How to Be Confident when Communicating with Parents
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One of the things you’re going to realize pretty quickly - and that I want to brace you for - is that your teaching life really is a rollercoaster.
It isn’t just your student teaching and your first year that feel like a rollercoaster.
This, my friends, is what teaching is – a thrilling ride that is filled every single day with the highest of highs, when one minute, you are on top of the world, and then what might be a minute later, with the lowest of lows... those moments when you just want to quit and you wonder why the heck you even chose this career in the first place.
So I want to warn you – that’s just what this job is. And your goal, no matter how scary or how thrilling that roller coaster ride is for you right now, is to learn to expect the unexpected, to learn how to anticipate those turns, because you know they’re coming, to not hold on so tightly, and to learn to enjoy the ride.
And that’s actually what we’re going to talk about today, because one of those unexpected and sometimes very tricky to navigate turns on the roller coaster can be not because of a student – but can be the result of having to deal with their parents.
Learning how to navigate relationships with parents effectively can be one of the most challenging parts of being a new teacher because so often, you are the same age or younger than a lot of the parents whose children are in your classroom. So you’re left wondering – how the heck am I supposed to play the role of being someone in the position of authority, “the expert,” when these parents likely have a whole lot more life experience and knowledge than you do?
I really wish they talked more about how to handle these kinds of things in university, because I would have paid a lot of money for that class!
So, let’s talk about 5 things nobody tells you about working with parents - and how you can be more confident when you communicate with parents as a new teacher.
It isn’t about you.
Remember that when you’re communicating with parents, it isn’t about you. What do I mean by that? I mean that when you are focused on how you look and on how you sound to parents, and on what you’re going to say to them – when you’re focused on what they think about you, you’re focusing on the wrong thing.
The reason that this adult is in your life right now is because the most precious gift of their entire life is in your care: their child. And what is most important to them is how you are treating their child. How their child feels when they’re in your classroom and how they experience school while in your care.
It isn’t about you at all. Let me give you an example & show you how I learned this. When I first decided to start an online business, I was told by my business mentor that I was supposed to do FB lives. And it freaked me right out. Oh my gosh – how was I going to look on camera? Would I sound stupid? Would I have anything of value to say? And how would I look if I had no idea how the technology worked?
I was so worked up because I was focused on how I would look and seem to you. But then I realized that the point of doing FB lives was to connect with you. The point of doing FB lives is to support YOU. The point of doing FB lives is to ensure that you have what you need in order to succeed and feel confident as a teacher. The point of doing FB lives is to serve you. It isn’t about me. It’s about you. Serving and helping you.
So, once you’re able to stop using the word “I” and once you stop focusing on “What should I say?” and “How should I handle this?” and “What are they going to think of me?” and shift your thinking and your focus to “What is Jessica’s mom most concerned about here? What is she scared of? What’s worrying her the most? And “What would cause her to react in this way?” you quickly realize that how you should communicate with her is with the utmost of compassion.
Because what we sometimes forget about when we are not feeling very confident in ourselves is that when people lash out – like if you do have an angry parent on your hands – it often has very little to do with us.
More often than not, when an angry parent shows up at your door or sends an email that breaks you down and makes you want to quit, it is because there is something else going on. Now, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t own our part in it when we’ve made a mistake, but before you jump to conclusions and assume that you aren’t good enough, because that’s something we all do, ask yourself those questions first:
“What is this parent most concerned about here? What is she scared of? What’s worrying her the most? And “What could cause her to react in this way?”
Asking those questions takes the focus off of you and on serving your students and their parents, which is what we’re hired to do.
Many of the parents of your students don’t have the level of education that you do.
I remember when I first started teaching, I was SO intimidated by the parents of my students. And part of the reason that I was so intimidated was because they liked to question me about what I was doing in my classroom or ask WHY I was doing things the way I was doing them.
I assumed, because I wasn’t feeling very confident in myself as a new teacher, that they were questioning me because they likely thought that I didn’t know what I was doing. But I remember one time in particular when I was putting some new words up on my word wall in my classroom and I had a parent volunteer in my room, and she asked me the question, “What’s the point of the word wall?”
Because I assumed that she was questioning my ability and because I was new and felt like I didn’t know what I was doing half of the time, I launched into the theoretical underpinnings of why word walls were an instrumental part of teaching children sight words as developing readers blah blah blah…. And then I realized, about mid-way through my mini-lecture, that she looked like a deer in the headlights.
She fumbled over her words and said, “Wow, I had no idea – I don’t even understand half of what you said. I just finished highschool and got married. I never went on to university or anything fancy like that. I’m amazed by how much you know and I feel so lucky that you’re teaching my daughter.”
She looked like she was about to cry, and I felt like a complete jerk. In my insecurity, I had assumed that she was asking questions because she thought I didn’t know what I was doing – because that’s how I felt pretty much every day of the school year – but she was really asking a genuine question in her desire to understand her daughter’s world and how she could be a better mom and help her daughter with her homework.
Now of course, sometimes when parents question you, their intentions aren’t quite as pure, and we’ll talk about that in a little bit. But more often than not, be careful not to jump to defending yourself because you feel insecure, like I did, and instead, be careful not to undermine or under-value what you know.
Remember, that in comparison to a lot of the young parents of your students, you actually know a whole lot more than they do, especially when it comes to education.
Many of the parents of your students did not have positive experiences in school.
Here’s the thing that I see so many of us forget: Most teachers BECOME teachers because we were good at school ourselves. Many of us become teachers because we admired teachers in our lives growing up, because there were some amazing educators along the path of our lives who inspired us to follow the same career path.
I remember one time when I was in the middle of parent-teacher conferences and I was feeling especially insecure because I really felt like I had no idea what I was doing. I remember a dad of one of my students (a big, strong man who I was really intimidated by and a little scared of as he squeezed himself into an elementary-student-sized chair during our conference), coming right out and apologizing during our conference.
He said, “Look, I didn’t do very well at school growing up, I’m not smart like that, and so I just don’t see the point of school for my son.”
That it was hugely eye-opening to me because it had never even occurred to me that parents wouldn’t be fully supportive of their child doing their very best in school, but suddenly, when I heard him say that, it all made sense: His son’s apparent apathy towards school, his lack of confidence, the fact that he never did his homework or completed his home reading, and why such loving parents never seemed to be supportive or volunteer or be part of our classroom community.
This dad came right out and told me that he was a farmer and respectfully, had no use for school, and that he expected the same for his son.
He said, “I respect what you do here, but I have no use for fancy education like yours, and half the time, I don’t even know what you’re talking about.”
In all my years of teaching, if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that you cannot take anything for granted.
Before that interview, I had felt like I was failing their son. I felt like no matter what I did in class, their little boy just did not care and I just couldn’t get him to buy into learning.
And as a result, I had prepared to launch into my many concerns about this child not trying, and in just a few moments, this man, as much as he respected what we do at school, let me know that was also hugely intimidated by what I was asking of his son.
So, when you’re feeling a lack of confidence in your ability as a teacher, remember that just by becoming a teacher, you may light years beyond where many parents are academically, and they may be hugely intimidated by YOU and by school in general.
My best advice for you is again, to lead with compassion for the little boy or girl inside of these parents who might seem, at first glance, very intimidating. And again, to remember that very little of how parents interact with you has to do with you. Their apathy or criticism of you is often tied to a lifetime of negative experience with school.
Parents are also the experts.
Now, even though many parents might not have the level of education that you do OR the positive experiences with school in general that you have had throughout your lifetime to get you to the amazing place that you are,
and although you likely know more than they do about content and teaching in general - they likely know their child best.
They are the true experts when it comes to knowing their child. And, this is where a truly powerful partnership can happen between you and the parents of the children you teach. Nothing can be more empowering if you, as the educator who they likely have more respect for than you can even imagine or have the capacity to believe yet, acknowledge and seek their opinion about issues their child might be having at school.
Here’s what I mean. Avery might be struggling at school in math, and you want to speak with her mom about this issue. You’re feeling insecure because you aren’t sure how to bring up this topic confidently without it turning into an attack on you – because that’s what you’re probably most afraid of – or at least, that’s what I would be most afraid of when I lacked confidence as a teacher.
So the best way to approach this conversation is to say something like, “Dear Mrs. Smith, I’ve noticed that Avery is really struggling in this math unit and she didn’t do very well on her last test. I would love to connect with you to talk about what might be going on and how we can help her moving forward.”
Using language that acknowledges what’s happening while at the same time positioning yourself as a partner in an effort to figure out next steps removes potential for blame. When you meet with parents to discuss ideas AND are willing to honor their input, you are establishing a level playing field to truly include parents as partners in their child’s education.
This leads me to my last and final point about how be confident when communicating with parent – and it’s this:
Nobody else expects you to have all of the answers.
Once we become a teacher, we have a tendency to think we need to be “know it alls” - that we need to have all of the answers to all of the things and to have the whole entire world figured out.
We hope to have outstanding classroom management in our first year, to create outstanding lessons and to create an incredible learning environment. And of course, all of that is possible, but what nobody tells you is that it takes a few years of trial and error before you’re going to figure out how all of this – including communicating with parents effectively – is going to work for us. How we’re going to do it in our own way.
And here’s the thing. Even though we put that kind of pressure on ourselves, the gig is up – I hate to tell you this, but they know that you’re 22 or 23 or whatever age you are, no matter how mature you act or how professionally you dress. They know that you’re only 22 and still figuring all of this out, so own that.
Own the fact that you are whatever age you are and that you are in your first, or second, or third year of teaching, and that you’re still trying to figure it all out. Be humble, and remain committed to learning from your mistakes.
When you make a mistake with a child or with a parent, it isn’t the end of the world. It’s okay to laugh at yourself, to tell them that you’re sorry, that you’re just learning, and that you promise that you’ll do your best.
Because I do want to tell you a little secret that they don’t tell you in university – and that’s that your best will be good enough if you don’t give up. It isn’t easy, but trust me – this roller coaster, it’s worth the ride.
All right my friends, I hope that you have a wonderful week, and remember - just because you're a beginning elementary teacher, there's no need for you to struggle like one.
Dr. Lori Friesen | Beginning Teacher Mentor
Creator of the R.E.A.D.Y. for School Academy, Dr. Lori Friesen has mentored thousands of beginning teachers across the country through her workshops and courses. Host of the popular podcast, Beginning Teacher Talk, and creator of the innovative literacy program for 1st and 2nd grade, Dogs Help Kids Read and Succeed, Dr. Lori is dedicated to serving educators and inspiring learners. Learn more at drlorifriesen.com and at howdogshelpkids.com.
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