How to Improve Parent-Teacher Communication: Everything You Need to Know
Sooner or later, it’s bound to happen.
That email. The note handed to you first thing in the morning. An unexpected phone call - or meeting. Keeping parents informed about their children’s progress and behavior is a given part of the job, but addressing the hard moments when things aren’t going well has a steep learning curve.
How can you improve parent teacher communication? Read on or listen to the podcast episode below.
Communicating to parents or caregivers as a teacher is as certain as the sky is blue. The problem often lies with how to respond when things go wrong. Or...when the person on the other end of the screen, paper, or phone line is angry with you.
Or...when you need to be professional, but the same person asking you for help is bashing you or the teaching profession in general on Facebook.
Let's acknowledge some things first. We are all under the stress of constant change and disruption to our normal - in addition to the expected snags of misbehavior, missing work, concerns that come from being the teacher to kids. Our students having to learn away from school has disrupted the home environment - that’s a fact; it’s changed the flow of routine and revealed some great inequalities in education. And many families were not and may not still be equipped to have their child learning optimally from home 24-7.
NO ONE said this situation brought on by the pandemic and remote learning was ideal - but many of the changes that have caused inconvenience to families have not been done to harm but as a means of survival. Learn optimally or live optimally - that is the question, and I know it has lead to heated debate and callousness on the value of someone’s life, even if they are deemed “essential.” It’s been demoralizing to have to defend the stance that staying alive shouldn’t come second fiddle to a safe teaching and learning environment - and many of those accusations from the community may very well be coming from parents.
I understand the intensity of the situation - and that it hasn’t made communication any easier. You’ve have to adapt the way you’ve had to relay information to families this year - whether it’s by email, tutorials, or phone calls from your personal device (which I am vehemently against because of my boundaries). More than ever before, your personal time has been consumed by communicating to parents about how students are doing and what they need to do in order to be successful in this learning environment.
No matter your intentions or how thorough you are, someone is bound to get upset or confused about something you’ve said/not said, done/not done. And the stress of this entire situation often comes roaring through in a negative, hurtful diatribe that you get to intercept. As a teacher, you’re on the receiving end of a parent’s anger more times than you want to admit. The stress and overwhelm from both sides this year just worsens the distress on the parents’ end and leaves you as the teacher more vulnerable. I get it. You’re doing everything you can and probably way more than you should be doing at this point.
That sick feeling you get when you see one more email, one more note, or hear that voice once again really wears your heart and soul out and can deflate any ounce of joy teaching gives you. All it takes is one more hurt than you can handle to make you feel like it's not worth it. I’ve been there, even as an art teacher. We’re going to dive into parent-teacher communication and how you can do this in a way that preserves your peace of mind while still being effective. There are no catchy acronyms this time around, just me being practical and brass tacks about what I’ve come to find helpful over the past 18 years.
As teachers, we know how to communicate - probably better than many other professions! We do it all day long in many different formats. So I’m on your side, remember that as I get going here. But there are some hard truths we need to look at when it comes to communicating with parents so that we can have boundaries and our sanity in tact at the end of the year.
Here’s the most pivotal truth about parent teacher communication. Too often, you’re giving away your power. Your peace of mind - whether it’s correcting student behavior or addressing missing assignments - depends on your response. Your reaction.
The problem is our responses are steeped in emotion, because teaching is emotional. It’s a part of our identity, although it shouldn’t be your entire identity, mind you. A professor I had at WVU once said that the two driving forces behind a parent’s anger are fear and love. That child is the best they’ve got. So anything that goes wrong with or for said child triggers a tidal wave of emotion for them. With the dependence on virtual communication, the height and brazenness of the messages we receive has also gotten even more stinging, because people are much braver behind a screen. And who’s in the line of fire when that tidal wave lets loose? Oh it’s you, make no mistake.
I’ve had a student or two (actually more) in my time where, at the beginning of the year, I was warned repeatedly that this child’s parents were going to be extremely difficult to deal with. I prefer to give everyone a clean slate in a new year, new classroom dynamic, but these conversations happen. I’m not saying that some of those warnings didn’t turn out to be spot on, because clean slate or not, past is prologue. But even when I was up to my eyeballs in my own martyr mentality, I’d be waiting for things to go south with a parent, even when I had to address something with the child - and it never happened. At least to the extent I was told about. So I don’t have all the answers, but I must have some wisdom about this topic.
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I’m going to use a swimming pool analogy. So picture this - someone’s in distress in the deep end of a pool. Their arms are flailing, they may have been in the deep end before or a decent swimmer but for whatever reason they are in need of help. So what’s your reaction? We want to put an end to the distress, we don’t want to them to drown, so we jump in. We know how to swim, we can get them to safety and help them out.
But what happens when we get to them flailing around in the pool? They grab hold! You’re there to help and they’re in a panic. And suddenly, you are too! Because you’re in rescue mode now, and you’ve got to pull them and you through the water. In fact, they may very well make you feel like you’re the one drowning before it’s over with, because their weight and their distress is bearing down on you as you creep ever so slowly it seems to the edge of the pool. Because you’re a strong swimmer, you get everyone to safety - but at what cost? The person is saved, but you sure are worn out because of how much energy you put into that rescue attempt.
It’s the same thing with communicating to parents. Teaching’s part of your identity, and when they express displeasure, you go into fix it mode or ride the defense because it feels like an attack on you personally. Either you want to make things all better ASAP to put out the fire or you’re ready to make your case.
That’s jumping in the pool. A lot of that reaction comes from listening (or reading) to reply instead of listening (or reading) to understand. When you feel you are constantly under attack from the onslaught of changes and the undercurrent of nasty comments about the teaching profession in general on Facebook, that’s an understandable reaction, because you’re just sick of it and rightly so. But that jumping in the pool to save people and circumstances? Yeah, it’s effective and you’ll get a resolution, but it’s wearing you out. And this year especially you don’t have energy to spare!
What’s another way to save a drowning person instead of jumping in the deep end yourself? You’ve got to throw them a lifeline. A flotation device. A raft. A floaty, whatever you need for visualization. Something they can grab onto, and with some guidance, swim to safety. It solves the problem at hand and keeps you physically and emotionally in tact.
How does this apply to communicating with parents? Everything. Because things are going to happen, tempers are going to flare. Feelings are going to get hurt. That’s what happens when we interact with each other as adults, just like it happens to the kids. But how something makes you feel can’t dictate your response. That’s why instead of jumping in with your own emotions, you’ve got to throw out a lifeline. This preserves your authority in the classroom and your peace of mind. It also sets the precedent for how you’ll react and respond for future matters, which will often impact how they approach you in the future.
Okay, so how do you go about this? Well, first of all, which I have stated in several posts before, is your boundaries. I wouldn’t say it so much if it weren’t so very important. As teachers, we feel these kids are our kids, but even parents get a break from their own children when they are in school all day. You are not a 24-hour, on-call consultation service, distance learning or in-person. And if you are living that right now and it’s working for you, I feel confident in saying that it’s not sustainable and not fair to your family, even if your family when you go home in the afternoon is just your dog. You need boundaries for when, where and how you will communicate to parents.
Ask yourself these 3 questions:
1. When will I read or respond to messages?
This is big. There needs to be a start and end time to access to you, even during remote teaching. It also helps you not dwell on that email or that person if you aren’t looking at your inbox constantly.
Putting that distance between responding to emails also helps you think more clearly. It helps you respond rather that react if the what’s staring at you on the screen has you feeling all the things. You’ll have fewer regrets and won’t agree to something that turns out to cause more hassle for you and is not sustainable in the long run. If you read an email that a response to would take more time than you have to properly address, flag it for later.
When you respond can come right down the minute. When I had to make a phone call to a parent during my planning or lunch, I would always do it towards the end of the period. Maybe it would be with 10 minutes to spare or 15, 20, depending on the issue. The thing is I would give myself time to plan, or eat first, then make the call. This not only assured I could use my time well, but gave me a way to close the conversation. I could keep my message concise on my end because I knew I needed to go pick up my students from specials or lunch - and I also shared that with the parent, that I had x amount of time before I would need to go get my class.
You may think that is sneaky or in poor taste, but you know what? I never had an issue where it kept me from reaching a consensus with the parent, and it was never viewed as disrespectful on my end - in fact I think it cultivated some respect because it showed I wasn’t infinitely available, I had to get back to the rest of the class, like a reality check.
2. Where am I willing to engage in school communication - not just location, but on what devices?
I don’t have my school email on my phone. Sure, I could look it up on the web browser and log in if needed, but I don’t want constant updates about what’s coming in my inbox. That’s also my personal device that I paid for and I have the right to not use it for work. I check my email on my school devices only - and only during school hours and once on Sunday evenings.
Also, I know your current teaching circumstances may require you to contact parents via phone when you have no other option but to be away from school. I still would suggest using a Google phone number to protect your privacy. I'm no longer a homeroom teacher, but in 18 years I have always drawn the line at giving parents my personal phone number to protect myself.
3. How will I communicate information regarding missing assignments, behavior, or concerns (which form of communication would be best)?
This can also come down to you deciding what is the best method for you to use to communicate through. There are so many ways now to connect to families via apps or online - Class Dojo, Remind, Schoology to name a few. There are so many that it’s really become oversaturated and much more complicated than it needs to be.
I have come to prefer email over everything because it feels the most professional and it creates a paper trail that is easy to produce if needed. I have found things like Class Dojo great for sending mass messages out about field trips or updates on classroom events, but I don’t care to discuss major issues on them because the text message vibe of those apps seems to make it too easy for the other party to either over contact me or to be too causal towards me for my liking.
And along with that comes a combination of #1 and #3: communicating to parents on social media. Don’t. I have friended parents of students in my class that I developed a friendship or a strong rapport with AFTER their child or children were no longer in my classroom. That is very few people though. While their child was in my classroom, I did not. Going back and forth about a classroom issue on Facebook is the equivalent to going down into a snake pit. I’m not speaking from personal experience here, but I can say with certainty I am correct on this one. It's not something that will make your social media feed W.E.L.L. instead of S.I.C.K.
So, that’s the foundation for how you’re going to communicate. Now, how do you communicate in a way that addresses the issues?
Create a playlist. Not a musical one, but there are certain issues that we know come up during the year - especially with all the technology that’s been added, there are questions or troubleshooting to be had. There are certain rules or procedures in your classroom that you have to reiterate throughout the year as well. Write - type rather - those things out in a format that you would use in an email. I know, you probably told them in a newsletter or welcome back-to- school slide show at the beginning of the year but A LOT has happened since then. You may even consider putting an FAQ section on your classroom website or class page that you could refer parents to when needed, or at least reference in your response.
Why do this? It helps you when you need to address a concern that is easy to answer but still requires your time and energy to create a response. You may not be able to perfectly copy and paste every time, but it can give you the framework so you aren’t always stating from scratch. It also helps you stay diplomatic. This is how you do things in your classroom. These are the steps. These are the consequences. Instead of jumping in the emotional deep end, you can refer to your playlist and hand them a life preserver.
Back to that listening to respond instead of listening to understand. When you are taking it in - be it a phone call or an email - think of it as collecting information. You’re not on a mission to defend yourself or to make it all better. Take the heat out of it by viewing all parent communication as collecting information - so you can respond effectively.
There are three questions you need to address within all your communication and responses to parents in order to be effective:
1. What do you want them to know?
This goes back to the playlist. I find this works well, especially when an assignment or procedure is under fire. It keeps you from defaulting to responding emotionally to attacks about your teaching or classroom. Being able to start with “The purpose of this assignment is…” or “I have to do this because…” keeps things professional and matter-of-fact. Tie everything back to student learning - be it behavior, class work, attendance, especially if you are initiating the communication. This also disarms or disengages parents that are upset because it reframes the issue - kind of like defusing a bomb.
2. How do you want them to feel?
Sometimes we want to "stick it to ‘em" because we think they’re in the wrong, but do you really want to incite more anger? What does that solve? Remember, there is a human being on the other end of that screen or phone(even if they seem to have forgotten them same for you). Just like you, they are on their own path. And - something that I’ve come to terms with that I must account for - you have to consider their own maturity. As the tables have turned throughout my career and I am the older, wiser party in the communication, I have to account that someone that has not had the life experiences that I have had yet is going to handle themselves differently.
When you’re a teacher, you’re not just teaching the kids, you teach the adults as well, and your interaction with them is a chance to teach them how you want to be treated by modeling it.
3. What do you want them or their child to do?
Always end your response with putting it back on them, being clear about what the student needs to do to be successful and/or how the parent can assist in the matter. Be extremely clear about this, down to starting with “I need so-and-so to” or “I need you to.”
Also state clearly what you are going to do and approximately by when. This is important for that paper trail, if needed, and also to help you before you hit send see in black and white you are agreeing to. Chances are you have already done everything humanly possible in the hours you are allotted each day. Be careful in what you agree to in order to remedy the issue. You don’t want to create a future problem by agreeing to do something that ends up being unsustainable with everything else going on. And it’s okay and wise of you to say that you don’t think you are going to be able to do something because of the number of other students who require your attention or the other demands you have. Remember SET from my post on goals - is it Sustainable; how it uses your Energy; does it make good use of your Time?
We’re in an age of instant gratification, where we wanted the answers yesterday. But all a quick back-and-forth guarantees is that something could very well come across the wrong way or just drag out longer than if you would have stopped and just collected information. That’s why it helps to flag emails until you are ready to address them with your full attention.
And now, three truths - I think of these as the “hot coals” - to keep in mind for communicating with parents this year and in the future:
1. Many parents are having their eyes opened this year to how their child actually works and behaves during the school day with remote learning.
It’s one thing to hear about how your kid’s day was and another to see it all unfold at night after you worked all day - especially when it comes down to completing independent work. Denial is human, as is placing blame. It’s a knee jerk reaction. (It’s why I want you to take the emotion out of your response). Remember, when we’re drowning, we’re looking for something to grab onto. So the social media soundbites of “remote learning is failing” or “it has to be the teacher’s fault” are the quick grabs. It’s hurtful, I know, it’s downright demoralizing. But understanding where the frustration is coming from helps it have less personal impact on you.
2. Disrespect is unacceptable - on either end.
It shouldn’t be tolerated or be used to make the other party bend. Remember, you teach more than kids. All caps, personal attacks, threats, general rudeness - none of it moves the needle towards resolution. Keep a paper trail, the email threads, and/or a communication log to show your interactions. You can’t control what other people are going to say and do, but you can do your part - because you know better. I'm telling you better.
3. Sometimes, we do mess up.
Not maliciously. We’re overextended, this year in an abnormal capacity (not that it was normal before). Mistakes are bound to happen, and it doesn’t make you a bad teacher. The best thing to do is to own it. Apologize (don’t grovel for forgiveness and say sorry on repeat, just be matter-of -fact about it). Making mistakes is human. You aren’t less of a person or teacher because of it.
To review, you can improve your parent teacher communication by setting boundaries regarding the when, where, and how you interact about school matters. Listen or read to understand and collect information so you respond effectively. Think about what you want parents to know, feel, and do. Remember, this year has disrupted everyone’s lives. You can be kind, firm, and graceful in your communications with parents - without jumping in the deep end of the pool.
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