Families & the Community

How Teachers Can Build Productive Relationships With Families

By Elizabeth Heubeck — August 29, 2022 6 min read
Image of a teacher interacting with a family.
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Daphne Gomez taught for just three years before giving up the profession she once thought she’d stay in forever. The short answer for her early departure? Burnout. The main culprit? Toxic parents.

“I had a really extreme group of parents during my last year,” said Gomez, a former 5th grade teacher-turned-entrepreneur. “I quickly learned that the expectations they had of me were not normal or within the realm of possibility.”

Gomez, now CEO and founder of the consulting firm Teacher Career Coach, recalls learning that some parents among her class of gifted and talented students had publicly berated her on social media and complained about her to the principal for giving a spelling test unannounced.

The principal, who failed to share with Gomez the parents’ concerns at the time of the complaint, may have acted to protect the early-career teacher from hostile parents. But the decision did little to help Gomez grow as a teacher.

“There was no way for me to build a relationship with the parents,” Gomez said.

Gomez, who now coaches teachers considering leaving the profession, doesn’t see her experience as isolated. “I think lack of support is a universal problem,” she said. “It’s one of the main reasons that teachers are leaving, right up there with salary.”

Despite the positive impact strong parent–teacher communication has on student success, teachers-in-training and early-career teachers are not often getting formal instruction or advice on the critical subject.

“Even through my second master’s degree in education, it [parent-teacher communication] was a topic never taught to us,” said Leila Kubesch, a middle school teacher-turned-professional speaker who was inducted into the National Teachers Hall of Fame in 2022.

Meanwhile, teachers’ stress levels continue to soar as they increasingly find themselves on the receiving end of parents’ dissatisfaction and distrust. In an August 2022 RAND report, 37 percent of teachers surveyed reported being harassed, often by students’ family members, because of their school’s policies on COVID-19 safety measures or for teaching about race, racism, or bias during the first half of the 2021–22 school year.

“It really stood out to us as an area where there could be greater support for teachers,” said Ashley Woo, lead author of the RAND study.

Lessons on how to effectively communicate with parents may not be embedded in every teacher education curriculum or employee onboarding program.

But a small number of experts have made it a priority to share wisdom on forging positive relationships with parents—from those who appear overly anxious and involved to those whose voices too often go unheard.

Ideas for building productive relationships with high-anxiety parents

Education consultants and psychologists Robert Evans and Michael Thompson, who co-authored Hopes and Fears: Working with Today’s Independent School Parents, say they’re witnessing a “rising tide of anxiety” among school-age children’s parents who, as a whole, are doing well professionally but are not confident about their kids’ future.

Evans points out that, despite a recent and exponential increase in the curriculum content teachers are expected to cover, resources on family dynamics remain sparse.

Michael [Thompson] will ask a group of teachers if they’d had coursework [on family dynamics], and four out of a hundred will raise their hands,” said Evans who, along with Thompson, teaches educators how to work effectively with parents whose anxiety, and expectations, tend to run high.

Evans suggests that, just as effective educators establish expectations for students at the beginning of the school year, they should do the same with parents. He advises educators to welcome parents early, present themselves as the education experts, and invite parents to partner in the school’s vision in a way that’s clear but respectful.

He also recommends expressing to parents “minimum nonnegotiables:" essential basics a school believes are required for its effective operation, and must be adhered to by all school community members—parents included. For instance, says Evans, if a school declares respect a nonnegotiable expectation, teachers should model and teach it to students and expect parents to act respectfully during interactions.

Thompson and Evans acknowledge that a small percentage of parents, whom they call “five percenters,” sometimes lose sight of these norms, breaking boundaries and demonstrating unreasonableness. “The idea that anything could be traumatizing [for their child] makes parents fight ferociously about things they shouldn’t,” Thompson said, citing examples such as a child getting cut from a varsity sport, failing to get chosen for a leading role in a play, or earning a suboptimal grade.

When educators face parents in these situations, Thompson urges them to refrain from responding in a way that probably comes naturally to them: defending and explaining, or teaching. Instead, he advises them to first hear what the parent has to say.

“When you listen first and speak second, parents are more likely to hear what you’re saying because they’ve been able to connect,” Thompson said. Further, he suggests asking the parent: What are you hoping for; what are you afraid of? “It’s hard to hate someone who asks them a caring question,” he said.

Ideas for building trust and interacting with historically marginalized families

Making an effort to partner with parents is crucial, regardless of a school community’s family demographics. And the earlier, the better. Kubesch describes how, as a classroom teacher, she would send individual postcards to parents in the beginning of the year introducing herself and letting them know that she was available as a resource to them.

“A lot of parents, especially minority parents, will never ask for help,” Kubesch said. She shares an example of a student going hungry at lunchtime because the form to request meals was online, and the instructions on how to complete it were unclear. When Kubesch offered to go to the family’s home to assist in completing the form, the student’s mother asked that she come during daylight hours. When she arrived, Kubesch learned the family didn’t have electricity, another obstacle to completing the form.

This anecdote illustrates the importance of outreach to families, especially those that have been historically marginalized and not included in decisionmaking processes related to education, says Anuradha Ebbe, deputy associate superintendent of middle schools for the Madison Metropolitan School District in Madison, Wis.

Ebbe explains how, when presiding as principal of schools with many students of color and children of immigrants, she made a deliberate effort to build relationships with families. It started, she says, with community outreach in students’ neighborhoods.

“We would interview families and find out what they want from the schools,” Ebbe said. But before families were willing to meet with her, she needed to gain their trust. “They wanted to know: ‘Are we safe?’” Ebbe said. “I told them: It’s going to be safe. Let’s meet in the library or park or another space that feels right for you.”

Some families shared with Ebbe that they wanted to know about their children’s learning experience, especially how their children were learning how to read. Ebbe went a step further. “We taught families how to teach phonics,” Ebbe said. She also encouraged families to engage in strategies such as reading to their children in their “home” or native language, and having older siblings read to younger ones.

Ideally, teachers who build enough trust with parents may eventually consider them partners in the education process, as in the aforementioned example. And regardless of a school community’s demographics, many of the same strategies can be applied to build these critical relationships, including: starting early in the year, initiating communication and outreach, asking families questions, and listening to their fears and needs. Teachers who successfully develop allies among parents may not only see improved student outcomes, but may also reduce their stress levels and avoid burnout.

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Coverage of strategies for advancing the opportunities for students most in need, including those from low-income families and communities, is supported by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation, at www.waltonk12.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.

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