Families & the Community

Teacher-Parent Communication Needs to Improve, Studies Say

By Kate Stoltzfus — November 17, 2016 4 min read
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Many K-12 teachers nationwide want parents to be more involved in their children’s classrooms. But it’s a two-way street, and as one recent study suggests, the frequency of how often teachers reach out to parents may depend on their race, ethnicity, or immigrant status.

The study, highlighted by my colleague Brenda Iasevoli on the Teacher Beat blog, shows that teachers are less likely to contact immigrant Asian parents and parents of color about accomplishments and less likely to contact immigrant Asian parents about poor behavior or academic struggles, even when students need help. On the flipside, math teachers are more likely to contact parents of black and Latino students about disruptive behavior—twice as likely for black students—than parents of white students.

While it is well known in the education realm that parent involvement in the classroom is a key part of students’ academic success, there has often been an emphasis on parent behavior alone when discussing the need for improvement.

More than 65 percent of teachers want parents to communicate regularly with them, according to a recent nationwide survey of 1,000 K-12 teachers by the University of Phoenix College of Education. And more than one in three teachers think parental involvement could help to improve teacher recruitment and retention. Yet 62 percent of teachers said only about a quarter of parents get involved in the classroom.

Studies have also shown that many parents of immigrant students don’t talk to their children’s teachers as frequently as U.S.-born white parents do. This is often because of language barriers or differences in cultural understandings, according to this latest study on teacher communication.

And there is now evidence that teachers’ own communication with nonwhite parents is affected by racial stereotypes, said the new study’s author, Hua-Yu Sebastian Cherng, a sociologist and an assistant professor of international education at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development.

In an interview with Education Week Teacher, Cherng said his goal in flipping the lens to figure out when teachers reach out to parents was not to cast blame, but to figure out the best way to make improvements. As a former middle school teacher, he said, he knows how important parental buy-in is. But he also found the study’s results rang true in his personal experience as an Asian American student—his own teachers never once called home about his grades or behavior when he needed it.

So how can both teachers and parents begin to bridge the lack of communication to benefit all students in the classroom?

Pamela Roggeman, academic dean for the University of Phoenix College of Education and a former K-12 teacher, offered several recommendations for parents in light of the college’s parent-involvement survey. “Often parents think that to be involved in their child’s learning they need to spend time in their child’s classroom, but when you ask teachers, it’s often much more simple and boils down to one thing: communication,” she said in a statement.

It’s helpful for parents to identify the method of communication that teachers prefer—social media, emails, or written notes—in order to stay engaged and receive fast responses from educators. They should also stay up-to-date on classroom activities and ask for feedback about their children’s work and behavior to help with areas where students are struggling.

On the other hand, the answer to improvement for teachers lies in training, said Cherng. In teacher-preparation programs, race and ethnicity are often discussed as cultural competency or multiculturalism, but Cherng thinks the conversation should be in more explicit terms. “Race not only influences how teachers interact with minority students, but also with their parents,” he said.

While extra training can seem like a burden, “you want to know more about your students’ lives,” he said. “My mission is to train teachers so they are doing better in the classroom not only for their students, but for themselves. Particularly around issues of race where people can shut down immediately, it’s such an important conversation and should happen in a way that gives teachers skills.”

The increasing use of technology as a platform for parent-teacher communication is another effective tool some districts use. Apps like SchoolMessenger and Ready4K! target the parents of learners in pre-K through 12 with text messages and emails for news, curriculum, and keeping in touch.

Anabel Gonzalez, an ESL teacher in North Carolina, shared in a CTQ Collaboratory post that connecting with parents who do not speak English is vital despite the challenges it may pose for some teachers. Teachers should work to avoid assumptions, take time to learn about parents’ heritage and language, use standard English, and communicate with care and compassion.

“Reaching out to parents is not a once-a-year thing,” Gonzalez wrote. “Connecting with parents helps develop a valuable partnership that will undoubtedly benefit the student in the classroom.”

Photo credit: Getty

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.