Research organizations, government agencies and news reporters all concur: parental involvement is one of the biggest factors—perhaps the biggest factor—in a child’s academic achievement. For teachers in training and first year teachers, parents are an important force to be reckoned with.
Parents can also be a bit of a mystery for new teachers. Very little in your teacher training prepares you to deal with parents. The parents of school children don’t come to your teaching degree classes to interact with you, and even during your field experiences in real schools, parents are more interested in talking to the “full teachers” than the student teachers.
Once you begin your teaching career in earnest, you’ll need to quickly learn how to deal with parents. This can be complicated, because parents—much like their kids—are all different.
Dealing with involved parents
These are probably the kinds of parents you imagine yourself dealing with while you’re still in training to be a teacher. Involved parents take an active interest in their child’s learning, receive communication from teachers gladly and attentively, and may even volunteer for school and PTA activities.
While involved parents aren’t the only type of parent you’ll deal with, these are the types of parents you’ll encounter the most often. In many cases, involved parents are quite easy to work with. They listen to what teachers have to say and they see themselves as teammates in the group of adults working to help their children learn.
So for the most part, you can deal with these kinds of parents in a very straightforward way. Keep communication open and regular, let them know when action is needed on their part or when there are matters regarding their child that require their attention. But be prepared for an occasional conflict too… because involved parents can sometimes also be adversarial parents.
Dealing with adversarial parents
Some parents get so involved and so invested in their children’s education that they can become very emotional and pushy when teachers do things they disagree with. Some involved parents lobby for extra attention and special treatment for their children that may not be possible or warranted. At other times, a parent, pair of parents, or whole group of parents may want to influence or change the way you do your job.
When dealing with involved adversarial parents, it’s important to keep your emotions in check. This can be hard. It’s very frustrating to have someone else tell you how to do your job, and it can be quite upsetting to have your teaching picked apart and criticized. But you really do need to keep a steady eye on the needs of your students—this is more important than “winning” a conflict with a parent.
Focusing on what’s truly best for the children can help you and your students’ parents find common ground and reach solutions to conflicts. Remember that there are mediators, mediation processes, and appropriate venues for parent-teacher disagreements too. PTA meetings can be useful for discussing different points of view between teachers and parents. And don’t be afraid to go to your principal, your fellow teachers, members of the PTA, and other teammates for advice and assistance.
Dealing with unresponsive parents
Sometimes, parents simply don’t reply to teacher communication, don’t take an active role in their students’ education, and don’t even make sure that their students complete homework and show up to school consistently and on time.
This too can be frustrating… or at least puzzling. It’s important to piece together the puzzle of the unresponsive parent, as there are many reasons that parents might not respond to messages and outreach from their children’s teachers.
In the case of parents of ELL and first generation American students, sometimes the lack of response is simply a matter of language barrier. There are usually a number of solutions to this kind of communication problem. School districts often have interpreters on staff. There may be other sources of interpretation too. But bear in mind that it’s best to avoid using your students as interpreters if at all possible—having someone’s kids do interpretation for them can be stressful and embarrassing for all family members involved.
Still other parents are overworked and overstressed, too busy to engage in their children’s education as much as you’d like them too—or as much as they’d like to. Be patient with parents who seem well-intentioned but overcommitted. Pushing these parents too hard can create hard feelings—you want to make it clear that you empathize with the demands these parents face, while communicating with them gently and consistently.
Other parents can be unresponsive for a less pleasant reason; there are certainly parents who don’t really see education as important and don’t take an active interest in their child’ learning process. These parents can quickly turn into adversarial parents if they feel unfairly pressured to communicate with the school.
But it’s still your responsibility to communicate with apathetic parents. Keep communication with this parent type persistent but polite. Look for opportunities to send home praise or earnest concern for their children—nearly every parent loves to hear good things about their kids, and even parents who don’t have much regard for education can be motivated to talk to teachers if something truly important is at stake.
Understand how much your students are influenced by their parents
The puzzle of parents is part of a bigger, more important puzzle: the puzzle of who your students are, and the best ways to teach them. Remember that every interaction you have with a parent, no matter how small, can provide insight into your students’ inner lives. Knowing something as seemingly trivial as the hobbies of a parent or the kind of relationship a mom and dad have with each other can tell you a lot about what your students are thinking and how to motivate them. And non-communicative parents—whether they’re facing personal struggles or just don’t care—provide clues to the kinds of weaknesses or insecurities your students may have. This in turn points to ways you can help your students build on their unique strengths and overcome their personal vulnerabilities