My phone rings, and I glance at the caller ID. The number belongs to one of my students’ parents. I let it go to voicemail, but I know I should’ve answered it. I’ve had trouble with this student. He’s failing English, and he acts out in class to deflect attention from the fact that he doesn’t read well. Now he’s on academic probation, and I know his parents want to know why. I tear at my fingernail and wait for the call to go to voicemail. I should’ve answered the call; no, I should’ve called his parents a long time ago, but I’m afraid of how they will react.
There are many teachers like me, who find building relationships between families and educators to be challenging and even a bit scary. Despite that, research indicates that engaging with students’ families often leads to better performance in school, both academically and behaviorally. Educators find working with students’ families—our greatest asset—to be both rewarding and also frustrating at times. Add a few bad experiences from a parent–teacher conference to the mix, and a teacher may have negative beliefs about students’ families that affect their ability to work with them. According to research conducted by Drs. Kathy B. Grant and Julie A. Ray, teachers are generally afraid of three things when it comes to building relationships with families:
- Angry and defensive family members
- Family members who may question their competence
- Family members who may complain to administration and make demands
The teacher’s anticipation of an adverse reaction leads to anxiety and avoidance, which only makes the situation worse, and building relationships between families and educators will take on greater importance as more learning takes place in the home.
The following techniques will make building relationships between families and educators more productive:
- Lead with empathy. Your first step is to listen to your student’s families. Remember that you are talking about their child and their instinct to protect often kicks in, but “underneath their defensiveness and hostility, parents usually feel scrutinized and vulnerable.” Don’t allow the meeting to escalate into a confrontation; instead, focus on what you can do together to help the student. Sometimes the simple acknowledgment that you understand their concern is enough.
- Stick to the facts. Keep emotion out of the discussion and calmly explain the purpose of your call.
- Allow family members the opportunity to share their perspectives.
- Address questions directly and honestly.
- Clearly describe the reason for your call.
- Use families as a resource. Family members know the child better than you do, so give them a chance to offer ideas to solve any problems you’re experiencing with their child. The student reaps the educational benefits when families and educators work together.
- Look for common ground. Be willing to compromise by working together to create a mutually respectful environment in which trust and respect can flourish. A former administrator once asked me, “Is this the hill you want to die on?” I consider his words before I react. Teachers may make the mistake of effecting a “so what are you going to do about it” attitude; instead, approaching families as allies can result in them having a better understanding of and investment in their role in their child’s education.