Even the most skilled parent communicators can still get flack from time to time. It’s difficult to not take things personally in education. Communication has many moving parts, and it’s easy to make a misstep, but you can minimize the damage. Here are nine of the biggest parent communication mistakes I’ve made or witnessed and how to fix them.
Mistake #1: Using only one-way communication
It’s critical to give everyone in a relationship a voice. Sending home a newsletter for your classroom is great because it provides parents with information on what’s happening in the classroom. But be sure to let parents know how they can get in touch with you if they have questions or want to share anything about the newsletter.
Are your students older? Consider setting up an app for two-way communication. Here are the recommendations from Common Sense Education: Best Messaging Apps and Websites for Students, Teachers, and Parents.
Mistake #2: Waiting until things get bad to reach out
Teaching requires a massive balancing act. With everything teachers are expected to manage, it’s easy to deprioritize parent communication. Don’t fall into this trap!
All too often, we only communicate when something has gone wrong, and then parents wonder if there was any way it could have been mitigated earlier. When teachers communicate with parents throughout the year, it becomes normal instead of reactionary.
Set up a reminder system to touch base with two or three students’ parents per week. Send a quick email telling them something positive you noticed about their child. Nothing beats feeling like your kid is seen and enjoyed. An added bonus is that when the student hears from their parent about the communication, they’ll feel a happy glow.
Mistake #3: Not documenting parent communication
Save every single email you send or receive between you and a parent (a good way to do this is creating an email folder for them). When you have conferences or meetings, ask a coworker to come and take notes—then follow up afterward by sending those notes. If you call a parent or vice versa, write down the date, time, and what was said. I hope you never need this kind of backup, but it’s there if you do.
Mistake #4: Equating communication with confrontation
Though remaining passive feels safer for some people, it creates a host of other internal and external issues. If you’re struggling with how to approach a situation, seek support from other teachers or leaders (or post anonymously in our Helpline group!).
Mistake #5: Assuming a parent can read (or speak English)
Make sure every parent is given important information in different ways: on paper, by email, and by phone if they haven’t replied in a timely manner. Step away from assessing parents and try always to remember that everyone loves and cares for their children in the best way they know how. Parents will feel appreciated when they are able to understand what they need to do to help their child in school.
Mistake #6: Treating every conversation like a battle
This is a good one for life in general, am I right? When things get heated, give yourself time to calm down before communicating.
I’ll be honest: I often feel ashamed when I read an angry email from a parent. I pride myself on being the best teacher I can possibly be, and I want to be loved. (Doesn’t everyone?) So when a parent email rattles me, my shame turns to anger pretty quick. Instead of responding immediately, I work hard to sit in the discomfort, breathe, and think of a way to address the issue in a calm, rational way. Often during that waiting period, I’m able to create a generous and gracious response. Other times, I discover that what I thought was a battle was just a glitch in communication.
Mistake #7: Refusing to admit when you’re wrong
Despite your best intentions and efforts, it is inevitable: At some point in your life, you will be wrong. I know the truth is tough to take.
Mistakes can be hard to handle, so sometimes we refuse to admit them. Instead, we seek out evidence to prove what we already believe.
We experience something called cognitive dissonance when we hold two opposing thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes at the same time. For example, let’s say you believe you are an experienced, organized, and capable teacher. Occasionally, you might let emotions sneak into your grading or forget to send an email. The cognitive dissonance is uncomfortable—surely an experienced, organized, and capable teacher wouldn’t do these things! And so to manage this bad feeling, you try to deny, disprove, or shift the blame.
The truth is, you can be a fabulous teacher and be a teacher who makes mistakes. Holding two opposing thoughts is possible—and it’s a healthy exercise for your brain. Apologizing for your mistakes will help others see you as a fabulous teacher who is confident and kind enough to admit when they are wrong.
Mistake #8: Veering into the parenting lane
Parents know their child better than anyone. Instead of explaining a child’s behavior or personality to their parent, start conversations by asking, “What are your thoughts?” I’ll bet you’ll find their thinking aligns with yours. By working together as a team, you can accomplish a heck of a lot more. Plus, students who know their teachers and parents are on the same page will think twice about misbehavior.
Mistake #9: Taking parent issues personally
“Don’t take it personally” is easier said than done. But when you can get to the point of not internalizing criticism or negativity, life—including teaching—gets a lot easier. Everyone arrives at your circle of influence with baggage—including the ones who get there via nasty email. Don’t let their baggage challenge your self-perception.
Instead of dwelling on a perceived judgment of your worth or value, reframe the situation to center on the child. “[Student] is a great kid. What can we do together to make sure they succeed?”
That said, if a parent is abusive or hateful, that’s not your responsibility to ignore. At that point, it’s time to get an administrator involved.
Teaching is a tough business, but so is parenting. The more we can do to help parents see that teachers are human and care about their child, the easier we make school on both parties.