Maintaining open, clear communication between parents and teachers is challenging with all the responsibilities that both sides carry, but ultimately the safety and well-being of your child, as well as the important activities of their school day will be secured if you know your part in the communication process.
- Stay up to date with school events. Post and read the school calendar. Putting the school’s calendar right on the fridge and checking it daily will keep you informed about what is going on at your child’s school. This is your first source of information about holidays, vacations, meetings, events, and after-school activities. If you don’t know what something is referring to, try asking your child. They have probably heard some discussion of upcoming events. Not everything will pertain to you or your child, but having a good sense of what goes on at your child’s school will help you feel in the loop.
- Read newsletters and informational fliers sent home with your child. You may notice a plethora of papers coming home in your child’s backpack. Many schools implement a system in which most papers are sent home a given day of the week in a special folder. Look for it, clear it out, and sort through it. There will be everything from field trip forms to the class newsletter to ads for karate lessons at the local community center to fundraisers. It may be overwhelming at times, but at least skim through it all so you don’t miss the important stuff. Return forms right away so you don’t forget and they don’t get lost. Send money or checks in a sealed envelope with the teacher’s name on the outside. Discuss the fliers with your child. Fundraisers and special events like parties may not be requisite, but they may be important to your child and something they don’t want to miss out on. Be sure to know what policies the school and your child’s teacher have for upcoming events such as Halloween or Valentine’s Day regarding costumes or gift giving. They will probably mention this in their newsletters.
- Attend events— especially at the beginning of the year. Go to back to school and open house type events. Early in the year is when teachers are gearing up for their new class and have all of the practices and policies fresh in their mind. If you learn these when your child’s teacher shares them for the first time, you will get off to a great start. Also, network with other families so you have someone in addition to the teacher to contact with everyday questions. Attend parent-teacher conferences. This is your opportunity to really sit down with your child’s teacher and learn about their progress as well as the curriculum. Keep the scheduled time and arrive promptly. If you feel that major concerns are raised and there is not time to discuss them completely, request an additional sit-down meeting in the near future. The teacher may have another conference scheduled and so extending the meeting at the time may not be possible. Ask questions, take notes, and follow up with the suggestions put forth by the teacher.
- Ask your child’s teacher what form of communication works best for them; let them know the best way to contact you. More and more teachers have websites through the school to which they post information. Some teachers may post daily homework, information about projects, and even links relevant to different units of study. Other teachers have little more than a letter of introduction and a few pictures. Find out how the site is used by this particular teacher. Does your child’s teacher prefer voice mail or email? Do they prefer handwritten notes? Know the responsibility level of your child. They may not always deliver notes to their teacher. You may remind them five times on the way to the bus stop and thirty minutes later when they walk into their classroom, it has completely slipped their mind. You might try sending notes with an older sibling, pinning the note to their jacket (for younger children) or leaving a voice mail or email message requesting that the teacher check your child’s backpack. Hopefully your child will develop the habit over time. Let the teachers know the easiest way to reach you, perhaps your work or cell phone number in case they need to contact you during the day. Usually you will fill out all this contact information at the beginning of the year. Give all the relevant names and numbers and update when changes arise.
- Don’t expect to talk to your child’s teacher during instruction time. Keep in mind that the job of your child’s teacher during the school day is to instruct your child and all of the other children in his/her charge. Stopping in during lessons is highly distracting and not fair to the other students. (Not to mention that most schools forbid it). Of course, in the case of an emergency, call the school's office and they will interrupt class if necessary. Relaying a simple message in person as you drop off or pick up your child is probably just fine, but they will likely not have time to discuss bigger issues such as how your child is doing academically, why they failed a test, or the fact that they report being picked on by a bully. These issues deserve a sit-down conversation and the teacher should be able to schedule one with you. If the situation is urgent or relevant to your child’s safety, involve the principal when necessary.
If you want your child’s teacher to know that they will be picked up for a doctor appointment mid-morning, for example, it’s probably fine to mention it as you drop off your child, but handing the teacher a handwritten note as a reminder is courteous and handy for them. (By the way, you will probably still need to enter the school and sign out your child from the school office at the time of the appointment.) Think about how much the teacher has on her mind in a given day: the lessons she will teach, the lunch money she must collect from the student who keeps forgetting, the student who missed their bus yesterday, the student who doesn’t wear a coat to school and it’s December, the field trip forms that must be in by Friday, Billy has a doctor appointment at 10:45, and a million other things! Help them out. They care about your child as much as every other, but they have a full plate every day of the school year.
- Find out the school’s protocol for relaying messages to either the office or directly to your child’s teacher. The school calendar, school handbook, school web site, or beginning of the year meetings are all good ways to find out how to report different types of messages to your child’s school. If your child is absent due to illness, call the same day. Often times there is an attendance line with which you leave a detailed, but brief message. With very important issues, such as a change in custody for your child, anticipating an extended absence, or a change in your contact information, be sure that the office in addition to the teacher hears it directly from you. If your child has medication to take or you have learned of a new allergy, for example, bring this information to the school nurse as well as the teacher. Different schools have different policies about where lunch money goes to, etc., so find out the norms of your child’s school in order to work with them most efficiently. Again, stopping by your child’s classroom during the school day is usually frowned upon. Always check in with the office for security reasons. If your child forgot to bring their lunch or something like this, go to the office and talk to the secretary. He/she will let you know how best to get it to them.
- Stay on top of routine business such as returning library books and sending money for their lunch account. When you receive the third notice that your child’s library book is overdue, the school media center specialist has had to print this information and distribute it three times. Take care of these small issues before they become chronic bad habits. It sends a good message. Communication is always the best route. If the book is lost or you are unable to send lunch money until a certain date, communicate this with the appropriate person. Don’t feel embarrassed. Many families are under financial strain. Letting them know the situation will usually bring you halfway to the solution. Some schools have scholarship or ‘petty cash’ money to cover field trip fees and other such expenses for struggling families. Some families even send extra money to cover for these families. How generous! If you are in this financial position, you may offer to help with this as well and bring some relief to the family of a classmate of your child.
- Be clear and specific when writing notes. Always write the date on notes and include your child’s last name. Including the best contact phone number for you right on the note is handy for the teacher. Remember that safety comes first. When changing transportation methods or updating medical issues, give advance notice when possible, be as clear as possible, and check to be sure that the teacher received the information. It might be okay with you that your child takes bus #301 instead of bus #27 because they are going to Grandma’s after school, but your child’s teacher must be aware of these changes. It would be their worst nightmare to learn that they were responsible for sending your child on the wrong bus. As mentioned above, learn your school’s policy on such things and follow them. Never instruct your child to just sneak on to a different bus or go home with a friend’s parent without informing the teacher. Work as a team.
- Be polite and respectful. Treat your child’s teacher as a business associate. There should be a relationship of mutual respect, just as with the people you work with at your job. Following etiquette and protocol along with being friendly are greatly appreciated. Likewise, teachers should be polite and respectful with you. Following the above steps can help things go more smoothly. If there is an ongoing communication problem with them, you may want to discuss the situation with the school principal.
- Ask questions. You may be paying careful attention and still not understand something. It’s okay to ask for clarification. There are so many acronyms and lingo in education that teachers occasionally forget how non-teachers speak! Don’t be afraid to ask when you don’t know what something means or if it is not clear to you what is expected. Likely, you are not the only one who was unsure.
Keeping up positive and efficient communication with your child’s teacher is beneficial to your child’s education. The teacher will be more likely to contact you with concerns if they have seen your receptiveness. Exchanging smiles and handshakes goes a long way to starting the partnership of your child’s school year. Make an effort to follow the rules and regulations, and be vocal when needed. If everyone works together, the trials and joys that go along with school age years will go more smoothly.
Susan Niz, M.Ed.