Gone are the days when no news was good news and parents heard from teachers only when a crisis occurred or a child was struggling. Today, most parents expect a collaborative effort in home/school communication. They anticipate regular reports of their child's progress, and they expect their opinions to be received respectfully. Teachers seek the same relationship, as well.
"I can't imagine not having regular communication among students, parents and teachers," said Patti Haberman of Apple Valley, newly retired after 38 years of teaching. "It's almost like magic. Students see how much we care, and I have seen almost immediate changes in many students over the years."
She prefers face-to-face communication, but acknowledges that it is often difficult in today's busy world. Instead, she used to send or answer many e-mails daily. "When parents are connected to a school grade-book program, it really helps their knowledge of what their students are doing academically," she said.
Parents need to let teachers know about any big events -- good or bad -- in a child's life. Events such as job loss, separation or divorce, weddings, births and deaths (even of pets) can affect academic and social behavior, said Kathleen Olson, program director with Partnering for School Success, a project of the Center for Family Development at the University of Minnesota Extension. An informed teacher will adjust expectations and provide needed support, she noted.
"Children do best when parents are connected to their children's school in meaningful ways, and when they know their parents and teachers have regular contact with each other. Parents should look at themselves as a partner in their child's education and think about what they can do at home to support what the teacher is doing in the classroom," said Olson.
Many families have access to technology, but not all do, Olson said. Then teachers must find alternative ways to work with families. In some instances, technology isn't the best method to deal with difficult issues, and a phone call or personal visit may be more helpful.
Parents in the know
Ann Hobbie, project coordinator for Parents United for Public Schools and a mother of teenage sons in St. Paul public schools, keeps in touch so she can tell "how a teacher knows -- or doesn't know -- my child, and how I can best support their teaching and my child's learning.
"If you are proactive and communicate the positive, too, you'll make that teacher's day and play a part in improving his or her sense of efficacy. We should do it more -- let them know when things are working."
Hobbie, who likes the convenience of e-mail because she knows teachers are busy, finds that face-to-face is always best.
"The other day my seventh-grader was sick for the second day in a row. I went to his school about 20 minutes early, got his schedule from the office and made my way around to touch base with each teacher. They were all really receptive to my asking what he was missing, giving me work or assuring me he'd make things up when he got back. The brief interaction -- with little comments about how he was doing -- was well worth the stop on the way to work."
She also finds that good communication improves a child's learning. "If you don't communicate, you're never clear on intent or expectations. It's so easy to make the wrong assumptions. And if you've communicated and things still aren't going right, you have a foot to stand on in trying to find a resolution."
All the way to the end
Good communication needs to continue all the way through 12th grade.
"Communication should not stop just because students enter middle or high school," Haberman said. "Studies show that grades six to nine are the most crucial grades; students go through the most changes physically, socially, emotionally, academically. We must continue communicating."
A three-year study of 12,000 high school students concluded, "When parents come to school regularly, it reinforces the view in the child's mind that school and home are connected and that school is an integral part of the whole family's life."
Other studies have found that the most successful schools share one common trait: They solicit, encourage, facilitate and promote parental communication. In these schools, parents are invited, consulted and encouraged to communicate.
G.J. Olson is a retired teacher and freelance writer from Faribault, Minn.