A-Teachers-Guide-To-Talking-With-Parents - Maru-a

A Teacher’s Guide To Talking With Parents
It’s a funny thing about mothers and fathers. Even when their own child is the most
disgusting little blister you could ever imagine, they still think that he or she is wonderful.
Roald Dahl, Matilda
In parent-teacher conferences, beyond all the pleasantries, parents are looking for evidence that
the teacher believes two things:
1) My child is capable.
2) My child is lovable.
As a teacher, your main aim is to find out what makes this child tick. You’re unlikely to meet
better sources of this key information than parents.
But danger lurks. If parents pick up that you think their child lacks ability or that you dislike their
child, the prospects for a productive conversation fall quickly. Total honesty is not called for,
diplomacy is. When a teacher gives frank feedback, it can be received as a hurtful judgement that
condemns their child to a cold place in the classroom where neither regard nor affection is
So, how do we say what needs to be said? Equally, how do we bolster parents’ faith in our
professionally positive approach to their child? How do we discuss, in that worst-case scenario,
the child Roald Dahl calls “the most disgusting little blister you could ever imagine”?
Here are some tips:
1. Body Language
For parents, much of your attitude toward their child is communicated non-verbally. Your facial
expressions and body language speak volumes. As the child’s name -- and hopefully face (!) –
comes to mind, do you shake your head slowly, throw up your hands, give a disapproving frown?
End of conversation.
Instead, muster a smile, rueful as it might be, and mention one characteristic about the child’s
presence that any adult might plausibly find endearing, engaging or entertaining. If you do this
while maintaining a warm, even affectionate expression, you lay the foundation for a productive
conversation and a fruitful parent-teacher relationship.
2. Words To Say … Or Not
Your first words should be simply to thank the parents for coming in. For some parents, coming
to a parent-teacher evening can be intimidating or difficult logistically, so it’s your job to put
them at ease. Right at the start, make a point of noting a strength of their child, or at least an
endearing quirk, so the conference begins on a note of respect and affection. Empty flattery is not
called for; genuine appreciation is. Remember: “capable” and “lovable”. Find ways to share
your sense that their child – your student – is both.
Be positive when you speak about specific steps their child should take to succeed. Avoid
disparaging labels. No parent wants to hear their child is “lazy”. But every parent with a child
caught in a “human-wheelbarrow-never-moves-unless-pushed” phase, welcomes specific
3. Listen & Leave the Door Open
Parents will share a great deal of precious information with you – if you ask for it. You’ll learn
more if you stop talking. Cut back on the I-know-my-stuff or I-know-your-kid chat and ask what
concerns they have. Share strategies for motivating the child. Find out how your student spends
time at home. Any hobbies, interests, passions? Take notes. Make it clear that you’re eager to
continue the conversation.
4. Post-Meeting Practices & Pitfalls
Parents don’t like surprises, so call them right away if their child’s performance drops suddenly.
If the end-of-term comment is their first news of a significant drop, you haven’t communicated
properly. And how about sharing dramatic improvements when they occur? Build a team
approach by asking parents to tell you how they wish to be contacted, whether it be a text
message, phone call, email or note.
Mark Twain once said: “When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly
stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished by how
much he'd learned in seven years.”
Parents aren’t the only targets of teenagers’ scorn; teachers get dumped on too. Both parents and
teachers must be wary of how easily they can be misrepresented or even demonized. Nowadays,
it’s not unheard of for parents or teachers to fault each other’s imagined shortcomings. This badmouthing puts a smile on the face of any adolescent.
When parents and teachers forge a united team, no one benefits more than students, however
much they might resist the idea. As adults, we owe it to the “little blisters” in our lives.
Andrew Taylor is the Principal of the Maru-a-Pula School in Gaborone, Botswana. His email address
is: [email protected] Maru-a-Pula’s website is: www.maruapula.org