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Teaching Secrets: Communicating With Parents

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You will face many challenging tasks as a new teacher. Dealing with parents is probably among the most intimidating, especially if you are young and in your first career. While communicating with parents can be tricky, a little preparation will help you to treat parents as partners and to be calmer when problems arise.

Here's the first rule to live by: Your students' parents are not your enemies. Ultimately, they want the same thing you want, which is the best for their children. By maintaining respectful and productive communication, you can work together to help students succeed.

Second, whenever problems arise, remember that parents are probably just as nervous about contacting you as you are about returning the contact—and maybe more so. I'll confess: Even after 26 years of teaching, I still get a little frisson of fear in my belly when I see an e-mail or hear a voicemail from a parent. But I have seen time and again that parents are often more nervous than the teacher is—especially if their child doesn’t want them to contact the teacher. Indeed, some parents may even fear that if they raise concerns, their child will face some kind of retaliation. Remember that parents' tones or words may reflect such fears. In your response, try to establish that everyone involved wants to help the child.

Here are some practical tips for communicating effectively with parents:

See Also
Other Teaching Secrets articles by Gail Tillery: "Hang On to the Magic" and "Take Charge of Your Classroom."

Contact every parent at the beginning of the year. Do some "recon." Telephone calls are best for this initial contact, since they are more personal than e-mail. Ask the parent to tell you about his or her child's strengths, weaknesses, likes, dislikes, etc. Make sure to ask, "What is the best thing I can do to help your child succeed?" Remember to take notes! Once you've gathered the information you need, set a boundary with parents by saying, "Well, Ms. Smith, I have 25 more parents to call in the next two hours." This allows you to move on to the next call in a respectful way. (If calling isn’t feasible, you can draft a mass e-mail or send surveys home. You may receive few responses, but you’ll have demonstrated that you care enough about your students to reach out to their parents.)

Be proactive. If you are concerned about a student's grades, attitude, or behavior, don't wait until the first grading period to contact parents. Think carefully about phrasing. Rather than saying, "I think your son’s using drugs," you might observe, "Nathan always seems so tired. I'm concerned about his energy level. Is there something I should know about his life outside school?" Parents will almost always be responsive when they feel genuine concern from you. (Of course, if you do think a student is using drugs, you should contact the school counselor.)

Reach out immediately if a conflict occurs. In spite of your best efforts, a day will come when you'll have a major conflict with a student—the kind in which the student must be removed from the classroom, at least temporarily. When this occurs, contact your administrator and the student's parent immediately. You want the parent to hear the story from you first.

Use caller ID and voicemail. I'm blessed with a phone in my classroom. When it rings, I always check caller ID. If it's a call from inside my building, I answer. If not, even if no students are in the room, I let it go to voicemail. That way, I can listen to the voicemail, find out who the parent is, and determine the reason for the call. Before I respond, I look over the student's grades and reflect briefly on that student's work in my class. When I return the call, I'm prepared to speak intelligently and professionally.

Return calls promptly. Parent phone calls should be returned as soon as possible—and certainly within 24 hours. You don't want to be the teacher who has the reputation for not communicating!

Use caution in responding to negative e-mails. If a parent's words are angry, abusive, unreasonable, or inaccurate, you may be tempted to respond in kind. Don't. It's fine to draft a response, but don't send until a trusted colleague has checked your diction and tone. If you're really upset, set the draft aside until the next day, then tone it down and get a colleague to check it. What you send into cyberspace lives forever—it can be endlessly forwarded and could even end up in the local paper. In such a situation, it won't matter how awful the parent was to you—all that will matter is how you responded.

Admit to your mistakes. If you messed up, own it, apologize, and do your best to make it right. I have had to say many times, "Mr. Miller, I don't know why I did that, and I'm sorry for the trouble it caused. To fix it, I will ... " If it can't be fixed, all you can do is apologize and hope everyone moves on.

Notify your administrator immediately of tense situations. If parents threaten to take a conflict to the next level, politely say, "Mr. Smith, I'm sorry you feel that way, but if that's what you feel you have to do, please go ahead." Notify your administrator immediately so that he or she will expect to hear from the parent. You want your principal to be able to say, "Yes, Mr. Smith, Ms. Jones spoke to me about this situation." This will demonstrate your professionalism and dedication to transparency.

Refuse to be intimidated or to accept verbal abuse. You may be young—perhaps younger than many of your students' parents. However, you don't have to feel intimidated by demanding or overbearing parents: You are a trained professional who is prepared to do what's best for kids. Of course, profanity and name-calling are never okay. Respond to inappropriate remarks by saying, "I'm sorry, but I will not allow you to use language like that with me. Good day." Then hang up.

Positive parent communication is vital to our work. It can help students succeed, enhance our professional reputations, and save us a great deal of stress. Believe me when I tell you that you will be talked about among parents at the ball field, the church, the grocery store, and even on Facebook. By taking steps to be a positive communicator, you'll greatly increase the likelihood that your students' parents are involved in their learning—and that the "word on the street" is nothing but good.

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