As we start a new school year, one of the key aspects to consider is our relationships with the parents and families of our students.
In the past year, not only have I had reflective conversations with parents and educators about moving to a focus on communication WITH parents (rather than communication TO parents), but I have also discussed preschool and kindergarten beginnings with close friends as well as people in my family. I have heard personal stories of parents being told by the school that their child is “not ready for school” or is “a constant problem”. I have also heard of wonderful school:family relationships being built from the first moment they meet – teachers that have made that effort to focus on the positives, empathize, and truly listen to families as they share stories about their child. The experiences of those that have been there and those that are nervous about getting there all say the same thing: the first contact that is made from teachers and the school to the families is crucial to developing a positive relationship.
These conversations lead me to reflect on the question, “What message are we sending in our first contact with parents?”
- sending a list of forms to be signed and rules to be followed?
- calling to tell them about a negative incident with their child?
- meeting them to do a formal assessment on their child (ie. kindergarten or preschool assessment)?
- meeting to discuss the deficits their child has?
- telling families how to parent?
- sharing who we are and opening up a conversation about us and their child?
- calling to share something positive or just talk about the child?
- meeting them to just get to know the child and the family?
- calling to share some noticed strengths and interests of the child?
- developing a relationship in which there is open communication between the school and the family?
- determining the best way to meet parents where they are for communication?
- listening to families about their thoughts and feedback?
- working to build trust?
I realize that in elementary school classrooms, in which students often have only one teacher, it is much easier to develop relationships with families. This does not mean, however, that because I am a principal or a high school teacher and have more students that I do not try to develop positive relationships with our families at the start of the year. Each contact we make with our families is an opportunity to foster an important relationship.
For me, I will continue to learn from families and staff at Kent on how important this first contact is in forming relationships. I will work hard to be visible and present with students and families and initiate positive dialogue around our students. Many of our families come to school nervously “giving their baby” to us… and sometimes, for a variety of reasons, there is a lack of trust. We must work hard to build this trust through listening and engaging in positive, open conversations with our families.
I recall a parent whom I had a very positive relationship with say to me, “I remember the first time you walked up to me… I got nervous and thought – what did my kid do?” She went on to state that when she went to school, it was NEVER a good thing when the principal called or approached. Other parents chimed in saying how nervous they get when they see the school’s number on the call display. This feedback from parents shows how we have to work to overcome the perception that a contact with the school is a result of a problem; we must have a balanced authentic communication of celebrations, sharing of information, and concerns. This balanced communication all starts with the effort to create a positive first contact with parents.
As my friend Heidi Hass Gable reminds us, “although educators have often taught and worked with parents, students, and curricula for a number of years… we have to remember, that parents are new each year. This year is often the first time they will have gone through this grade or subject.” She encourages educators to be patient, empathetic and understanding to parents (she understands this can be challenging and also encourages parents to do the same for school staff). So if we approach parents as new to us this year, what will be their first impression of our class/school? How will they feel after our first contact?
Although ongoing communication WITH parents/families helps the school, the students, and the families… it is also important that at this time of year, we work hard to lay the foundation and make that first communication with families a positive one. It is also a great opportunity to share our story of who we are as teachers and to find out who our students are as children. Let’s share our stories and listen to the stories of our families. Let’s work together as parents and educators to make that first meeting or phone call a positive, effective one.
As this is an area that many of us continue to work on, if you have ideas to share, I would love to learn from you – please take a moment comment and share.
Thank you to my wonderful sister, my friends, and staff for sharing their experiences with me and helping me grow as an educator and parent.