Jessica Lahey recently wrote a very intriguing and informative New York Times article entitled, “5 Things Teachers Wish Parents Knew: Your Children Can Do More Than You Think”. As a classroom teacher it brought back memories of the discussions that I have had with parents. More importantly, as a teacher leader it provided me with the opportunity to reflect on the ways that I maximized positive communication with parents. As I list each of Lahey’s five points I consider the ways that I extend this point in my classroom practice.
1. Your kids can do much more than you think they can do.
One of the first things that I attempt to communicate to parents is that I hold the same “high expectations” that they do. Sure, my definitions may be different. However, by sharing my expectation it begins a communication process acknowledging the important role that parents play as a “partner” in their child’s education. I also strive to understand what parents see as their child’s strengths. I always send home a short survey at the beginning of the year asking the following questions:
- Tell me about the gifts that your child has — especially the smaller or taken for granted ones so that I may celebrate and nurture them here at school.
- At the end of the year, what would you like to see your child achieve academically and/or socially?
- Please let me know areas in which your child needs reinforcement and/or expansions.
The input I receive is invaluable. I use it whenever I am reflecting on a student’s classroom behavior. I pull it out every time I talk with a parent – especially during parent-teacher conferences. My goal is to remind parents that their input is valuable and together we can help their child succeed academically and socially. In the end, I try to remember that parents have been and continue to be a major source of “teaching” for their child.
2. It’s not healthy to give your child constant feedback.
There seems to be an endless source of debate and discussion regarding student feedback. How often should we praise students and for what? To be honest, I continually search for new ways to consider feedback. Regardless of the program or initiatives that are used in schools, I try to remember one important point. Students need to be respected and honored for their accomplishments. In many ways I try to foster an environment where students see and acknowledge these accomplishments in each other. Building small group behaviors is one way to begin developing this skill. I start by placing students in pair-share activities. I model how to give positive feedback: “Your idea about how to change my work really helped me.” or “Wow that was great strategy for solving that math problem.” In math I will sometimes use the student name when referring to a particular strategy – “Remember how we used the Nathan method yesterday for solving that subtraction problem.” Wouldn’t we all love to have a math strategy with our name on it! Most importantly, nothing is more rewarding than hearing student’s praise one another.
3. We promise not to believe everything your child says happens at home if you promise not to believe everything your child says happens in our classrooms.
There is nothing more unnerving than having a principal come into your room and tell you that they received a call from a parent about an “incident” in your room. My rule of thumb is that I never leave it up to a student to communicate negative news. If a student does not do well on an assignment, I take a proactive role in communicating with the parent BEFORE a child goes home. My goal is to let the parent know that I am not dumping the problem in their lap. One practice that I have found to be effective is to involve the student in my communication. We write a joint EMAIL which ensures that the parent hears both sides. Yes, this takes time, but the investment shows students that you are really a partner in their learning.
4. Your children learn and act according to what you do, not what you say.
This is one point where I am not completely in agreement with Lahey. I think that teachers need to be a positive role model in what they say and do. Certainly the old adage is true – actions speak louder than words. However, students need to learn to discuss their work and problems in a way that leads to solutions. One thing that I do often is to model a problem solving strategy in my own work. For example, I will often show students a piece of my writing and discuss parts that I struggled on. I solicit their input in how to solve these problems. This cooperative approach guides students in what to say and do when they need assistance.
5. Teach your children that mistakes aren’t signs of weakness but a vital part of growth and learning.
What does it mean to fail? Every child looks at this differently and we need to ensure that students understand our expectations. One area of particular importance is the way I evaluate and grade student work. Over the past several years I have implemented a number of assessment reflection activities. Included in this process is a student-parent reflection that happens at home. My goal is to solicit the support of parents to maximize student achievement. Their conversations at home can have tremendous impact on the work I do in the classroom. Supportive and productive communication strategy yields tremendous benefits.