As teachers return to the start of school following summer break, I hope they will take some time to reflect on ways to effectively communicate and partner with the families of the students they teach.
Particularly for educators in early and elementary education, they have a chance to set the course for how families imagine school and family connections. As a parent of young children, I know for sure that I am doing the very best I can to support them for school success. But, even as a university professor of education, I still experience a deep level of anxiety and vulnerability about how best to partner with teachers to support my children.
As I’ve communicated with other families across the United States, I have learned that they too yearn for opportunities to build stronger partnerships with teachers.
Similar to a doctor with a bedside manner that fosters respect and trust when working with patients and their families, teachers can design initial and subsequent interactions with families that demonstrate trust, collaboration and advocacy, giving them a better chance of effectively meeting the needs of students.
I believe teachers can learn something really powerful about how to communicate with families and build sustainable partnerships with them. As teachers prepare to build and cultivate positive, relevant and useful partnerships and collaborations with families, I offer the following seven recommendations:
1. Stress the importance of working together. It is essential for educators to explicitly share that, as a teacher, you are on the same “team” as families and parents. Families need to know that you are working with them to support their children. Some parents have had such negative experiences in schools — as students themselves, and/or with previous teachers of their children — that they need to be reassured that teachers are not working “against” them but rather with them to support their children. In this sense, teachers cannot assume that families know or believe teachers are on their side in the education of their children.
2. Acknowledge families and parents as “knowers.” Although teachers can rely on their past experiences as teachers, as former students and/or as parents, it is necessary for them also to acknowledge that families and parents are indeed knowledgeable about their children. Teachers should not act as the main arbiters of knowledge regarding the educational experiences, and consequently the needs, of children when they are communicating with families and working to build trusting and lasting relationships. Allow and encourage families and parents to be “experts” on their children’s experiences. Despite what teachers might believe, family members have deep knowledge about their children — their histories, their preferences, their challenges, their assets — which can be used to bridge and advance learning, curricula, instructional assessment and relational opportunities inside the classroom.
3. Identify and articulate student strengths. Rather than waiting until there’s a concern to report, identify assets that you observe among students and articulate those strengths to families. For many families, the only time they communicate with teachers is when something negative has happened or when there is a concern about their children. Focus on, and articulate orally and in writing, assets and the potential that you observe in young people. In education, we tend to focus on what young people do not know or have, and then try to “fill in the gaps.” A different approach is to identify assets in young people and build on them. While student assets include cognitive and intellectual strengths, young people bring so many others that go unrecognized — such as kindness and advocacy for friends, strong communication skills and perseverance in the midst of challenges. Recognizing how and when students demonstrate robust knowledge, skills, attitudes, dispositions and behaviors requires expanded lenses among teachers.
4. Express your commitment to development. As teachers are communicating with families, you should express to families that young people develop knowledge, skills and ideal behaviors at different times. Share with families that it is your role as a teacher both to help students develop and to help ease parents’ anxieties when their children are not developing a particular desired skill or behavior, for instance, at the same rate as others. Even as you provide recommendations, express to families your belief that students will in fact reach the goals and expectations when you, they (as families) and students work together. Young people, similar to all of us, are and should be viewed as developing beings.
5. Demystify the educational process. Most of the time, families are doing the very best they can to support their young people. Families do not want to feel like they are poorly parenting and supporting their children, just as teachers do not want to feel they are ineffectively teaching. One way to reduce tension and worry among families is for teachers to share personal anecdotes with families about challenges they have had with young people in their own families (sons, daughters, nieces, nephews). Sharing personal challenges in children’s learning, development and education provides a space for families to understand that children from different walks of life — even educators’ — may have challenges. Sharing these stories can bridge implicit divides between educators and parents because families start to see teachers as real people and consequently may believe teachers are not judging them as parents.
6. Set agreeable forms of communication. As technology becomes more sophisticated every day, you should talk with families about their preferred forms of communication. Knowing whether families are more or less responsive to particular kinds of communication can help facilitate more seamless interactions in the future.
7. Include young people in discourse and decision-making. Although we tend to talk about young people in deciding what is best for them in education, it can be necessary and advantageous to include young people (even elementary students) in the decisions and expectations being designed on their behalf. In this way, teachers, families and students are working collectively to co-construct a learning plan that includes important voices and perspectives. Young people in particular can have powerfully insightful ideas about why challenges may be emerging and how problems can and should be addressed. Talking to young people, rather than talking about them, can prove useful in supporting them for academic, psychological, emotional and social success.
As a new school year gets underway, teachers have an opportunity to reflect on more effective ways to build partnerships with families in order to maximize student learning and development. Unfortunately, parental and family involvement tends to decrease as students get older, although student challenges increase. I hope teachers of all grades, from pre-Kindergarten to high school, will build stronger capacity to support young people. Indeed, our students need and deserve partnerships that are trusting and lasting. Family and teacher connections are essential aspects of student success.
This story about parent-teacher partnerships was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.
Richard Milner is the Cornelius Vanderbilt Endowed Chair of Education and Professor of Education in the Department of Teaching and Learning at Peabody College of Vanderbilt University. His research, teaching and policy interests include urban education, teacher education and the social context of education.