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How teachers can build productive relationships with families

Daphne Gomez taught for just three years before giving up the profession she thought she would stay in forever. The short answer for his early departure? Burnout. The main culprit? Toxic parents.

“I had a really extreme parent group my senior year,” said Gomez, a former 5th grade teacher turned entrepreneur. “I quickly understood 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 in her class of gifted and talented students had publicly berated her on social media and complained about she to the principal for giving a spelling test out of the blue.

The principal, who did not share the parents’ concerns with Gomez 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 view her experience as isolated. “I think lack of support is a universal issue,” she said. “It’s one of the main reasons teachers leave, in addition to salary.”

Despite the positive impact of good parent-teacher communication on student achievement, teachers-in-training and early-career teachers often do not receive formal instruction or guidance on the critical topic.

“Even during my second master’s degree in education, it [parent-teacher communication] was a subject that we were never taught,” 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 skyrocket as they increasingly find themselves on the side of parental dissatisfaction and mistrust. In an August 2022 RAND report37% of teachers surveyed said they had been harassed, often by family members of students, because of their school’s policies on COVID-19 safety measures or for teaching about race, racism or bias at school. during the first half of the 2021-2022 school year.

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

Lessons on how to communicate effectively with parents may not be incorporated into every teacher training program or employee onboarding program.

But a small number of experts have made it a priority to share their wisdom on building positive relationships with parents, from those who seem overly anxious and involved to those whose voice is too often ignored.

Ideas for Building Productive Relationships with Highly Anxious Parents

Educational consultants and psychologists Robert Evans and Michael Thompson, who co-authored Hopes and Fears: Working with Parents of Today’s Independent Studentssay they witness a ‘rising tide of anxiety’ among parents of school-aged children who, on the whole, are doing well professionally, but are not confident about their children’s future .

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

Michael [Thompson] will ask a group of teachers if they had taken courses [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 be high.

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

It also recommends expressing to parents “minimum non-negotiables”: the essential building blocks that a school believes are necessary for it to operate effectively and which must be adhered to by all members of the school community, including parents. For example, says Evans, if a school says it respects a non-negotiable 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, which they call “five percent,” sometimes lose sight of these standards, breaking boundaries and acting unreasonably. “The idea that everything can be traumatic [for their child] makes parents fight fiercely for things they shouldn’t,” Thompson said, citing examples like a kid getting kicked out of a college sport, not being cast in a starring role in a part or get a sub-optimal score.

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

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

Ideas for building trust and interacting with historically marginalized families

Making an effort to partner with parents is crucial, regardless of the family demographics of a school community. And the sooner the better. Kubesch describes how, as a teacher, she sent individual postcards to parents at the start of the year introducing herself and letting them know she was available as a resource for them.

“A lot of parents, especially minority parents, will never ask for help,” Kubesch said. She shares the example of a student who is hungry at lunchtime because the meal request form was online and the instructions for filling it out were unclear. When Kubesch offered to come to the family’s home to help fill out the form, the student’s mother asked him to come during the day. Upon arrival, Kubesch learned that the family had no electricity, another obstacle to filling out the form.

This anecdote illustrates the importance of reaching out to families, especially those who have historically been marginalized and not included in educational decision-making processes, says Anuradha Ebbe, associate superintendent of colleges for the Madison Metropolitan School District in Madison, Wis.

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

“We were interviewing families and finding out what they expected from schools,” Ebbe said. But before the families agreed to meet her, she had to earn their trust. “They wanted to know, ‘Are we safe?’ Ebbe said. “I told them: it will be safe. Let’s meet at the library, in the park or in another space that suits you.

Some families told Ebbe they wanted to know about their children’s learning experience, specifically how their children were learning to read. Ebbe went 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 younger siblings read to them.

Ideally, teachers who establish sufficient trust with parents may eventually see them as partners in the educational process, as in the above example. And regardless of the demographics of a school community, 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 their needs. Teachers who are successful in developing allies among parents may not only see better student outcomes, but may also reduce stress levels and avoid burnout.

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