Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Difficult conversations

A lot of times, I start this blog off with stories about my own kids, even though they are way past the "early childhood" stage.  The reason I do this is because many of the issues I struggled with when they were young reappear at older ages but in different ways.  One of the common things parents and teachers both struggle with is communication.  This isn't a skill that suddenly develops and there's never another problem.  There are as many different ways to communicate as there are people.  Because of this, learning to communicate with all different kinds of people is critical to ensure the absolute best education for our children.

When I first began teaching, parent-teacher conferences terrified me.  I was a very young adult and parents of the children I worked with were much older than me, and definitely more worldly.  What did I know, anyway?  Who was I to tell these parents anything about their children?  And God forbid there was some difficulty in the classroom--how do I broach that issue?

In the last ten years I've lived on both sides of the fence.  As my confidence has grown as a teacher and my ability to discuss all sorts of issues with parents, I have been on the other side AS a parent.  I have listened to teachers who have explained things that my husband did not understand, as his career is not in education.  I have listened to teachers who have given me glowing, general reports of my children but didn't really answer my questions or give me any valuable information.  I have also listened to teachers attack and criticize my children.  A few years ago, my son was in the hospital for an extended stay and my daughter was missing her brother tremendously.  She was struggling in school with talking out and a generally sad and angry demeanor.  The first thing her teacher said to me when I entered the conference--in front of a student teacher, no less--was, "She sure is bossy."  No kidding.  I live with her every day...do you really think I don't know that?  Nothing else that teacher said throughout the year stuck in my ears as heavily as that statement did.  She, in effect, lost me in that first sentence of that first conference.  Our relationship deteriorated from that point, and unfortunately, my daughter had a pretty rough year.

So I'm going to offer some tips on both sides of the fence.  I know conferences may have already taken place, but it's never too soon to build relationships with parents and teachers.  After all, we're all working for what's best for our children.

For Parents:
1.  Make a list of questions in advance.  Any questions you have are appropriate.  You have the right to know what your child does during the day, how they do it, who they get along with, and what they excel at as well as what they struggle with.  You're also entitled to know how to help your child.
2.  Be clear with the teacher what your goals and expectations for your child are.  Often, parents and teachers hold different expectations, and this can cause problems down the line.
3.  Speak with respect and mind your time.  If you need more than the allotted fifteen minutes (and I almost always do), let the teacher know in advance.
4.  Tell the teacher if there are personal issues that make affect your child's performance.  Death or sickness in the family, divorce, moves, and the like can all cause changes in both behavioral and academic performance.  I find it helpful to write a letter for the teacher to refer back to.
5.  Listen to what the teacher is saying about your child, and ask questions if you don't understand.  Many teachers use jargon that the average parent isn't familiar with.  If you don't know what a DRA or an SOL is, then ask.  Have the teacher clarify for you, and if the teacher is unable to do so, ask an administrator.
6.  If for whatever reason, there is a personal conflict between you and a teacher, contact an administrator immediately and ask for a sit-down conference with the three of you.  Know what you would like to be addressed going into the conference.  Keep things on a professional level and maintain a respectful tone, even if you're angry.

For teachers:
1.  Contact parents before school starts and again immediately after.  One of my favorite memories was when one of my children's teachers sent me an email on the first day of school welcoming my child to her class and letting me know she was open to any questions I might have.
2.  Keep in mind the 5+ rule.  Before you ever even UTTER a negative word about a child you should have given the parent a minimum of five genuine, positive statements of feedback about their child.  This helps  parents understand you are on their child's side.
3.  When you do have to discuss difficult situations in the classroom, use the "sandwich method".  Something good, then something difficult, and finishing up with something good.  This helps everyone remember that you're focusing on ONE behavior, not a "bad kid".
4.  Be respectful of parents and their time and work schedules.  Some parents are hyper-eager to meet whenever you'd like.  Others, not so much.  Keep in mind that you don't live these parents' lives, you don't know their situations, and almost every parent loves their child and wants what is best for them.  Try to think outside the box in ways to communicate...and keep in mind not everybody reads, nor does everyone read English.
5.  Conferences should be a conversation, not a ten-minute report where a teacher throws information at a parent and the parent nods.  Consider sending home a questionnaire about what parents would like to talk about during their conference.  You might be surprised at the answers you get.

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