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How Can I Work With My Child’s Teachers Effectively?

The decades of school signs saying “No parents beyond this point!” may be past, but for many parents these days, the absence of this prohibition offers them the chance of more contact with teachers without offering any clues about what is appropriate involvement in a child’s education.

Some parents justify having little or no communication with their child’s school, claiming it is a nuisance for the teachers to have well-meaning amateurs blundering onto their professional turf and making unhelpful suggestions. How would you like it at work if customers ventured into your office, trying to share control in your rather complex domain?

However, we live in age of customer surveys, which teach product developers and service providers the value of listening to customers and users of services. Children do not talk in the same way to everyone; therefore teachers might value parents’ insights into their children’s behaviour. Parents know their children intimately. At school other adults get to know them from a different perspective. Meeting to share our perspectives can benefit the child. So there are undoubtedly good reasons for a two-way exchange of views.

Research shows that the children with the most interested and involved parents often do better than average at school, so fifteen years ago I embarked on producing a book describing the ways teachers can inform parents equitably about their children’s progress and open the doors of the classroom regularly. This was published in 2001 (Working with Parents, Heinemann). As one barrier is the clash of authority over possibly different views of the same child, one of my aims was to help teachers to cultivate a relationship based on equal partnership. I analysed parent-teacher meetings to help readers face up to prickly issues such as cultural misunderstandings, differences in social status, generational antipathy towards formal environments, and territorial clashes of authority.

Moving into the emotional heartland of mothering has complemented my professional roles and all the more since I founded an early years’ excellence centre in Zurich eight years ago. In my current job, I help both teachers and parents navigate the possible difficulties when discussing a child’s progress. For a parent, the powerful maternal or paternal emotions that can arise in a face-to-face meeting when discussing a greatly loved child can suffocate rationality and limit one’s perspective of the change that is possible over time.

Parents often do not know what to expect in a new school, especially as we become parents so much later, on average, than in previous generations. Global lifestyles and a fast-changing world require us to grapple with unfamiliar education systems and new approaches to education. Often if parents do not understand a system, they “leave it to the professionals” without thoroughly checking out how likely it is that their child will enjoy the new school. Language in Switzerland is another barrier for many of us, especially if we choose bilingual or local education for our children.

It can feel like a struggle to ask the right questions and simply to speak up about our concerns. Once we are on the back foot, barriers to getting involved in our child’s education can assert themselves.

New year resolutions: tips to parents on working with teachers:

  • Get informed about a potential school even if visits are not allowed. Talk to parents, and always arrange to meet your child’s future teacher.

  • Learn German (or the local language) if you want your child to “go local” to avoid unknowingly putting your child into a difficult situation.

  • Find out about open days at the prospective school in the year before your child starts.

  • Check the school’s website for transparency and information about events; try to work out if your values are similar to the school’s.

  • If you have a managerial background and would like more background information, try to meet the Head or Senior teachers, too.

  • Ask about homework, extra help with a new language, and where lunch is served – all will give you an indication of the school’s general approach.

  • Join the school parents’ association to build up your community network.

  • Ask other parents about the school, but be wary of relying on purely anecdotal evidence.

  • Respond to invitations from the school and make an effort to attend school events, even if you have to get a babysitter in order to do so.

  • Focus in meetings on pieces of work and activities your child has done to get more detailed information about their individual approach to work

What do I do if my child’s new teacher is underperforming?

  • Find out more about his or her background.

  • Talk with school leaders about their plans for staffing in the future.

  • Assume there might be an initial period of adjustment on both sides, so give some time for the strengths of a new teacher to show, and for the child to adjust to the teacher.

What do I do if my child does not like a teacher?

  • Parents are picking up on an important aspect of child psychology here – attachments favour learning, and happy children learn better than if they are distracted by emotions in the classroom.

  • Studies show that children choose which subject to specialise in according to teacher preference, i.e., your child’s direction is not based on a rational analysis of their own skills.

  • Mothers and fathers can bring a new perspective on their child’s strengths over a period of time and several meetings with the teacher.

  • Progress meetings are a good opportunity to build an alliance with the child’s teacher and find out why your child might not be entirely happy.

  • Do not assume that what your child says will give you a complete picture!

If you feel that the school is not great, can extra weekly classes help your child?

  • Weekly classes cannot be compared with a broad curriculum in which each lesson complements the style and content of another lesson or subject within the same professional (curriculum) framework.

  • The older your child is, though, the more able they become to separate their different activities, and after age 11 they will increasingly be able to benefit from diverse experiences.

  • Children learn from other children too and various day-to-day situations. Find ways to listen so your children will talk about what happens at school, and meet other families whose children are the school rather than letting life’s demands get in the way of your community relationships.

Resources for parents who want to work with teachers:

  • How To Talk So Kids Will Listen And Listen So Kids Will Talk, by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish (Scribner, 2012) (reviewed in this issue!)

  • National Association of School Psychologists

By Monica Shah

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