Tips for Partnering With Teachers in the New School Year
How to set up effective lines of communication
Schools will be reopening in the fall in a confusing range of formats — in-person, virtual and some of both. Whatever your school’s plans are, it will be more crucial than ever to partner with your kids’ teachers to make a new and less-than-perfect situation as successful as possible. The first challenge is to establish effective communication with the teacher. Here are some pointers for getting started.
- Let teachers know you respect their boundaries. We’ll all be struggling to get the hang of the new hybrid schedule, or another (hopefully better) semester of remote learning. Teachers, especially those doing both in-person and remote learning, will be under tremendous stress. Laura Phillips, PsyD, a clinical neuropsychologist at the Child Mind Institute, suggests that the message could be, “I don’t want to pester you, but I want to make sure that we have open lines of communication.”
- Ask teachers how they prefer to be contacted. Email? Texts? Scheduled calls? Dr. Phillips recommends you start by asking, “How can I reach out to you if I’m noticing something? Are there times that I can call you, or are there times that I can email you?” You can also ask when you can expect a reply. That way you’ll understand how teachers organize their time, and when it’s appropriate to send a gentle reminder if you haven’t heard back.
- Ask for a clear explanation of the schedule. Knowing how the day is organized is crucial to helping your child get comfortable in their new class, anticipate what’s coming and be ready to focus on the next task. Teachers spend weeks at the start of the school year building essential routines so children can move through the day smoothly. If your child is being taught remotely, explains Faith Hunter, lower school principal at Little Red School House in New York, “the best thing that can happen is for families to help teach and establish this framework of the way a child flows throughout a day.”
- Ask how assignments will be communicated. For many children, especially those with ADHD or learning disabilities, keeping track of assignments during remote learning proved to be very difficult in the spring. “But if parents are aware of where this information will be from the get-go,” notes Dr. Phillips, “they can help scaffold for their kids.” This is especially urgent for kids starting middle school, who are for the first time trying to manage multiple teachers who may not use the same system.
- Ask whether the curriculum, and the grading, will be adjusted. Will expectations for students’ progress be different than a typical school year? What will be done to support kids who have fallen behind (or worry they have fallen behind) because of challenges of remote learning in the spring? There might not be definitive answers yet, but you can at least get a sense of what the school is planning.
- Ask how teachers will help children get to know them — and their new classmates. For classes that will be remote this fall, what will teachers be doing to make kids feel comfortable? If icebreakers or get-to-know-you activities are planned, parents might want to prime kids to prepare what they want to say about themselves, notes Kenya Hameed, PsyD, a clinical neuropsychologist at the Child Mind Institute. “What do you want your teacher to know about you? Because sometimes kids on the spot are not really good with those sorts of things.”
- Will there be opportunities for one-on-one contact with teachers? Especially for children with learning disabilities, some personal contact, if the fall term is remote, can do a lot help kids engage, notes Dr. Phillips. “I think that some parents might feel a little shy about approaching teachers about that,” she says, but it’s worth trying. That personal one-on-one time could look different depending on the circumstances in your community. For example, you might be able to set up a brief, socially distant face-to-face meeting, or you could arrange an individual Zoom call when the teacher has time.
- Let teachers know how your child did last spring. Email teachers to let them know how your child responded to remote learning during the last semester— what worked and what didn’t. Having that information can be helpful, said Dr. Hameed. “It gives them more of a platform to build on.”
- Share with teachers what you are seeing at home. Report what you’re seeing at home clearly and accurately. When you notice a child is struggling with an assignment, for instance, “being specific in what the child said or did allows the teacher to figure out what’s going on,” said Jodi Musoff, MA, MEd, an educational specialist at the Child Mind Institute. “Is it just avoidance, or does the child actually need more instruction to complete the assignment?”
- Ask for extra support for a child who is struggling. When schools went remote last spring, many children, including more than a few who had been confident learners, found themselves struggling. Virtual learning is hard, but finding the right supports for your child can help. “Don’t be afraid, as a parent, to ask if there’s a learning specialist or a reading specialist, or a school psychologist or a guidance counselor who can help your child,” suggests Hunter. It’s important to recognize, she adds, that social and emotional needs are inextricably tied to academic learning.
- For sensitive conversations, use the phone. Email can feel impersonal and lead to misunderstandings, notes Hunter. “My experience is that very often a parent will write an email and a teacher might feel defensive upon receiving it,” says Hunter. If the teacher responds poorly, she says, it’s easy for the lines of communication to break down. Instead, she suggests letting your child’s teacher know you have a concern and setting up a time to talk on the phone. That way you’ll be able to work together to solve the problem in real time.
- Share family circumstances that are affecting your child. In this time of unprecedented stressors, it’s helpful for teachers to know about any difficulties going on at home that might be impacting how kids are doing at school. For example if both parents are working full-time (or have lost employment), or a family member is ill. The more teachers know, the more they can help, says Hunter. “Even in normal circumstances we want to know when a child is going through something because it allows us to tune in more to that child and give them what they need,” says Hunter. “So this isn’t any different, it just is going to be a lot more children, right?”
- Tell teachers what’s working (not just what isn’t). Without the feedback they usually get from observing how kids respond in the classroom, teachers are relying on parents to report what is, and isn’t, working. Let your child’s teacher know which assignments or techniques have worked well for your child, as well as which haven’t. “I would say that the first thing teachers need to hear from families and parents is positive feedback,” says Hunter. “If there’s a piece that’s really working, shoot an email to your child’s teacher and just say this piece really worked.” Hearing from parents about the pieces that are working will help teachers place more emphasis on those specific areas and be more open to hearing about pieces that don’t work.
- Acknowledge the challenges teachers are facing. The pressure on educators this fall will be immense. This is uncharted territory for everyone, but teachers, especially those who will be doing both live and remote teaching, are working hard under a tremendous amount of stress. Let them know how much you appreciate their efforts. Something as small as dropping a note, or sending a “thank you for all your hard work!!” text can let teachers know their efforts are noticed and appreciated.