The importance of parents in the life of the school cannot be overstated. As the primary educators of their children, parents bear the responsibility for forming their sons and daughters in all areas of life. The fact that parents welcome us as teachers to partner with them in this all-important endeavor is both humbling and inspiring. With this partnership in mind, we must consider parent communication to be a primary role in our work as teachers. St. Josemaría Escrivá even went so far as to say that parents, not students, should be the primary focus of a school. That is a revolutionary idea. And it makes sense; form the educator and you will form the student. Inform the educator and you will guide them in teaching.
Communicating well with parents also makes our work as teachers more effective. We may be experts in education and our respective subject matters, but parents are the experts in their children. Dads and moms know what works with their kids and what their kids need to work on. When teachers and parents collaborate (or conspire) for the good of the child, the results can be really impressive. I once had a mother ask me to discuss a particular topic with her son during an upcoming mentoring meeting. After shooting the breeze with the boy for a few minutes, we got to the topic in question. We talked through it for five or ten minutes until our meeting was coming to an end. As we shook hands, the boy thanked me for my advice before asking, “Sir, how did you know I needed to talk about that?” I’m not sure if he ever found out the answer to that question. What is certain is that our discussion never would have happened without the conversation I’d had first with his mother.
Of course, there should be a purpose behind every communication we make with parents. The most obvious reason for calling is if they called first. Responding promptly to parents who reach out, either via email or phone call, is a matter of professionalism that will ultimately increase a parent’s confidence in his child’s teacher. It will also make them more willing to share information with us, because they know we’re listening.
We should also make an effort to contact parents intentionally with good news about their child: a good grade; a positive interaction you had or witnessed; congratulations on a good game or performance. These positive conversations with parents, especially early in the school year, not only help to build a good relationship between teacher and parent but also carry a lot of weight with the student. Having shared good news in past parent-teacher conversations can also make it a lot easier to make the call when a student is having problems. Knowing that a teacher sees and appreciates the good in their child helps reduce the odds that a call will become contentious.
But when is bad news bad enough for a phone call? When do parents need to be brought into the conversation? Generally speaking, the more information that is shared between teachers and parents, the better the outcome will be for the child. Regarding behavior that needs to be corrected, it’s always better to address a problem when it’s small, before a negative behavior becomes a habit. A couple of missed assignments, a new tendency toward side conversations during class, multiple uncharitable interactions with classmates, these would all be good times to make a call and to work together with parents to try to nip the issue in the bud.
And when the problem is big, or your correction was firm, always be sure to let parents know, and do so as soon as possible. Talking through major problems early makes sure that the parents get all of the facts of the situation from you, without the student’s own interpretations. This not only serves to address the issue at the earliest opportunity, but it also helps preserve the integrity of the relationships between parent, child, and teacher by eliminating the possibility that, if the student reports first, he might be tempted to share a dishonest version of events.
Ultimately, you’ll almost never regret the decision to make a phone call to parents. It happens often that I learn a lot through these interactions, perhaps regarding a mentee’s behavior at home which I might be able to help with, or about a potential source of behavior I’m seeing at school. If you’re not sure whether or not to call, ask yourself this question: “If he were my son, would I want to know about this?” If the answer is “Yes,” make the call.
When to Call?
Practically speaking, it’s a great habit of teachers to set a specific time in your daily schedule that is reserved for parent communications. Whether it is during a break, a free period, or even the afternoon commute, setting aside a time during which you make your parent phone calls or respond to emails will make sure that you get around to this essential task of our work.
You might consider setting some goals for yourself in this area. Maybe you try to make one parent phone call every day or every other day. Have a goal of responding to all parent emails or voicemails within one business day. If it’s not already a requirement, try to set up your own meetings with the parents of all of your homeroom students at the beginning and end of the year. Working toward any of these goals would make a huge impact for parents, students, and teachers.
Another “best practice” that I’ve seen a lot at The Heights is that a teacher puts himself where he knows parents will be. At sporting events and concerts, in the pick-up line after school, at parent socials and other school events like our annual Garden Party and Gala, teachers who make themselves visible and available to the parents have both a greater opportunity to work with them on the formation of their sons and also a greater opportunity to befriend the parents of their students. This friendship is important to remember, too. When talking with parents, don’t only talk about school. In fact, make it a point not to talk about school. Work on developing friendships with parents. Teachers and parents have so much in common, and not just the mission of forming our young people. As I’ve seen so many of my colleagues do, I would encourage all teachers to spend time with parents socially; grab coffee or a drink, have their family to dinner with yours, play pick-up sports together, take out your preferred musical instruments and jam, invite parents to your annual cook-out. All of these things happen regularly at The Heights and, as a result, real friendships form between faculty and parents.
What to Say?
Because a parent phone call is an intentional conversation, we have the opportunity to be prepared and to begin with a plan. There should, of course, be a purpose to our reaching out, but, as is the case with preparing a class, it is not enough for us to simply know the general topic of the call. We should jot down the things we want to convey and have ready at hand our specific advice for the student moving forward, as well as any guidance that could be helpful for parents.
One of the most important elements of the content of our conversations is that we need to try to give parents an accurate representation of their child. To do this we need to be observant and reflective. We need to have our eyes and ears open not only in the classroom, where we can learn a lot by carefully observing the students as they work, but also in the hallways, the sidewalks, the lunchroom, or the practice field. Watch and listen, especially for the good, not as a prison warden but as an interested observer, a fly on the wall, or, perhaps, someone eager to jump in and join the fun. If we watch carefully and reflect on who our students are and how they live at school, we can provide parents with some valuable insights.
Telling the truth is equally important during the more difficult conversations. If we are reporting a negative behavior, it is necessary for us to describe exactly what we are noticing: when, where, and how often. It’s helpful to have the “hard evidence,” even though parents will often take us at our word. But the truth can sometimes be difficult to share and difficult to hear. After all, there is much emotion bound up with the subject of parent-teacher conversations, namely, our children whom we dearly love. And it is alright, and even sometimes perfectly appropriate, for conversations with parents to become emotional. There is so much riding on the work of parents and teachers, and it ought to be taken very seriously. I’ve had and heard plenty of conversations about students in which voices were raised or tears shed. As long as both parents and teachers appreciate the fact that the person on the other side of the conversation loves and wants the good of the child in question, and that both sides are remaining faithful to the truth, even contentious conversations usually lead to growth for student, parent, and teacher.
We should also be asking questions during these talks. If we truly want to help our students become good and virtuous, we know that such virtue is not contained solely in the intellectual life. By asking about how he’s doing at home, if he’s sleeping enough, when and where he’s doing his homework, if there’s anything new going on in the life of the family, we get a more complete view of the boy’s life so that we can better target the guidance we give him and his parents. On a less pragmatic but ultimately more fulfilling level, being curious about their family, interests, and experiences, and sharing about our own, also help us to form bonds with the families we work with and deepen our friendships and partnerships with them.
How to Call?
Finally, it is worthwhile for us to consider the tone of our conversations. We want to tell the truth in order to help parents form their sons, but we also want to do so in a way that both promotes optimism in their view of their child and helps us to develop a stronger partnership with them in that formation. We should keep that partnership at the front of our minds during such interactions, especially when we are trying to help a parent correct some negative behavior. When a conversation might turn contentious, both parent and teacher must remember that we are not adversaries; we are teammates working together for the good of the child. Showing our care for their son can help parents to realize this on their own, but when discussions get tense, it may also be helpful to calmly and humbly remind parents of this partnership.
Before any call, pray. You can ask for the intercession of the guardian angels of the parents, the student, and yourself. Ask the Lord that your words will be His words, that you may say what He wants you to say. Included in the graces we may receive from such prayer, this kind of humility and openness can serve us well within the conversation, as it can help us to be ready to share and ready to learn. Ask questions and be open to suggestions. Whether a teacher is brand new or a seasoned veteran, whether a parent has twelve kids or one, both sides have things to learn and things to teach. Again, we come back to the truth that education works best as a partnership between parents and teachers.
We should also thoughtfully consider who specifically we ought to call. Some topics are better discussed with Mom while others fall within Dad’s domain. In other situations it is important that both parents be on the line. Of course it’s not all about mom vs. dad, and it is helpful to get to know your students’ parents early on and to get a sense of their personalities so that you can judge well whom to speak with regarding a particular topic. If you’re not sure whom to call, ask a colleague who knows the family a bit better. In the end, though, don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. If the call needs to be made, make the call, regardless of which parent picks up on the other end.
A Chance to Reframe
In the broader world of teachers, it’s common to hear complaints about parents. Teachers in most places have strong physical and emotional reactions to the phrase “parent-teacher conferences.” This is a great shame, though, because it perpetuates the falsely constructed adversarial relationship between teachers and parents. As teachers, there is much we can do to change this, starting by assessing our own mentality toward parent communication. When we begin to reframe our thinking, not only toward a mutually beneficial parent-teacher partnership, but even toward true friendship with our students’ parents, we will begin to positively change the outcomes of our conversations, the effectiveness of our work of formation, and the culture of our schools.