Make the Parent-Teacher Connection
How to build a strong link with the most important person in your child’s school life
Andrea O’Ferrall, right, a teacher at Shorewood Elementary School, welcomes a connection with her students’ parents.
PHOTO: JOSHUA HUSTON
Backpack? Check. Shoes? Check. Lunchbox? Check. Notebook, pencil, markers? Check, check, check. Connection with teacher? TBD.
As your child makes her way back to school, you have prepared her with all the supplies. If you were ahead of the game this year, you even helped her adjust her bedtime in the days leading up to school. Did you walk her into her classroom on the first day? When you greeted her new classroom teacher, what did you say? Perhaps something like, “Hi, how was your summer?” Let me guess what happened next. As you and your child’s teacher recounted summer highlights, did you begin to wonder what the teacher was really like—as a teacher? Will he do right by your child?
A teacher is the most important person in your child’s school life. Who they are, how they relate with your child, what they teach, how they teach, their interests, temperament, expertise, care, and humanity will color your child’s school experience more than anything else. When I work with parents I ask them to recall their own education as a basis for choosing their children’s. Countless parents have remarked that they cannot exactly recall what they learned, but they sure remember their great teachers—the ones who spark curiosity, make learning come alive, build students’ self-confidence, motivate students to dig a little deeper, and even ignite a passion. The innovators highlighted in the book Creating Innovators all list excellent teachers as pivotal to their education. This is true for every child, not just innovators, no matter what grade or age, no matter what subject.
Great teachers don’t do their best work alone. They rely on a strong support system. The home-school partnership, specifically the parent-teacher relationship, is a linchpin of this support system in the elementary and early middle school years. How can you build a strong relationship with your child’s teacher?
See it as a partnership. Just as you come together with your partner to raise your child, you can create a partnership with your child’s teacher. Often the parent-teacher relationship feels transactional in nature. In the bustle of daily life it might be easier for you to assume and even expect that the teacher will do right by each child. You can certainly hope that the teacher will do right by each child, but you might want to pause before you assume this. You’re better off joining hands with the teacher so you can support each other and both do right by the child. This means that sometimes the teacher needs help and counsel, and often you need help and counsel. You are a team working together.
Communicate. Once you see this relationship as a partnership, you come to realize that you are partway (and on some days, more than partway) responsible for your team’s performance. Communication is key to your team’s success. Teachers are extremely busy people who are often responsible for the well being of more than twenty-five students. While most teachers want to communicate more regularly with parents, at three pm each day they often need to choose planning for the next day or conducting research for a specific student over parent communication. You need to lead in this department unless your child happens to have a highly communicative teacher. In this context, what does leading mean?
Early in the year ask the teacher how she likes to communicate and what kind of regular communication you can expect.
Next, pace yourself and reach out with questions. If you have a question, don’t wait for communication unless the teacher has established a regular communication pattern.
Offer to share information about your child in the early weeks of the year if the teacher thinks that would be useful. Don’t assume that last year’s teacher will have transferred knowledge, reports, or documentation about your child to the new teacher.
Many public schools offer only one short parent-teacher conference each year. Don’t wait until the conference to connect with the teacher regarding your child’s progress if you feel you have unanswered questions.
Give before you receive. Isn't that a good rule to follow in all areas of life? Before you ask or hope for your child’s teacher to do anything for your child, offer support on your side. Teachers can use all kinds of help, even from working parents who cannot be present in the classroom. It is sometimes easiest for teachers to hand off to parent volunteers routine preparation tasks or social event planning for the class. Consider asking whether you can make copies or create student folders, help decorate the classroom, pick up classroom supplies, or plan social events and class parties for Halloween, Thanksgiving, winter holidays, and so on.
Coordinate the support of other parents. Be the classroom parent liaison.
Keep the information flowing both ways. It is the teacher’s job to keep you abreast of classroom learning, and it’s your job to keep the teacher up to date on your child’s learning and growth outside of school. Your child spends half her waking time with her teacher and half of it with you. Needless to say, you cannot write the teacher a message the length of this article, but you can drop a line to share good news, accomplishments outside of school, or early signs of struggles, and you can provide timely information on family events and changing circumstances.
Listen and be patient when your child struggles. It is common for teachers to notice a child’s struggles and respond through small- and medium-level in-class interventions before bringing parents in on the problem. Don’t be surprised if you don’t get an email the first time a teacher notices a problem. It is good practice for teachers to understand the problem and try to tackle it before bringing you in. If a problem is shared with you, always listen carefully and closely, and assume best intentions. Trust the teacher until you receive contrary evidence.
Think partnership. What can you do to support your child? How can you complement the teacher’s efforts? How can you make it easy for the teacher to care for your child’s learning? Remember that your goal is your child’s success, and if you are open to doing your share, or sometimes more than your share, you can ensure that success. Don’t get hung up on who should be doing what.
Follow the teacher’s lead in identifying the right strategy for moving forward. It can be hard for driven, type-A parents to let others do their job. Unless you are an expert in the field, rely on the experts, or seek the counsel of additional experts.
If necessary, put in place a plan to follow up on a regular basis.
See the teacher as a person, not just as a teacher. There are three keys to seeing the teacher as a person—support, gratitude, and enrichment.
How can you support your child’s teacher when she or he has a bad day? You have bad days; heck, you may even have terrible days. So will the teacher! Get to know the teacher beyond his or her work while respecting his or her privacy. Go the extra mile to offer support. Holiday gifts are nice and so is a pot of soup when the teacher has suffered a nasty cold (likely caught from a student!).
Express gratitude and kindness. Teaching is perhaps one of the hardest and most thankless jobs in our society. Teachers need our thanks and encouragement. A simple note or a heartfelt, in-person “thank you” are much appreciated.
Teachers who are lifelong learners in turn nurture students who go on to be lifelong learners. When the holidays roll around, you might want to give the teacher something to grow by and learn from: a book, a class, or a special event related to the teacher’s hobbies are good places to start.
A good relationship takes time and effort, care and concern. While the nature of your relationship with your child’s teacher might be TBD, your plan for building this relationship doesn’t have to be. As you pack your child’s lunchbox this week, go one step further and include an apple or a note for the teacher. Reach out and make a real connection!
Anoo Padte, the founder of Art of Education, is a teacher, education consultant, and parent. She works closely with families to develop personalized education plans and school recommendations. She teaches math and science, and she can often be found tinkering or creating art.