How to interact with your child’s teacher
July 30, 2013
July 30, 2013
The parent seminar had a lofty, serious title: the Importance of Family
Engagement. Our local school board sponsored it and brought in a big
name speaker to match: Dr. Karen Mapp, director of Harvard’s Graduate
School of Education. Dr. Mapp stressed that “trust and respect between
school and home is key to student success.”
If only it were that simple. As both a mom and a teacher, I know it’s not. I left
the talk wondering if parents are making the most of this vital relationship.
Do they trust and respect teachers? And do those feelings go both ways?
Rather than rely on my limited experience, I decided to interview several
educators from across the country.
The consensus? Teachers were very positive about their interactions
with us parents. We’re generally described as supportive and respectful.
When pressed, however, they did confess that a few of our habits irk them.
Interestingly, the same issues popped up again and again, whether in a rural
or urban setting, whether in Grade 1 or Grade 8. A pattern emerged… there
seem to be nine distinct “types” of parents who could use some pointers.
Any chance you see yourself?
Twelve educators were
interviewed for this story. Since
we insisted on utmost honesty,
we agreed to use pseudonyms.
Of course, they don’t necessarily
represent every teacher
everywhere. The best thing you
can do is make time each year to get
to know your own child’s teacher,
then build a rapport based on that
individual’s style and preferences.
Lori teaches Grades 5/6 in West Vancouver
Marlene teaches Grade 2/3 in Toronto
Chris teaches Grade 6 in Porter’s Lake, N.S.
David teaches Grade 7 in Burlington, Ont.
Beth teaches Grade 5 in Winnipeg
Sean is a principal in Oakville, Ont.
Debra is a Special Education Resource Teacher in Montreal
Denyse teaches Grade 1 in Markham, Ont.
Marisa teaches Grade 6 in Toronto
Kristen teaches Grade 5 in Port Moody, B.C.
Anne teaches Grade 1 in Toronto
Alison teaches Grades 7/8 in Winnipeg
Overwhelmingly, teachers say we are very
reasonable and a pleasure to collaborate with.
However, a few of us are described as “extremely
self-centered and demanding.” (Yikes!) Lori says,
“These parents believe that their child is extremely
special and should be my top priority.” But, like all
teachers, she has many students and they all need
equal care and attention. Chris says: “Some parents
forget that you have 25, 26, or more other students in
the classroom, as well as their parents to deal with.”
Don’t expect a teacher to give your son or
daughter preferential treatment or demand daily
updates of them. It’s just not realistic.
Teachers agree that parents are absolutely within
their rights to speak to administration when issues
cannot be resolved. Denyse says: “I would always
prefer the parent ask for a meeting with me to
discuss concerns, but I’m also willing to hear from
them with or through my administrator. This can
make me feel defensive, but I try to always be open
to parents’ concerns.”
Speak to your child’s teacher first, says Marisa.
“It sets a cooperative tone when the teacher is
addressed directly, and usually problems are
resolved more efficiently.”
Kristen expressed dismay at
parents who refuse to communicate
with her directly. Griping with pals
is even less effective than going
to straight to the principal, since
concerns will never get any airtime
this way. Plus, it just promotes a
bad cycle of negativity in the school
community. “Parents should feel
comfortable asking the teacher
anything,” says Anne. “We are
supposed to be partners on this
Discuss issues with the teacher
instead of complaining to other
parents, says Anne. “Really, we
can usually work things out!”
Do you often deliver forgotten
textbooks, make excuses for poor
homework, or participate a little
too fully in your son or daughter’s
projects? “I wish parents would
let students figure out more things
on their own,” says Debra. “It’s
so important for them to learn,
make mistakes and grow. They
won’t be able to do this if the
parent is always helping them
out.” David agrees, saying that
many parents don’t let the child
grow in responsibility. “They make
excuses for behaviour instead of
allowing him or her to suffer the
consequences and learn.”
Resist the urge to intervene.
For teachers who are trying to
impart lessons of responsibility
and accountability, swooping
in to the rescue can be very
Some teachers prefer email to written
notes or phone calls. Others don’t use
it much. Still, there are two key points
about virtual communication that
everyone agrees upon. First, email
should never be used for resolving
serious or sensitive issues. “It’s good
for quick, factual responses,” says Sean,
but for bigger questions “meeting in
person is always best to understand
tone, intention, body language.” Second,
don’t vent in an email. Alison had an
experience recently with threatening
emails. “One even included flaming,
where the parent was yelling by writing
in capital letters.” Obviously, if a teacher
feels attacked, it’s unlikely that the
problem will be resolved smoothly.
Get to know your child’s teacher’s
preferences every year and try to
accommodate it as best you can.
I’ve been guilty of this one
– trust me, it’s humbling to
discover that you should
not have accepted your
child’s truth so readily. “I
think parents forget that
what they have been told at
home is reported through
a child’s filter,” says Beth.
Kids may have their
own reasons to share or
withhold vital information.
Get both sides of the
story before making a
judgment. Checking with
the teacher first can often
clarify the situation and
avoid turning it into a
problem, says Alison.
If so, you may be unwittingly
driving him or her
crazy. Teachers are more
receptive to conversations
with us when they’re not in
the midst of doing the most
important part of their job:
teaching! Lori says, “You
wouldn’t walk into your
doctor’s offi ce and do this.”
Other tips? “It’s nice to be
contacted by email or note
to give me a heads-up that
you have a concern before
discussing it,” says David.
Don’t talk with the
teacher about issues
you have in front of your
child. That’s a big nono.
Arrange a suitable
The squeaky wheel parent only appears when there’s a complaint –
otherwise he or she is invisible. “Don’t just contact us when a problem
arises,” says Alison. “If a parent shows they’re involved in their child’s
education, I am more at ease when communicating.” Volunteering is
an excellent way to establish a rapport with school staff. This way, if
problems arise, you can address them together as allies. “Teachers love
helpful parents,” says Lori. “As a volunteer you get a sneak peek into the
learning environment.” If your schedule doesn’t allow for volunteering,
try to be involved in a positive way on a day-to-day basis. Marlene
advises parents to “return calls, respond to notes, come to interviews,
read the agenda” and generally keep in touch.
Establish a good working relationship in the beginning, so that
when problems arise, it is less stressful for parent, teacher
and student and problems are easier to resolve.
“Sometimes when a child has diffi culties,
the parent has trouble accepting his
child’s learning difference,” says Marisa.
Debra adds, “With parents who do not yet
understand the limitations of their child,
fear arises and can sometimes be blamed on
the messenger.” Remember that teachers are
looking out for the student’s best interests.
When parents insist a child doesn’t need
extra assistance, it’s the student who
suffers, says Alison. “I’ve dealt with parents
who continued to push, although the
child just wasn’t capable of meeting their
Be open and listen. Even though we
know our children best, educators’
expertise and experience can shed light
on strengths or weaknesses that we
wouldn’t have otherwise recognized.
Dr. Mapp’s studies
have proven that family
engagement leads to
students with higher levels
of achievement, faster
literacy acquisition, and
better social skills. One of
the fi rst steps we can take
in the effort to “engage” is
to get to know our teachers
and then partner with them
in a healthy way.
Remember, the only parent type less
valuable than those listed is the “zeroinvolvement
parent”… so even if you
recognized a little bit of yourself here,
you get bonus marks for being in the game!
Nancy Fornasiero is an Oakville, Ont.-based freelance writer and
mother of three. An engaged parent as well as a former teacher,
she has had plenty of real-life experience with both sides of this
Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, August/September 2013.