Friday, May 19, 2006

Looking Ahead-Building Parent Relationships

One more week to go and I simply can't continue living in the mire of the end of year festivities-----the increased off task behaviors, the struggle to keep everyone's attention, the increased disrespect, the fights...and that's just the teacher behavior. Ok kidding aside I'm tired of being negative. The finish line is looming ahead and I want to look forward to next year...a fresh start. I had an assignment from a course I'm taking to discuss ways I could build communication. As I completed my assignment I realized it could serve as a post so here goes....

This school year has been a challenge for me in several ways. I had a group of students who were somewhat immature in behavior and skill level. Seventy-five percent had barely passed our state mandated tests in third grade. Out of twenty-three students I had fourteen boisterous boys. Lessons were often interrupted by inappropriate behavior including what I term fluid speaking where things were said as they popped up in students’ minds and they did not employ the adage think before speak. At the beginning of the year I spent the majority of my Friday nights and Saturday mornings grading languages arts papers and carefully collating them into student groups. These packets were sent home with a cover sheet that served as a weekly newsletter for our class. My history students kept a notebook that contained their graded papers so a weekly packet was not necessary. Parents signed a slip I prepared at the bottom and returned it to me so I could have documentation that the papers had been received. By January I gave this laborious process up as I had endured lengthy notes from certain parents criticizing me for giving their child a zero for uncompleted homework or they questioned the method I employed to grade their child’s papers over, and over, and over. These same parents would break appointments with me for conferences where we could have discussed things face to face or they simply ignored my conference requests. Parents would also write notes in their child’s agenda book asking me questions about items I had addressed completely in the weekly newsletter. It was obvious few parents were reading the newsletter. I also served as team leader for the fourth grade team which resulted in an increase in paperwork and responsibility. I also served as our discipline committee chair and was a member of two other committees on my campus. Personally I have a busy family, a mother in a nursing home who requires a visit every other day so she will eat, and I have been exploring a writing career that you, dear reader, have been subjected to over, and over, and over.

For the past two years my thoughts about parents have become increasingly more negative as the numbers of my students with positive behaviors has decreased. If they don’t care to keep their appointments with me why should I care? If they are ok with sending their children to school inappropriately dressed and unclean why should I care? If they are ok with their child’s disrespect to an adult, bullying another child, or simply refusing to complete class work why should I care? If a parent feels they are doing their job by telling school personnel to let their child starve if the student forgets to bring the lunch he is required to make for himself each day why should I care?

I should care. I am the only link between the parent and their child’s academic future. I should care because during the time their child is in my class it is my job to do whatever it takes to get them to understand the high stakes involved in today’s educational journey for every student. I should care because I know what it is like to have a surprise sprung the night before a report card or when the report is brought home that my child is not doing as well as they could. I should care because I know as a parent what a struggle it is to work, take care of a home, and simply try to survive each week without the added burdens that schoolwork can be in some households. Quite simply I should care because I am the teacher.

For this reason I had already identified for myself that I needed to get over my fear of continuous confrontation when dealing with parents and welcome this opportunity to reflect on a course of action for the coming year.

Parents need to know the classroom policies regarding types of assignments including homework. They need to know about late assignments and extra credit. They need to know about make up work and projects. They need to know about needed supplies and notebook specifications. For the last six years I have produced for all of my classes a syllabus much like you receive in a high school or college course but pared down to meet the needs of a fourth grade class. This is usually given out the first day of school and the first homework assignment is to obtain a parent signature on the syllabus. Students keep the syllabus all year in their notebook so that it is handy for future reference. When students ask me a question during the year concerning something I know is on the syllabus I tell them, “I think I gave you that answer in your syllabus. Why don’t you look it up? If you have another question let me know.”

Another document that I prepare for parent as well as student use is something I lifted from Harry Wong. I give my students a study guide at the beginning of each unit. The study guide is one page containing all of the vocabulary words, the essential question for the unit as well as six to seven key questions. Information regarding the text pages we will use, the unit test date, project information, and extra credit information is also listed on the study guide. Not every parent utilizes it, not every student can keep up with it, but it does help a bit as one more piece of the information puzzle I need to provide for parents.

Since I haven’t felt as if I have had good parent contact this year, as well as the previous two years, I know that I must do a better job of contacting parents by phone and email. I have wonderful relationships with the parents who are in the building constantly. Most of these parents are volunteers or serve as a member of our excellent substitute teacher team. I feel as if I can speak with these parents honestly because they are aware of what happens in our building on a regular basis whereas parents who are not involved to that extent sometimes have an unrealistic view of what school is today. I know that these involved parents realize that if I criticize their child it is because I do have their best interests at heart and I am trying to help. I need to have that kind of relationship with all parents, not just the ones who are brave enough to come into the building on a regular basis.

Relationship building….that’s my mission. I think I already have some good pieces of the puzzle in place, however, I need to get over myself and call, call again, and call some more. Once I have my rosters in a few short weeks I need to call and introduce myself. I need to prepare some questions during my time off that well help me keep the conversation focused on their child and his or her needs as a student. What do you like best about your child? What is your child’s strengths? What discipline strategies do you follow at home? Who is at home when your child arrives? Who will be helping your child with his/her homework? I need to note previous low grades, previous low test scores, previous excessive absences or tardies and address them in a positive manner. I need to make myself available in this introductory phone call for questions the parent may have. Phone calls should continue through the first nine weeks and on into the year. Phone calls should not be made just when there is a problem. I believe that I could take my rosters and divide up the phone calling so that it would manageable for my busy schedule throughout each nine week period.

Another strategy to continue building and maintain good relationships all year long would be to continue with my weekly or bi-weekly newsletter. This could be sent home as before, but this time I could employ the students to help me with the collating. This would give the student more ownership of the packet of papers and they might be more willing to get it home when they should. I also would like to send the newsletter by email when possible and make it available on line. I want to develop a classroom blog where parents could see daily updates on what we are doing the classroom as well as pictures that could be uploaded for viewing. Student work could be posted and my writers could have their works published.

I believe that I have here a good framework for cementing good relationships with parents. The key is communication. I am sure that I will still have a few parents balk at my overtures for a good relationship, but many more can be brought on board by a simple phone call. I am the teacher, and there really is no excuse not to pursue relationships.


Mike in Texas said...

We also have many of the behaviors you listed going on, among the teachers.

Mike in Texas said...

I got a virus alert from my anti-virus program when I went to the blogrankings link. Just wanted to make you aware of it.

EHT said...

Yes, I guess you're right abou the teacher behavior. I'm sure we have it too----it's just less pronounced. Thanks for the info about my link. I may just remove it.

Amerloc said...

I really believe schools are more productive when they are true community schools. Pursuing relationships helps build community, so, as much as I might regret (and admire) the extra effort it will require on your part, I think you're on the right track.

EHT said...

Thanks Amerloc. At this point I really see no alternative. This something I must attempt. Look for future posts concerning my exploration into methods to deal with disruptive students.

"Ms. Cornelius" said...

I feel for ya, I do! This year I haven't really had any outrageous parents, but I did have one parent who asked me to "kick my daughter in the pants" over her science grade because the daughter respected my opinion.

But, oh, last year I had some lazy parent, some gullible parents, some screaming parents, and some call-me-every-five-minutes parents.

It's almost over.

Laura(southernxyl) said...

It's funny that you dread talking to parents. I always dreaded talking to my daughter's teachers, and looking back I can see that there were times when I should have but didn't. Sometimes they were defensive and snappish when I only wanted information so I could help my daughter problem-solve - like, was that really a pop quiz, or did you announce a test and she was looking out the window. Sometimes I felt that they were unnecessarily complaining about my daughter and that just got under my skin. Once I sent a note asking to have a graded chemistry test sent home so I could help her figure out how better to prepare for the next one. It came with a note written in the margin in red ink - "Frankie can stay after school at any time for help but she has never chosen to do so." I thought, she doesn't need your damn help, I am a chemist. I sent the test back without comment, she made a 100 on the next one, and he asked her how she managed that. Once in 7th grade I had to pick her up right after school to go to an appointment, she didn't come out right away so I had to go find her, and I found her math teacher helping her with her locker - and growling at her that he had to help her every afternoon, she obviously needed to just pay attention and line the marks up. When he paused for breath I asked her if she only had trouble at the end of the day. She said yes, and I told her to try closing one eye. Her eyes cross when she's tired, I told the teacher, and probably she's having double vision and it's impossible to line the marks up like that. "Oh", he said, and then he lit into her again - "You need to tell me when you're having a problem! I don't know about it if you don't!" blah blah. I wanted to slap him. And therein lies another problem: I could be very objective about somebody else's kid, but when it's my own, everything goes straight to the dinosaur brain. That's probably the biggest reason why I avoided talking to her teachers if I possibly could. Oh well. She's in college now and while there have been times during her freshman year that I would have liked to have driven down there and shaken her professors until their teeth rattled, I have refrained. Mostly it's a relief to know I'm really expected not to talk to them at all.

EHT said...

Thanks for your comment, Laura. I think it's important to remember the golden rule with parents. Treat them the way you would want to be treated. It's nice to know parents dread the conversation as much as the teacher does sometimes. That's why I think relationship building is the key. We both,parent and teacher, need to be comfortable enough with each other to not let that emotional business get in the way of the child's success.

Deb Sistrunk Nelson said...

I'm just reading this for the first time. You really do a good job of articulating the balancing act teachers are faced with every day.

I think teachers should get hazardous duty pay for dealing with unruly students and parents who behave badly!

I have always valued teachers who recognize the importance of communiction and relationship building. And I am indebted to those teachers who call me - to introduce themselves and to keep me apprised of my child's progress.

Thanks for such an eye-opening post.

Deb Sistrunk Nelson said...

And you teach fourth-graders. Oh, my gosh!

EHT said...

Thanks DCS. Yes, sometimes it is amazing to realize I teach fourth graders. What is even more amazing is that some of my colleagues who teach even younger grades are experiencing some of the same problems...children as young as 5 and 6.