An open letter to parents
Welcome to 2015. This is an ideal time to take a step back together and reflect on our overall practice. We all know that one vital marker of our success rides on our ability to communicate effectively. Here and now, I want us to take the leap, and honestly address our communication with parents. The dynamic between teachers and parents has long been an under-scrutinized black hole, which inevitably defaults to teams of “us” and “them.”
It’s time to extend our hands, and finally invite everyone to be on the same team. Here is an open letter, addressed directly to our students’ parents. Happy New Year to all.
Our relationship has reached a stalemate. I know you feel it too. I’m writing you because I want to take our relationship to the next level.
We both deeply want this to work out, right? We need this to work out. Just think of the children. They shuttle back and forth between us every day, and when we’re not a united front, we are not at our best for them. We need to remember that we want the same thing, and even though we don’t always agree on how to get there, it’s important that we recognize our shared goal. That outright goal is for the academic, social and personal success of our children.
In coming to you, first let me acknowledge you for everything you do. Wow, you put up with a lot sometimes. It must feel like your child rapidly tries on one persona after the next, as she discovers her identity through the uncertainty of growing up. In addition to dealing with that, you have a slew of teacher personalities to juggle as well. My teacher friends and I are so incredibly different from one another, and yet in speedy succession, we all see your child within the same day. Bizarre, isn’t it? It’s a wonder that the kids’ heads aren’t spinning at the end of each day, although some days they probably are. You navigate through all the different policies we throw at them, the less-than-clear expectations, the varying classroom guidelines, and how we can get so blindly loyal to our specific subject, without also conceding that the students may enjoy other activities or other classes more than our classes.
Here’s a rundown of everything we need to do better for you:
We need to be transparent. You and Johnny should be able to find out exactly what his grade is and how it is computed. We must not be an artificial bottleneck of information regarding Johnny’s standing.
We need to be predictable and consistent. The difficulty level of the homework must align with the difficulty level of tests, for example. Mismatched study materials and inconsistent assessment practices are fundamentally not fair, and I know how that infuriates you and your child.
We need to be communicative. This is where online systems help us so much. Login and see how Kim is doing, as well as regularly check in directly with her. I know you know that we have so many children under our care. Please, I ask that you reach out if you have any concerns so that you’re never surprised.
I am fortunate to work as a teacher during the days, then as a private tutor in the evenings and weekends. So I see the coin from both sides. My relationship with students and their parents during my day job is different than the dynamic I have with my tutoring families from other schools in the evenings. As a tutor, there is no worse feeling than witnessing how demoralizing it is for my student, after having spent an hour dedicated to a study guide, only to have it represent less than half the test’s content. As teachers, while we must not craft study guides as spitting image replicas of tests, we should make them pretty darn close in scope.
As a fellow community member, I have witnessed many-a-conversation between parents about your children’s teachers. Those conversations sound eerily like scouting for athletics teams. As in, “Oh, Mr. Fleming? Stay away if you can. Derek learned nothing from him all last year, and he said that Mr. Fleming would even yell at the students sometimes.” Or, “Ms. Robins? Move heaven and earth to get your child in her class, she’s phenomenal!” I know we force you to have these conversations, so clearly it’s important for us teachers to raise the bar of our performance.
Let’s just be honest here. It must be incredibly challenging for you to deal with those teachers who under perform, while also being cognizant of how we’re underpaid and overworked. How do you reconcile those conflicting realities? If our salaries were commanding ones, perhaps you could beseech better output from us. Yes, some of us under perform. But please don’t confuse a difficult or tightly run class with a bad class. Teacher personalities are as variant as those of employers. We all simply need to learn how to deal, and what better practice for that than in school?
Relationships work both ways, of course. My colleagues and I need certain things from you too, to make our partnership work optimally. Sitting here now, I just got mentally flooded with a pent-up wish list of needs from you. For our union to blossom, I need you to hear it straight.
Please, don’t become hyper-involved with Suzie’s grade a week before finals. Establish a connection early in the term and be a consistent presence throughout the term.
Please, do your part to teach your children about perspective. Indeed, every student is a unique work in progress, but there is no reason that a seventh- grader should be freaking out about a math quiz. Find the clear line where overachieving ends and overwhelming begins.
Please, let your child confront consequences. Back in the day, on my high-school football team, the whole team ran additional laps if any teammate forgot their cleats. I was pleased to learn that such a practice is still in place today. And yet, how disheartening it is to see you driving to school at 3 p.m. with Tommy’s cleats, upon getting a text from him.
Please, don’t hover. Let Jimmy be.
Please, you will achieve so many more of your goals with sugar rather than spice. Read over your emails again before sending them and strive for a positive tone. Try terminology such as, “would it be possible to” or “it’d be so helpful if” or “thank you in advance for” instead of, “you need to” or “unacceptable” or “I’m a counselor so I know that…”
Please, let’s agree that we don’t work for you. We work with you.
If you have questions or concerns about the syllabus, please share them at the beginning of the term. Please do read the syllabus so we can have a mutual understanding about the class policies. I promise to make the syllabus understandable and based on common sense.
Please remember that both of us model behavior for our students. Even if you are deeply frustrated with a certain teacher’s output, disparaging that person does nothing to improve the situation. You could say that you disagree with specific elements of his/her class, sympathize with your child’s experience, and agree with your child about what isn’t fair if you deem it so. Neither of us though must ever belittle nor vilify the other, as doing so condones that conduct to our children. If a teacher is clearly struggling, humanizing that person in the eyes of your child goes a long way. “It must be hard for Ms. Klein to be a new teacher,” for example, demonstrates empathy and compassion, which are monumentally critical elements of our children’s emotional development.
I’ve been watching you, especially since recently becoming a parent myself. Sitting in numerous parent-teacher meetings, I have made many mental notes about everything you do that I plan to emulate when my children attend school. I love when you offer us specific information regarding your child, so that we may understand him better. I love when you embody the notion that your child must step up to her own responsibilities, backed by your unending support. I love seeing you at their basketball games for that matter, as it’s all indicative of the same formula. That winning formula, unequivocally, is to remain positively involved in their lives. I’m serious about that — be involved. The same energy that goes into understanding how they’re doing in class is the same type of energy that goes into knowing who their friends are, or what it’s like in their after school club, or how the field trip went. Show me an academically and emotionally prosperous student, and I’ll bet everything that such a student is regularly and positively engaged by the parent(s) at home.
Sometimes we’re contentious, and sometimes we’re harmonious. I think of you frequently, and those thoughts have ranged from bitterness and agony to trust and awe. It’s time to end the uncertainty and volatility within our relationship. I hope this letter shows you that we as teachers are ready to give you what you need, and that it’s OK for us to humbly ask for what we need in return. The result will be us creating a steadfast environment for our children to flourish in.
(This piece was published in ASCD Smartbrief Education.)