In 1980 I was teaching Year 1 and I had 33 students. I remember vividly my first parent teacher interviews. I was so worried and nervous that I wouldn’t have enough of value to tell the parents and I was worried about what they would think of me blah, blah, blah.
I asked an experienced teacher what her secret for these interviews was, and she told me to begin the interview by asking the parents how they thought their child was doing.
What happened for me was almost magical. Asking a question at the beginning of the interview meant that I was able to listen and learn. I discovered invaluable information about my students, their families, and any factors contributing to their behaviour and their learning.
What I figured out was that what parents really want to know is that you know their child, are interested in their child and that you have their child’s best interests at heart. It is always about the relationships!
Parents are the first educators of their children and as such are your valuable allies in the quest to develop their child into a lifelong learner. Parents hold the information that can make your life as a teacher much easier, they can hold the key to unlocking student potential and tips that get students to cooperate.
Often, just knowing that you regularly communicate with mum, dad or carer is enough for a student to improve their behaviour.
The key to saving time, energy and angst when contacting parents is to do it sooner rather than later:
- At the beginning of the school year contact parents and introduce yourself. Doing this builds a rapport and is a welcome change for some parents whose only interaction with school is negative. Then when you do have to call to discuss a difficult subject the parents will be much more likely to listen and not be defensive.
- When a student’s behaviour changes or deteriorates, give parents a heads up before it gets to crisis point. Most parents are mortified to think that their child is misbehaving and will work with you to solve the issue. You may also discover information that explains why a student’s behaviour has changed and how you can support them.
- Begin by asking the question, ‘how do you think Peter is doing?”. I cannot count the number of times that the parent revealed that they already knew something was up. This meant that I wasn’t the bearer of bad news, but a partner in working on a solution.
- Prepare a script if you feel apprehensive about meeting with parents, and practise with a colleague or even your supervising teacher. They can help by giving you feedback and refining the script.
- State the issue clearly and be upfront that you would like to work together to solve it. A great process is found in Fierce Conversations by Susan Scott.
- Show that you care about the student and have their best interests at heart. While it may be true that a student’s behaviour is impacting on other students’ learning, it is more important to highlight how the behaviour is the affecting their child’s education and wellbeing.
- Use reflective listening when a parent is defensive or reacts negatively to what you say. Using ‘I can see that you are upset’ or ‘I can tell you are annoyed’ can validate their feelings and help defuse the situation and prevent it from escalating. Parents may have their own negative feelings about school and giving them an opportunity to be heard may be the key to building an understanding relationship.
- Follow up with a call, email or text when the problem has been resolved or the student has made progress. This will stand you in good stead if you have to call again.
The effort you put into building positive relationships with parents is well worth it in the long run. After all, it is easier to work with them than against them. What they say and how they react to the things you tell them will have a big impact on the student’s success in school.