Monday, May 25, 2009

Partners In Education

It was the day before the December break, and Maureen Richards (not her real name), a fourth grade teacher in New York, was eagerly anticipating her upcoming trip to the Bahamas with her husband.  It was her first year teaching fourth grade, and the pressure to adequately prepare her students for the state’s standardized tests was intense and stressful.  She was walking down the hall on her way to make copies when the mother of one of her student’s approached her and said, “I wanted to tell you that my daughter doesn’t like you, and she says none of the other kids like you either.” 

The brief conversation that followed was less than productive.

While this example represents an extreme case, it illustrates a big problem in our school system:  The lack of effective communication and cooperation between parent and teacher can inhibit a child’s academic progress.

Sometimes parents don’t know how to approach their child’s teacher if a problem arises.  The parent may feel intimidated by the teacher, or have concerns about negative repercussions on the child.  So they do nothing, and the problem continues or becomes worse. On the other end of the spectrum are the parents who contact the teacher constantly with concerns, or accuse the teacher in a hostile or condescending tone.

Studies show that parental involvement in a child’s education has a major impact on the child’s academic success.  Parents have a right and responsibility to advocate for their children.  But children benefit most when parents and teachers communicate effectively, develop constructive relationships, and work together as partners. 

The most important thing you can do as a parent is to keep in mind that your child’s teacher shares your goal—the academic success of your child.  The teacher wants your child to succeed.  If you have a concern, contact the teacher as soon as possible.  Teachers want to know if there’s a problem so they can address it.  Go directly to the teacher, not to the principal or another administrator.  This is a common mistake.  When you go to the principal, it makes the teacher feel you don’t respect him or her as a professional, which can damage your relationship. 

Your approach is important.  Explain your point of view and ask the teacher for his or her perspective on the situation. Ask the teacher how you can resolve the issue together.  Find out what you can do at home to support what the teacher is doing in the classroom.

The parent-teacher partnership works both ways.  If you’re a teacher and one of your students is struggling with an issue—whether academic, social or behavioral—contact the child’s parents as soon as you detect the problem.  Keep in mind that parents are sensitive to negative comments about their children.  They will be much more receptive to your comments—and less defensive—if you put the problem in a broader context.  Acknowledge the child’s positive attributes first, and then let the parent know you have concerns about one area.  Reassure the parent that you’re confident the child can succeed if you work together.

Ask the parent for input.  Parents have information about their children—including past behavior and academic issues—that can help you arrive at a solution. Let the parents know how they can be part of the solution you recommend.

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