Strategies for Developing a Positive Home-School Relationship
by Jan Zeiger
Something I hear from other teachers that infuriates me is, "Those parents just don't care about their kids." I do not agree with this statement. Parents who are struggling to pay their bills face problems that their middle and upper class counterparts don't. This year, I noticed many reasons why some of my students' parents weren't involved in their children's education. Some of them didn't have cars and had trouble getting from place to place. Some had bosses that wouldn't allow them to take off without losing a day's pay. These parents don't have the kind of jobs that allow them to say, "I am leaving early today." In addition to transportation, employment, and childcare issues, many parents are also faced with language barriers and negative feelings about school that make going to their child's school an uncomfortable experience.
I am not making excuses for parents; I am simply saying that there are many issues that we need to be aware of as educators. I believe that these parents can and will become involved with their children's education when teachers reach out to them in various ways. This can be difficult and time-consuming, but I think that it is well worth the time spent. In this article, I will discuss the ways in which I communicate with the parents of my students. These strategies can be implemented in any school setting.
The first way that I reach out to the parents of my students is by sending home parent surveys during the first week of school (see appendix). These surveys ask them to tell me a little bit about their child and their goals for this year. I acknowledge the fact that they know their child best. One parent noted on the survey that her main goal for her daughter was to learn how to make and keep friends. These surveys help the parents see that I value their opinions and concerns, and they give me information that I may have not gotten otherwise. When the parents come in for their first conference, I use the completed survey to "break the ice" and to stimulate discussion. I also send home parent surveys three weeks into the year that asks the parents to comment on how their child is adjusting to third grade and on any concerns they might have.
Another way in which I tryto raise the level of parent involvement is simple: I send home newsletters every two weeks. In this newsletter, I discuss our current units of study and any reminders that I feel are necessary. I also include tips for parents on helping their children in math and writing. In this newsletter, I always include an invitation to visit our classroom at anytime. I found that the first newsletter was the hardest because I had to start from scratch, but the rest were easy and took little time because I used the same format for the rest of the year.
Parent Read Alouds:
One good way to get parents involved is to invite them in to read or to tell a story to the class. The children love hearing parents read to them, and parents seem to enjoy feeling as if they have really contributed something valuable to the class. My story time is right after lunch. Therefore, parents can come in to eat with their child and to read a story on the same day. Some of the parents were able to do all of this on their lunch breaks!
Positive Phone Calls:
I also faciliate parental involvement by making positive parent phone calls. This is hard to do because there is so little time, but I feel that it is something that needs to be accomplished. My goal is to make a positive phone call to each house at some point during the first nine weeks. I print out a list of my students names in order to keep track of which ones I have called just to tell them about a good grade or some other success that their child experienced at school. By making a positive call a day, you can be done in a matter of weeks. This helps the parents feel more comfortable with you because they don't have to cringe every time they get a call from their child's teacher. This also lets the children know that you are communicating with their parents on a regular basis. Finally, it helps you as a teacher because a positive relationship with a parent can make a huge difference if problems arise later in the year.
At the end of our Medieval Times unit, we had a Medieval Feast to celebrate our learning. We spent over three weeks on this unit. The children did research, and they presented their information to their peers in the form of PowerPoint presentations. I expected 4 or 5 parents for this feast because it was in the afternoon. I was pleasantly surprised when 12 showed up. The feast was a huge success! The children shared their presentations and castles with their parents. Afterwards, they ate barbecue ribs, chicken wings, and other wonderful food with their families. This feast was towards the end of the year, and I attribute its success to the fact that the parents felt comfortable coming into the classroom.
In the introduction to this section, I mentioned the fact that many parents in low SES schools have trouble getting to school for conferences due to work issues. I try to eliminate this problem in two ways: I make myself available for conferences after 5:00, and I encourage parents to bring their children along for the conferences. During my first year, I was there late every night. I always let the parents know that they could schedule a conference after 5 if they needed to. This doesn't mean that you have to do all your conferences after 5. However, you may want to give them that option if need be. This also takes away the excuses for not coming in. When a parent says that they can't make a 3:30 conference, ask what time is good for them. Give them some options. If you can't stay late for conferences and you can't come in early, then you can do a phone conference if need be. Keep the lines of communication open, and document all of the times that you contact parents for any reason.
I communicate with parents each week in writing by sending home Friday Folders. I laminate manila folders, and I staple a comment form inside each one. On this form, there is a space for me to write comments on classwork, behavior, and any other concerns I might have. There is also a space for the parents to write back to me. Throughout the week, I file papers in these folders. Therefore, no time is ever wasted "passing out" graded work. It all goes home in the folder once a week. I also like this system because I have all of the work in front of me when I write the comments. Parents expect these folders on Fridays, and the folders are signed and returned on Mondays. Sending them home on Fridays works well because the parent can give the child consequences for poor behavior such as "no TV all weekend" or "no slumber party." One important benefit of weekly folders is that you keep the comment sheets. These sheets serve as great documentation of parent/teacher communication. When one sheet is filled, I simply staple a new one into the folder, and I file the sheet in that student's file. This is one of the great ideas that I got from my supervising teacher, Alicia Davis.
Although very few of my students have computers at home, I maintain a class webpage that has class information for both students and parents. I post class rules, homework policies, links for students, and links for parents. In schools where most students have computers, class webpages can be a valuable resource for parents that can be accessed quickly and easily. Many sites give teachers free web space and page-building tools that can be used create class pages.
Tips for Conferencing with Parents
- Be prepared. Pull the child's file and any relevant documents ahead of time and familiarize yourself with the information.
- Make the parent feel comfortable by greeting them with a smile.
- To break the ice, make small talk by asking the parent how he/she is doing.
- Begin the conference by saying something positive about the student.
- Avoid any educational jargon that might intimidate the parent or make the parent feel uncomfortable in any way. (Don't avoid educational terms if you know that the parent is familiar with them.)
- Ask the parent for his/her opinion, suggestions, and concerns.
- Listen carefully as the parent speaks.
- Always thank the parent for coming.
- If you are meeting with a parent who might become difficult, ask an administrator, guidance counselor, or colleague to sit in at the conference.