I Used to Teach. Now I See How Teachers Can Help Parents Cut Through the Noise.

New Orleans Navigator and former teacher Alyssa Owens considers how teachers can break down communication barriers with families.

For nearly a decade, I worked in New Orleans schools—first as an English teacher and later as an administrator. Parent engagement was crucial to the success of my students. The hours hosting conferences, making phone calls, publishing newsletters, and writing up report card comments made a difference to families. And they helped me do my job better. As an educator, I needed to work closely with families to give my students the best chance at success.

Now, I’m on the other side of the parent-teacher conference table. As a Navigator for hard-working New Orleans families, it’s become clear to me how far schools and teachers—educators just like myself—still have to go in becoming true partners with families.

The most pressing issue is that many parents simply do not know how their child is doing in school. Consider this startling fact: a recent study showed that nine in 10 parents think that their child is performing on grade level, when fewer than half are.

There are a few reasons for this disconnect. For one, parents are now weighing multiple sources of information—like state test scores, diagnostic reports, and report cards—each of which might tell a different story about a child’s academic progress. Report cards themselves have become terribly confusing; parents accustomed to letter grades are now sorting through dozens of standards and trying to work out what terms like “Approaching Basic” mean.

The consequences for these misunderstandings can be dire. Families who are not told in plain language how their child is progressing are deprived of the opportunity to intervene and give supports that a child might so desperately need. But here’s what I’ve come to realize: Teachers are uniquely positioned to help parents cut through the noise. When it comes to assessing how their child is doing in school, we know that parents trust teachers over any other source of information.

As schools and teachers prepare to welcome students and families for the 2019-20 school year, here are some core principles for communicating with families. They’re things I wish I had been reminded of at the start of each school year:

Be direct and honest. Telling a parent their child is struggling in class is not easy. It’s why some teachers sugarcoat feedback (“Katelyn never gives me any problems in class!”), or sandwich bad news between good news, muddling the message in the process (“Jacklyn is working so hard! She is reading below grade level, but she’s grown a ton!”). Much like a pediatrician wouldn’t mask a serious medical concern, teachers are obligated to give an honest assessment of academic health, and make parents understand the severity and urgency. It’s great to share positive news or mention things like good behavior, but it shouldn’t obscure the conversation about learning. And if attendance or homework is causing a problem, address this with parents directly so they can work to correct it. These conversations are uncomfortable, but can make all the difference.

Communicate early and often. The earlier a teacher shares concerns, the more opportunities a parent has to help students correct course. Sometimes, this might mean contact well before the first quarter report card conference. Schools should consider using professional development time before the school year to conduct initial family outreach—like home visits and phone calls—which can help establish relationships and lines of communication. Confirm phone numbers, addresses, and the best time of day to reach out so that teachers can easily reach parents when the year kicks off. Frequent communication also matters: Interim reports, send-home folders and newsletters, or email updates can help between conferences. But with teachers strapped for time, school leadership also need to build out communication systems. Messaging tools like Remind or Class Dojo Messenger can make it easier for teachers and parents to talk.

Be flexible. Schools should be creative in meeting the needs of busy parents. Too often, the only way a parent can get detailed information or see student work is to attend parent conferences. This exclusionary practice hurts families that have transportation obstacles or work or childcare conflicts. Technology can help. How about videoconferencing with families who can’t make it into schools? Better yet, schools can bring the conferences to families. Here in New Orleans, our dispersed school system means that families often live as far as a half hour’s drive from school. What if schools offered satellite conferences or orientation nights at community centers in the neighborhoods where parents live?

Be a translator. These days, report cards are filled with confusing acronyms and data points. Teachers should help translate and distill information into the most essential information. Anxious parents mostly want to know: is my child on track? Start with that headline, and then work your way into the specifics. Pull out key skills where they’re excelling and areas where they could use extra practice at home.

Be prescriptive. Parents want to help but may not know how. Don’t assume parents have the tools to give the right support at home. Whenever possible, be prescriptive while giving feedback. Consider the pediatrician analogy again: If the problem is multiplication, what’s the treatment plan? “Practice times tables using online flashcards from this website for 15 minutes every night” is far more helpful than “Make sure she always does her math homework.” Model partner reading or spelling word practice so parents know what it can look like at home at night.

Be collaborative. Above all, teachers and parents should look at each other as teammates. The aim is to help kids be the best they can be, and every interaction should be viewed as a valuable opportunity to move toward this goal collaboratively. Parents are experts on their kids. Ask questions—like what’s working at home, and what’s worked in the past. Seek out their input at every step and listen attentively. When you work in tandem with parents, you’ll get the best outcomes for kids.

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