. Yet the parent reported that her daughter had been spending longer and longer evenings frustrated over homework, culminating in one tearful 2½-hour evening of math.

What I hadn’t yet recognized was just how difficult it can be for parents to send such emails to begin with. Despite the fact that they entrust their children to our care for 7+ hours a day, parents often face debilitating intimidation to reach out.

So this is a post for those parents, who worry that despite their best efforts to impart concepts of self-worth and love, their children go unseen at school. Who fret that the learning is losing its joy and wonder amidst all the pressure. Who ache when their children seem to struggle for belonging in vain.  

But this is also a post for teachers like me, who worry that despite their best efforts to impart concepts of self-worth and love, they have overlooked a student’s needs. Who fret that the learning is losing its joy and wonder amidst all the pressure. Who ache when their students seem to struggle for belonging in vain.

This is a post for us all. Because no matter how fleeting, these moments are real–and raw, and messy, and dark. And no one, not parents, not teachers, and especially not our students, should have to face them alone.

#1

Parents: Just click send. Have courage to speak. You can spend the rest of the year worrying and hoping for things to improve, or you can open the channels now for clarity and support.

Teachers: Recognize and validate that courage. Look at every email from parents as an opportunity to build trust and understanding.

#2

Parents: Don’t underestimate your voice. Yes, teachers and administrators are professionals, but they are also human beings. And most are striving for positive change and growth every day. You have an opportunity to be part of that change if you only let your voice be heard.

Teachers: If you make sure you daily revisit your priority to find better ways to reach your students, the rest will follow, including recognizing the value of parent voices in that pursuit.

#3

Parents: Recognize that criticism doesn’t equal disrespect. Even while facing serious concerns for their children, I’ve heard parents express, “Well, they’re the professionals, right? So I should trust what they’re doing.” Again, even the most phenomenal teachers and administrators can and do make mistakes. You can absolutely convey concerns without being disrespectful.

Teachers: As hard as it can be, take it in stride. Even if some parents seem undiplomatic in their communication, remember that you are united in the common goal of promoting their child’s welfare.

#4

Parents: Remember that they “cannot solve problems that [they] don’t know exist.” (George Couros) Depending on the issue, it may be better for parents to encourage their older children have these conversations with teachers themselves, but especially for your younger children, if you don’t communicate the problem, who will?

Teachers: Except for the rare occasions of absolutely wild and unfounded accusations (we’re talking extremes here that are an entirely different blog post), each of these emails are an opportunity for you to reflect. Remember to seek support from your administrators, particularly when problems stem from a more complex source.  

#5

Parents: Acknowledge the big picture. To minimize an accusatory tone, include what is going well, and, if applicable, acknowledge possible extenuating circumstances you’ve observed that may be contributing to the problem. However, be sure to remain clear on what you have observed to be an issue.

Teachers: Try to be proactive in communicating with parents to begin with, giving them abundant opportunities for interaction, as well as a window into what’s really happening in their child’s classroom. Problems sometimes stem from differing or even misguided notions of pedagogy, but if you give parents a chance to thoroughly see the why behind what you do, you are more likely to bridge those gaps.

#6

Parents: Be specific. Give details, examples, and anecdotes of what you are observing. It’s easier for teachers and administrators to address what’s going on if you can give them a clear picture. If possible, try to volunteer in the classroom at least once before sending the email–chances are, either you’ll find it unnecessary after all, or else you may find additional details you may want to include in your communication.

Teachers: Remember that there’s a difference between just saying you welcome volunteers and facilitating an easy way for parents to volunteer. Create a Google Spreadsheet outlining what you could use help with and with slots to volunteer (see an example I designed for our entire 5th grade team here).

#7

Parents: Express your genuine willingness to help the situation. In the words of Tina Fey, “Whatever the problem, be part of the solution. Don’t just sit around raising questions and pointing out obstacles.” Offer to meet for an in-person discussion, or to come in and volunteer. To further make it clear that you would like to be part of the solution, you may also find it helpful to use phrases such as, “I have a question I was hoping you could help me solve,” or “I was wondering what I can do to help address an issue I’ve noticed.”

Teachers: Take advantage of any offer parents make to contribute to the solution. Warmly acknowledge that offer, and be flexible in arranging meeting times.

#8

Parents: Don’t just accept the status quo. “It’s always been that way” should not command blanket approval. It’s not just ok to ask for the supporting research–it’s essential if we hope to move beyond outdated practices within our educational system.

Teachers: Make sure that you refuse to accept the status quo, too! The burden of asking why lies on everyone involved in education.

#9

Parents: Don’t assume. Remember that as you express your concern, do so as objectively as possible. Simply share what you have observed, and allow your teacher/administrator the opportunity to investigate and share the the cause.  

Teachers: Ditto. Resist the temptation to assign motive or labels to the parent.

#10

Parents: Recognize appropriate channels. It can be difficult to determine whether to direct your issue to the teacher or an administrator. Generally, if it is related to happenings within the classroom, it’s better to email the teacher; if it seems to be a more widespread or policy-based issue, it may be better suited for an administrator. When in doubt, email teachers first, because they can always pass it along to the administration if it is out of their hands–and you can always follow-up with the administration later if you are unable to reach a resolution with the teacher.

Teachers: Don’t assume that a parent is trying to go over your head if they email your principal first–they may simply be unsure how much power you have to address their concern.

Returning to my above-mentioned email, in the end, I was simply grateful. That parent’s email gave me the chance to reinforce what a priority my students’ well-being was to me. During our next class meeting, we revisited that priority, we listened to others’ experiences on homework, and we reminded everyone that sincere effort, balance of time, and best judgement are valued over simple completion of assignments. And all because one parent had the courage to share.

featured image: deathtothestockphoto

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Mary Wade

I taught 5th grade at a PYP International Baccalaureate school in Utah for 4 years, and am currently on extended parental leave until my kids start school. In between the roller-coaster adventures of motherhood, I enjoy educational blogging so I can stay in the loop and keep learning! Snapshot favorites: Student voice & choice. Twix bars. Global classrooms. Calvin & Hobbes. Outlandish sewing projects. Teachers learning from teachers. Modeling daring to students.

2 thoughts on “10 Tips for Tough Conversations between Home & School”

  1. Great post. You have given good advice for both parents and teachers. Respectful communication is often more than just the first step in solving a problem. It is often the solution. Thanks for sharing your suggestions.

    1. Thank you, and well-said! I think that kind of thinking goes for a LOT of other tender areas in education. For instance, too often, student choice/voice is viewed as a reward for collectively well-behaved classes (ie, they can handle more choices, so they get more choices). And that can be an excellent and logical strategy for individual students at times, but we need to more frequently view choice/voice as tools to improve behavior/empower learning to begin with.

      We also need to understand that failure to view these as proactive solutions can also lead to misplaced blame and poor accountability.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

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