I spend a lot of intentional time building relationships with my students’ parents, and I still get some flack. Angry messages from parents send a white heat through my body … what about you? It’s difficult to not take things personally in education. Communication has many moving parts and it’s easy to misstep, but you can minimize the damage. Here are 9 of the biggest parent communication mistakes I’ve made or witnessed. (Plus how to go about fixing them.)
Mistake #1: Using one-way communication tools
It’s critical to give everyone in a relationship a voice. Sending home a newsletter for your classroom is great because it provides parents with information on what’s happening in the classroom. But be sure to let parents know how they can get in touch with you if they have questions or want to share anything about the newsletter. Consider taking photos of weekly happenings and adding them to the newsletter. Just remember every parent is looking for their little one in the photo, so keep a checklist of who you feature each week or month and cycle through everyone.
Are your students older? Consider setting up an app for two-way communication. Here are the recommendations from common sense education: Best Messaging Apps and Websites for Students, Teachers, and Parents.
Mistake #2: Communicating too infrequently
Teaching requires a massive balancing act and it can feel like a relief to drop parent communication. But don’t do it. All too often, we only communicate when something has gone wrong and then parents wonder if there was any way it could have been mitigated earlier. When teachers communicate with parents throughout the year, it becomes normal and not reactionary. Set up a reminder system to touch base with 2-3 students’ parents per week. Send a quick email telling them something positive you noticed about their child. Nothing beats feeling like your kid is seen and enjoyed. An added bonus is that when the student hears from their parent about the communication, they’ll feel a happy glow.
Mistake #3: Failing to document all communications
Lawyers write down what they did with their time in 15-minute increments. While I’m not recommending you take this approach, I am saying it’s easy to forget how things go down and how often incidents happen. Grab a notebook or open a document on your desktop and give yourself 5-10 minutes a day to write down anything out of the ordinary that occurred. Save every single email you send or receive between you and a parent. If you call a parent, write down the date, time, and what was said. If it wasn’t just a positive check in, follow up with an email that states what you think was said. I hope you never need this kind of backup, but it’s there if you do.
Mistake #4: Taking a passive approach to problems
Passive communication means avoiding difficult conversations and issues until you are forced to confront them. Though this feels safer for some people, it creates a host of other internal and external issues. You feel worried and guilty about your avoidance. Other people begin to talk about how you won’t just deal with the issues in your classroom. It makes more sense to take charge of what you can control. Seek support from other teachers and your principal when an unfamiliar situation occurs. Include self-care in your plan by finding an outlet for your emotions. Try to nip things in the bud right when they begin by addressing the student about an issue or sending home a note the day something happens.
Mistake #5: Assuming a parent can read (or speak English)
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a teacher tell a story about a time they didn’t realize a parent couldn’t read. Don’t assume anything about your students’ families. Make sure every parent is given important information in different ways: on paper, by email, and by phone if they haven’t replied in a timely manner. Step away from assessing parents and try always to remember that everyone loves and cares for their children in the best way they know how. Parents will feel appreciated when they are able to understand what they need to do to help their child in school.
Mistake #6: Fighting every battle
This is a good one for life in general, am I right? Give yourself 24 hours to calm down and think about any battle you are about to engage in. I often feel ashamed when I read an angry email from a parent. I pride myself on being the best teacher I can possibly be. I want to be loved. Doesn’t everyone? My shame can result in anger that takes flight at the speed of light. I work hard to breathe out the shame and wait for 24 hours to think of a way to address the issue in a calm, rational way. And sometimes, I realize, that some battles are really just glitches that don’t need a fight … or a sword.
Mistake #7: Refusing to admit when you’re wrong
Despite your best intentions and efforts, it is inevitable: At some point in your life, you will be wrong. Mistakes can be hard to handle, so sometimes we refuse to admit them. Instead, we seek out evidence to prove what we already believe. The student you gave a poor grade to because you knew she didn’t have to work too hard. The parent you forgot to send the conference invite to who missed the meeting. They both deserve apologies.
The emotion we experience when we hold two opposing thoughts, beliefs, opinions or attitudes, is called cognitive dissonance. For example, you might believe you are an experienced and organized teacher, so when you grade emotionally or forget to send an email, you experience dissonance. To manage this bad feeling, you deny your mistake. Knowing what this is and that everyone has it will help you do the right thing which, by the way, will help others see you as strong and brave.
Mistake #8: Telling parents what to do
Parents know their kids well. They want them to succeed, but they also see their challenges. When we tell parents we know more about their kids than they do, we are also saying we don’t value their experience and knowledge. Instead, start conversations off by asking what they think first. I’ll bet you find their thinking aligns with yours. By working together as a team you can accomplish a heck of a lot more. Plus students who know their teachers and parents communicate think twice about misbehavior.
Mistake #9: Taking parent issues personally
When it comes to doing anything in your job (and in your life), you need to work hard not to take anything personally. This follows the second agreement of Don Miguel Ruiz’s classic, The Four Agreements. If you think you and your students bring baggage to school, you won’t believe how much their parents bring. It’s all about how they were treated in school and how much they want their children to learn and be respected. Instead of wondering what you did to stir this particular pot, consider thinking about how to diffuse the situation so everyone can think more clearly. The best way to do that is to put it out there: What can we do together to make sure your child succeeds?
Parenting is a tough business, so let’s try to help ease the way. The more parents see that teachers are human and care about their child, the more relaxed they will be. And a relaxed parent is more open to hearing about challenges.
Do you have any tips and tricks about parent communication that work for you? Are there any parent communication mistakes you’ve made and then rectified? Please share your strategies on the WeAreTeachers Helpline on Facebook.