As we inched closer to the classroom door, I found myself tightly gripping my daughter’s hand. Beads of sweat dripped down my forehead. “Too tight,” my 4-year old declared as she slid her hand from mine and raced to her classroom. I trailed behind, walking down the long familiar hallway covered in student work, eyes darting back and forth trying to pick out which of these masterpieces was my daughter’s.
“This is mine,” she declared, pointing to her most recent painting. I remember thinking it was one of the most beautiful pieces I’d ever seen, which was surely the opinion of every parent waiting in the hallway. Just as I began to relax, her teacher appeared in the doorway. “Welcome to parent-teacher conferences,” she said. Her voice was kind, but still, my heart leapt into my throat as I crossed into the classroom. For the first time ever, I was on the other side of the table: We were talking about my child. And, although I knew better, I couldn’t help but fight a deep-rooted notion that my child’s progress was a reflection of my own abilities as a parent.
Building and Cultivating Parent-Teacher Partnerships: Lessons Learned From the Parent’s Side
Although there are a number of things I don’t remember about that first meeting with my child’s teacher, there are some things I’ll never forget. You see, I’d been a teacher for more than nine years before attending a parent-teacher conference as a parent. Despite all my experience, I had no idea how crucial the relationship with my daughter’s teacher was and how vulnerable I’d feel until that very moment. Throughout that year of working with my daughter’s teacher, I learned not only what I needed as a parent, but how to establish and cultivate a true partnership with the parents I work with. To follow are the main things I found helpful when building and nurturing these relationships.
Introduce Yourself Early
First things first, introduce yourself to the parents and students you work with well before the start of the school year. I entered my first conference as a parent feeling nervous and exposed and worried that I somehow wasn’t a good parent. I wonder if I would have felt more comfortable and been able to contribute more at that initial meeting if I’d had more contact with my child’s teacher beforehand.
Many schools host a step-up day or open house, which are wonderful opportunities for teachers and parents to meet. Teachers, however, need to take it a step further. Set up a time to talk to the parents of your incoming students. Invite parents to come to school, talk on the phone or even schedule a home visit so you can get acquainted. During this meeting, the most important thing you can do is to listen. Parents need to know how important their role is and how their thoughts and opinions are valued. Getting to know the student and family you work with is the most important step in building this relationship.
Next, follow up. Send an email or call the family, thanking them for taking the time to meet with you. After the first meeting, you should have a good indication which method is most appropriate. In the letter or phone call, it’s important to detail what the family can expect from you as their child’s case manager and teacher. This follow-up conversation also allows you to answer any questions they have, and gives you the opportunity to set up a tour of the school or classroom before school starts.
Have an Open-door Policy
Have an open-door policy. Invite families into the classroom regularly. It’s important to remember that many students and families might not feel welcome at school. You need to create opportunities for parents to come in and see the incredible work their children are doing. Not only is this important for parents; it also shows students how their parents and teacher work together to support them.
Contact families regularly. By maintaining frequent contact with families, I’m able to send them pictures of their child working on a project or share a recent accomplishment. Typically, parents of children with special needs are only contacted when things are going wrong, and as a result of this, many parents can’t imagine their child being successful at school. Sending pictures and communicating regularly not only allow them to see that their child does belong in his or her school, but makes future difficult conversations easier because you’ve already established a positive relationship.
Use “real language.” Educational jargon and lingo is difficult enough for teachers to navigate, never mind people without training in this field. Special education laws and language can put parents at a disadvantage and make them feel inadequate. When meeting with parents, whether at a conference or an individualized education plan (IEP) meeting, use “real language,” not the acronyms that often plague special education. Explain in detail what you’re talking about so that parents can be contributing members of the team.
Get in Touch Before IEP Meetings
Prior to an IEP meeting, contact the family to review progress, brainstorm goals and discuss programming options. Often, decisions regarding these aspects of a students’ education are made at the IEP meeting, even though parents have only just received updated information about them. It is important to be as transparent as possible so that decisions can be made in the best interest of the student.
Be an Advocate
Finally, be an advocate for all students and families. As a case manager I want every family to know that I will advocate for what is educationally best for their children. Whether a family is more or less actively involved in their child’s education is irrelevant; I will honor this commitment, and in doing so, will do my best to help students and families get what they need.