Effective strategies for Catholic teachers
By Kathryn Philips
Teachers have the tricky task of being all things to all people. Working effectively with parents is arguably one of the most challenging aspects of this profession, but doing it well is a key component to the success of each student and a solid precursor to teacher job satisfaction. Parents are the most significant people in a child’s life and their primary educators. The teacher is also among the most significant people in a child’s life. With good communication, a proper mindset, and a little finesse, teachers can create a foundation for excellence in parent-teacher partnerships. Three basic tenets will guide educators in every parent interaction: Be Professional, Proactive, and Positive.
One of the toughest aspects of being a teacher today is that the profession is not always viewed with the level of respect that it deserves. At times, the media can be less than favorable in their portrayals of teachers. Everyone has an opinion on school issues (after all, we have all had experience in school and therefore we all have opinions about what is the best way to do things). With the plethora of information made available through technology, anyone can easily find information to support his or her particular feelings about any issue that comes up. An additional caveat for Catholic-school teachers is that they are dealing with parents who are in fact their “customers.” This can create even more challenges in a potentially fragile relationship. Given these inherent issues, it may help us to remember that teachers have an expertise that many parents do not. Each and every parent knows his or her child. This is arguably the gift that parents bring to the table in this partnership. Conversely, the teacher’s gifts are knowledge and objectivity. While the parents know their child, teachers know many children at different developmental ages and stages. Along with the job comes the knowledge and expertise that teachers have in child development; learning theory; best practices in education, curriculum, and methodology; and school law. To remain in this professional realm, teachers will want to remember to do these things:
- Be knowledgeable, compassionate, and grounded. Know your teaching philosophy and express it clearly.
- Exude professionalism in your manner, dress, and communications in all interactions with parents: in school, in the community, at church. A teacher’s professionalism does not end at the dismissal bell.
- When a parent brings you a special interest and asks for you to implement it, be an active listener, ask questions and clarify, and ask for sources of the information.
- Do not agree to the special interest until you have had the chance to research the information and consider it with respect to your school policy and what you know to be best practices.
- If a parent insists that you do something about which you feel uncomfortable, share the situation with your supervisor and ask for direction and support.
- When parents ask for your help, be quick to solve problems. You have expertise and answers. Don’t hide that light under a bushel!
At the beginning of the school year (or each semester in secondary settings), send home an informational letter that includes an explanation of your philosophy, your policies, and the expectations for your class. Include such things as how you deal with grades, homework, and parent involvement. Note the procedure for how parents can contact you, including phone calls, emails, and meetings. Always type and run spell check on any letter you send to parents, and have someone proofread it before it goes out. Here are some other tips for being proactive:
- Create a consistent class-wide behavior management plan that is fair and respectful to all students and delineates the following: clear expectations, logical consequences, and ways in which you encourage appropriate behavior.
- The plan should be directly tied to the school-wide character education traits as well as school and diocesean policies.
- The plan should have no more than five rules and no fewer than three; five simple consequences for breaking the rules, listed in a hierarchy; and at least five ways of positively reinforcing students.
- Type up the plan and include it in the letter home. Post it in your class and teach the students about the plan. Use it consistently.
- Give a copy to your administrator and have a short conference with him or her to ensure support.
- Return phone calls to parents as soon as is feasible during your prep times or after school and at lunch.
- Be prepared with the information or documentation that is needed when contacting the parent.
- Address parent concerns immediately and realistically.
- Maintain a communication log of each parent contact you have. Although it may be a hassle, this saves heartache and stress in the end.
In 35 years of being an educator, I can honestly say that my reason for getting into this profession was to make a positive difference in the lives of children. Although policies, procedures, and documentation are necessary to maintain the security and safety of the learning environment, it is the positive relationships that make me want to get up in the morning. This is true of not only our relationships with students but also with their parents. Teachers can create this foundation by focusing on the good things that students do and sharing this information with parents. All parents want to know that their child’s teacher is appreciative and accepting of their child’s attributes. Don’t make the only phone calls to parents ones in which you deliver negative information! The adage “no news is good news” should not be employed in developing relationships with parents of your students. Try these ideas for starting off on a positive note each school year:
- Make an advance phone call. Before the school year begins, place a call to each of your students’ parents and introduce yourself. Ask parents to tell you about their children: their strengths, likes, activities, and how the child learns best. Take notes and put these notes in individual student files for future reference.
- Make a “Shock and Awe” phone call. Call the student’s home, leave a nice message on voice mail if no one is home, or speak directly with the parent. The only purpose of this phone call is to share good information about the student. A 15-second positive message can do wonders for parent relations!
- Don’t leave negative messages on voice mail. Ask the parent to call you if you have difficult or confidential information to relay.
- Make positive communications four times more often than negative ones. This is true for students as well- provide four times more positives than consequences or reprimands.
- Graciously, judiciously, and within your parameters accept parent offers to help (volunteers, room-parents, tutors). The teacher should choose the positions and the tasks needed from the parent rather than vice versa.
- Invite parents to be a part of class activities and special events.
- Maintain ongoing, open communication throughout the school year.
Strategies for Challenging Communications
No doubt we have all had challenging communications with parents, including emotional emails, difficult phone calls, and unexpected visits. Here are some tips for remaining professional, proactive, and positive in those situations:
- If you receive an email that has emotional undertones, it is much wiser to respond personally via face-to-face communication or a phone call than by email.
- If the email is asking a question and you determine that the situation can be handled easily, effectively, and accurately electronically, stick to the facts. If your response requires an “emoticon” or abbreviation (e.g., happy face or LOL, etc.), the message contains emotion, not just facts. Emoticons are seen as unprofessional and can also be misinterpreted.
- Although it seems counterintuitive, teachers should not be too quick to respond to emails. Unless the email is an extreme emergency (in which case a phone call would be better than an email anyway) responding too quickly gives the impression that a) you are otherwise unengaged and you can be interrupted b) that the sender can expect future immediate responses and c) you are “surfing the Web” rather than teaching your class.
- Set aside specific times during the day to respond to emails. State this guideline clearly in your introduction letter to parents.
- Do not use your personal email address.
- Save parent emails in an electronic file for future reference.
If you need to call a parent and relay unfavorable information about his or her child, try the following:
- Don’t put off calling a parent until problem behavior has become severe. Call the parent at the first sign of a problem. The first sign of a problem is the second time the behavior happens.
- Begin with your intention: to resolve the situation in the child’s best interest.
- Have the information you wish to share in front of you. Be prepared to share specifics and provide documentation.
- Put a smile on your face (it can be heard in your voice, it’s true).
- If you are feeling nervous, stand up. This action will make you feel more confident and assertive (this will also be heard in your voice).
- Be prepared to share what you have done to remedy the situation.
- Ask for the parent’s input and listen carefully.
- End with a direction as to what you will do next to help the student be successful.
- Ask for the parent’s support and plan for follow-up communication if needed.
- If the problem is serious, arrange a conference so that you and the parent can discuss the situation face-to-face.
Visitor and volunteer policies should be developed and maintained to provide for the least amount of disruption for the school environment. Here are some tips to follow when you are faced with unscheduled visits:
- Listen to the parent’s concerns with good reflective listening skills.
- Be sensitive to his or her concerns, but don’t take notes while listening.
- Unless the situation requires a very short answer (e.g., Johnny needs to ride the bus to the babysitter today), tell the parent that his or her concerns are too important to discuss at this time and say something like, “I want to give you my full attention and I can’t do that at this time, so let’s set up a time when we can talk.”
- Set up a time to meet with the parent as soon as you can to talk about the problem (e.g., “May I call you at 3:00 so we can talk about this more?”). This gives you time to be prepared and have a solution or strategy in place when you do speak again.
- Prepare for the next communication by having the information at hand, knowing how you will share it and respond to the issues.
- Get back to the parent as promised. Listen, be professional, and present documentation to support your perspective if needed.
All parents have a certain amount of ego involvement in their children’s performance, behavior, achievements, and limitations. These inherent issues bring up a wide range of emotions for parents and can sometimes translate to tenuous situations for teachers. Working with parents in Catholic schools can be a challenge and a blessing, and it takes special skills and perspective. Teachers who remain professional, proactive, and positive will find that their is common ground upon which they can base these relationships. We all want what is best for children. When teachers and parents work together we can achieve that goal.
Kathryn Philips is a behavior consultant with more than 35 years of experience in public, private, and Catholic schools as a teacher, counselor, and administrator. She is the author of Dealing with Difficult Parents: A Survival Guide for Teachers. She and her husband have two grown children and are eagerly expecting their first grandchild. Kathryn can be reached at TotalBehaviorManagement.com.
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