Meet the parents: Parental engagement for teachers

Written by: Dave Stephenson | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Effective parental communication and engagement is a key ingredient for successful teaching and good outcomes. Dave Stephenson advises on how teachers can positively and constructively engage with parents to get them on board...

When asked what the hardest part of my job is, my answer is always the same – parental communication and engagement.
Communicating with parents is an aspect of teaching that is barely touched upon when training. Teachers are expected to know instinctively how to communicate with parents, often in difficult circumstances. This can be a source of much anxiety for practitioners.

Since taking up my post as head of year 7, the level of contact that I have with parents has grown exponentially. With almost 260 students in the year group that I oversee, their parents often see me as the first point of contact when communicating their queries or concerns.

I have been reflecting on the effectiveness of my communication with parents. Here are some of the lessons that I have learnt so far in my current role.

A measured response

When a parent makes contact, it is crucial to respond in a timely but considered fashion, especially if the communication is negative. When something goes wrong, it is tempting to fire off a response in order to resolve matters quickly, but this can often have an adverse effect.

When parents raise concerns, their emotions may be running high, and there is a lot to be said for allowing the dust to settle before giving a full response. I find that an email or phone call acknowledging their concerns, even if you have not yet resolved the issue, can help to calm the situation. By the time I contact them again, the parent has usually calmed down and is grateful for the time given to address their grievance.

It is important to respond rather than react to parental complaints. This means taking an appropriate amount of time to investigate the points they have raised so that issues can be resolved in a manner that is satisfactory for all involved.

Celebrating positives

It can sometimes feel as though parental communication only comes as the result of negative incidents. All teachers will recognise the feeling of having to phone a parent to discuss their child’s poor behaviour in class, often at the end of a long day when any other task would be more desirable.

As head of year, it is an unfortunate truth that dealing with negative behaviour takes up far more time than celebrating the many positives that occur. I make a concerted effort to contact parents to relay my happiness when a student goes above and beyond our expectations.

For example, I was recently invited by the school’s PE staff to watch my year group’s girls’ hockey team play in a local tournament. This was a lovely way to spend a couple of hours after school and I stood on the sidelines with their parents, discussing various aspects of school life in a slightly more informal setting.

After watching the team win the tournament, I sent an email to their parents congratulating the students on their team-work and endeavour. Each of the parents responded in kind, thanking me for taking the time to watch the tournament and also for sending my praise afterwards.

This stands out as one of the more pleasant moments I have experienced as head of year and served to highlight the importance of positive communication with parents.

Hard-to-reach parents

Due to myriad factors, some parents will have a reluctance to engage with their child’s school. This can manifest as indifference or even hostility and is often the result of their own negative experience of education. This can easily filter down to the child and, if not addressed early and frequently, can have a negative impact on the student’s attitude towards school.

My school has various policies designed to ensure that parental engagement is a strong as possible. For instance, as parents’ evening approaches, heads of years are required to identify all parents whose attendance may be in question.

We then contact these parents by phone to highlight the importance of attending and help them to make appointments with their child’s subject teachers.

Many hard-to-reach parents that I have dealt with have admitted to a lack of confidence and trust when dealing with educators.

By taking a proactive approach to communicating with them, we aim to improve their confidence and trust in the school, which will impact positively on their child’s overall experience of education.

Inappropriate parental behaviour

Teachers cannot always win parents over. During a difficult discussion with a parent, I was obliged to terminate the phone call due to the use of abusive language (directed towards another student with whom their son had had a disagreement). This was an unpleasant experience but it was made easier to deal with due to the support offered by senior colleagues.

I explained what had happened to the headteacher. He took my concerns seriously and contacted the parent in writing to explain that this is unacceptable. This incident has given me the confidence to speak to uncooperative parents professionally without accepting the use of inappropriate language.

Likewise, members of the school’s reception staff will sometimes deal with unhappy parents who take out their frustration on them. When this has happened, I have made it clear to the parents that this is both unfair and unproductive, asking them to speak to all members of staff with the respect they would expect to be shown by us.

A shared responsibility

Effective parental engagement requires collaboration between all practitioners within school. I frequently receive emails from parents asking me to talk to subject teachers regarding their child’s behaviour or progress in certain lessons.

Rather than being a conduit between parties, I encourage parents and colleagues to communicate with each other directly.

Although it is tempting to deal with all parental concerns first hand, this is not a productive use of time and means that important messages may be miscommunicated.

Be empathetic

Communicating with parents can be frustrating, especially when they are unsupportive of the school’s actions. This means that sometimes I have to be empathetic towards their point of view, even if I do not agree with them.

However, when dealing with a parental concern, I always try to consider the situation from their perspective. Even when disagreements arise, parents and teachers always want the same outcome – namely, what is best for the child.

Even in the most contentious circumstances, it is important to remember this shared goal to ensure that a resolution is reached that is satisfactory to all parties.

Conclusion

Although parental engagement and communication can be one of the more stressful aspects of working in education, it is vital that all members of staff feel empowered to contact parents to relay both positive and negative information.

Most parents are very supportive of educators and it is only a minority that may automatically take an antagonistic stance. Either way, all interactions must be carried out in a calm, professional and succinct way to ensure that there is cohesion between the student’s life at home and school. I believe that strong communication can help to solve almost any problem that arises. It is only through a whole-school commitment to this that all stakeholders can feel supported and listened to.

  • Dave Stephenson is a teacher of history at Honley High School in West Yorkshire. Read his previous articles for SecEd at http://bit.ly/2VJhEh5


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