The Parent Trap: Working With—Not Against—The Ones Who Love Your Students Most

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In 1996, Amanda* was a second-year high school English teacher and working on her Master’s in the evenings. She came to dread the all-too-familiar sight of her answering machine. Every time she opened the door after a full day of teaching and night classes, the “new voicemail” blink welcomed her home like an angry, rabid animal.

“There was no reason for a parent to call me at home at that time of night except to scream at me, usually with a rant full of obscenities,” she recalls, laughing weakly. “I taught all remedial classes, and the parents and students didn’t take too kindly to me actually expecting them to work hard enough to get out of remedial classes at the end of the year. It made for some very late nights on the phone and more than a few tears.”

Fortunately, in the nearly twenty years since Amanda began teaching, she’s learned to head off a lot of the rage by fostering better communication.

“It took me almost a year, but I realized I was trying to follow my mentor teacher’s lead. She taught 11th and 12th grade Honors and AP English and had come to expect a level of responsibility and accountability that my ninth grade struggling students weren’t ready for.”

Handing back graded tests was the worst part, according to Amanda, who quickly learned that sending home a stack of papers with low grades was just asking for that angry, blinking answering machine light. But then she found a new way to look at the angry phone calls: those parents truly cared about their kids’ grades but didn’t have all the information they needed to help their kids succeed, starting with the fact their kids had a test that week in the first place.

So she switched tactics. Amanda began with a pretest on every unit and sent it home graded. The angry phone calls continued, but this time she was able to reassure parents instead of accuse students who hadn’t studied. She also gave those parents the dates of the final unit test as well as the dates of homework assignments that would be due. She directed them to the exact chapter in the textbook where the information could be found, and learned that many of the parents had never even seen the book come home.

It took a few weeks, but with a little extra effort and time on her part, her entire student roster turned around. The students no longer went home with a failing test paper and told their parents there was nothing that could be done. Instead, parents began reaching out to her ahead of time for important assessment dates, asking questions about how their kids could improve, and thanking her for the extra mile she went with their kids. Amanda no longer dreaded her own answering machine—the device she was ready to throw out the nearest window—and her students began working with her on organizational skills, study skills, and follow through.

That’s Only One of Many Issues

Amanda’s happy ending didn’t solve all of her problems, but it did take a major hurdle out of the way. Teachers face many obstacles when working with their students and the parents, but this is one less obstacle for one teacher.

A lot of the issue stems from our expectations as teachers, that feeling where we’re going to open minds, change the world, and help parents by imparting wisdom and knowledge upon their students. At the same time, the parents have an expectation from us, one that is perhaps just as unrealistic: make my kid a success, no matter what.

As in any relationship, whether it’s a working relationship or a personal one, unfulfilled expectations can cause serious, lasting problems. Teachers who expect every parent to put their kids first and to place the highest importance on education are setting themselves up for disappointment… and probably a few angry, profanity-laden phone calls.

So Do I Just Give Up on the Parents?

Of course not. In time, you will figure out which parents are active and involved, and which ones are not. More importantly, though, you’ll recognize which students need a little extra support because they’re not getting it at home, and which ones need a little extra understanding because they’re being pushed too hard by overly involved parents. Finally, you’ll see which students have been set up for failure by parents who are so involved that the students have no responsibilities, no ability to fall and get back up, no need for organizational skills since their parents are in their faces 24/7.

Instead of washing your hands of the parents (or worse, being part of the problem by acting resentful or annoyed), you can keep a few things in mind:

  • In the overwhelming majority of cases, these parents love their kids fiercely. Are you an ally or an enemy in that relationship?
  • In the rare cases where a dying cactus would make a better parent than the one your student got stuck with, are you stepping up and being a supportive adult? Is your classroom (and by extension, your rules and grading policies) helping that kid break the cycle or are you ensuring that his future is just as bleak as his childhood?
  • Are your rules and assignments built on what all of your students need, or only on what you need? Are you reaching students or just checking boxes?
  • Is your communication—or lack of—meeting the students’ needs, and by extension, the parents’ needs?
  • At the end of every school day, can you honestly look at yourself in the mirror and say, “I did my very best for every single student today?”

In order to be an effective teacher, you have to be an effective person first. Some parents are going to resent you no matter what you do, and others are going to smother your teaching process to the point that you might as well hand them the dry erase markers and the key to your classroom door. In between, though, the vast majority of parents want exactly what you want: a future where your students have grown up into educated, inquisitive, capable adults.

What Can I Do?

There will obviously be some parents who wouldn’t be happy if you hand-delivered all messages by winged Greek god courier. That’s just human nature. Some people will never be satisfied, and you are not required or expected to accommodate that kind of difficulty. Luckily, those people are the minority. Most parents want the best for their kids and are happy to do whatever they reasonably can to accommodate their kids’ education.

  • Are you giving parents all the information they need to support their students?
  • Are you taking advantage of available technology to communicate, like Remind 101 app, a class website, email, and text message?
  • Or are you standing on some arbitrary moral high ground and expecting adult-level responsibility from people who may or may not be legally able to drive a vehicle?
  • Are you guilty of being just as disorganized as any of your fourth graders yet expecting them to have all their assignments turned in and their studying done without prompting?
  • Are you providing parents and students with multiple methods of finding out what’s due and when, as well as responding quickly when they have a question?
  • Are you overloading the students (and by extension, their parents) with too much busywork and not enough substantive assignments?

You don’t have to answer these questions, but you should think about the answers long and hard. If you’re finding that parents are the enemy and not the source of support they should be, start with your own classroom practices and communication methods and work back from there. You might just turn them into allies, and at the very least, you will sleep well at night (and so will your administrators) knowing that you’ve done your very best.

*names have been changed

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