Not one time in my 4-year undergrad teaching program or my 2 years of graduate school did anyone ever teach me about parent communication. So naturally, I went into my first teaching job blindly unaware of how much of my job would be communicating with parents.
I was 22 but looked 14 and was often mistaken for a student. I also was completely naive to how crazy about and completely blind to shortcomings parents could be about their children (I write this now with the utmost humility, because I, too, am now a crazy parent who is absolutely obsessed with my children.) So to say I was surprised by my first negative encounter with a parent would be the understatement of the century.
Raise your hand if you are a high school teacher and have ever felt personally victimized by a student’s parent.
Looks about right. Honestly, we have ALL been there. Whether it be a voicemail full of profanity, an email calling you the anti-Christ, or an admin physically blocking a rabid parent from busting through your classroom door and busting through YOU (not speaking from experience or anything…😳 ) it has happened or is bound to happen at some point.
I am not here to scare you, but I am here to tell you I have been there and I want you to know everything I wished someone had told me along the way to prevent this from happening. Instead, I got to learn about parent communication all in the good old “school of hard knocks” aka, fail miserably, and then learn as you go.
Like many of my beliefs about education, I think everything is best with a system. I also don’t like to do anything that isn’t both effective AND manageable. There is no point in a system if you can’t keep up with it (R.I.P. my alphabetized spice rack). So here are the 5 key principles of my parent communication system that I have found to be both incredibly effective AND manageable.
Prioritize building a relationship with parents from day 1.
You probably wouldn’t be teaching high school if you didn’t have some sort of affinity for teenagers. I truly love 14-18-year-olds and LOVE to be a part of some of their most formative years before they are released into the “real world”. But I didn’t realize until later in my career how important it would be to have a relationship with their parents as well.
Teaching at a private school, in particular, changed everything. In my first teaching job at a large public school, I perhaps knew approximately 15% of my students’ parents. At my private school, I knew EVERY parent and often had entire sibling groups over the several years I taught there. Needless to say, ignoring parents as much as possible (my original brilliant parent communication system) wasn’t an option.
So instead of fighting it, I embraced it. From our very first orientation day at the beginning of the year, I started making it a priority to learn every parent’s AND every student’s names. I went above and beyond to send an extra email to get parents to Back to School Night so we could get face to face. For my AP biology class, I even set up parent/teacher conferences within the first few weeks of school to build that relationship from the get-go.
If you haven’t already, start getting to know parents. You will want them on your side, so to speak, if things start going downhill (more on that below).
Show parents you care about their children.
As a parent now I can honestly say that if anyone shows any sort of care or affection towards my child, I instantly like them. Why wouldn’t I like someone who treats my favorite humans on the planet well? The best way to “win over” a parent, so to speak, is simply to care about their kids. Building relationships with our students is foundational for EVERYTHING we do as teachers, so it is no surprise that it is a key component of any good parent communication system.
The easiest (and most enjoyable) way I’ve found to do this is to find out what students enjoy doing, and make it a priority to attend one of their extracurriculars at some point throughout the year. Stay until the end, if you can, so you can say hi to your student. If you can’t, make sure to compliment them on their jump shot or their cello solo the next class period you see them.
Most likely when you do this, you will also run into a parent or guardian at the event (#bonuspoints). Even if you don’t, your admin and other parents will just start seeing you around all the time supporting students, and it will really show that you care for them as people and not just as students.
Establish a consistent mass communication system with parents.
This is so important and must not be overlooked! You absolutely need to set up some way that you are regularly communicating with parents. It could be every week or biweekly. Do whatever you can maintain consistently.
Pick ANY SYSTEM you feel is best for you. Some I have dabbled with in the past and used at different times in my teaching career include:
- A very, very basic class website with a tab for each class that I update at the end of each day with EXACTLY what we did that day and what is due. This is great for absent students too! The link is sent out every few weeks to parents to remind them and posted on my whiteboard to remind students.
- Remind101 or another texting system.
- An end-of-week email that goes out on Friday afternoons with a bulleted list of key points so that it is easy to read.
- A broadcast through your school’s learning management system.
Again, it doesn’t matter which, just pick one and GO WITH IT! Even if parents don’t read it, if they ever get on you about not telling them things, you can point to your chosen system and say, “Well actually, I think you might be missing the emails I send out every Friday. Let me make sure you are getting those and confirm your email now!” Even better – admins LOVE THIS.
Communicate with every parent individually once a month.
Now this will seem like a lot, but hear me out. I really think it is important that parents don’t only get mass communication from you. I keep a log of my parent communication and every time I reach out individually, whether it be a phone call or email. Personally, I prefer email so I can have a written record of all correspondence. I keep track in my log too make sure I am reaching out at least once a month to every parent.
What do I say in this correspondence? I share POSITIVE FEEDBACK. Do you know how frequently parents hear positive feedback about their children from their teachers? Basically never. So when they get an email they are already exasperated before they open it because they just assume it’s going to be bad news. If you regularly are reaching out to parents to share the good news, they will (1) know you really do see and care for their child, and (2) will really hear you out when you do have to share not-so-good news.
How on earth do I keep up with this?? I keep the emails SHORT. Just a few sentences. I stay every Friday afternoon to do my mass communication email for the week, and then after I shoot off 4-5 individual emails as well.
Now, maybe midweek you have an issue with a student and need to reach out to the parent. Do immediately address it, but again, always start the email with the positive. This wasn’t something I always did but was challenged by a principal once to not be quiteeee so succinct in my emails. I thought I was respecting their time with my brevity, but my emails actually came off extremely harsh. So instead, I always have 1-2 sentences FIRST about what growth or positive things I see in the student before moving to the negative. You will be amazed how much better it will be received and the partnership that may even form! You want to work WITH parents to see their students succeed!
Schedule a parent/teacher conference sooner, rather than later.
I used to be so terrified to meet with parents face to face. About three years into my teaching career I finally overcame my fear and invited parents to meet face to face at the FIRST sign of any issue – disciplinary or academically – with a student. This was such a game-changer! It is SO MUCH EASIER to communicate tone and show you really care for a student if you can talk face to face and not in email.
This allows you to not just tell but SHOW the parent how much you care. You can show them the work ethic that is lacking, or go through a poor test alongside them. You can show them the study resources you provide or point to the sign that shows your tutoring hours so they can see all the ways you are there to support their student.
Doing this early in the year will help you build that relationship from the beginning, give you a chance to show them some of your systems, and point them to your email list or LMS or website where you keep parents up to date so that they will have it the rest of the year!
It also makes future email or phone communication easier because they can put a face to the name. I cannot tell you enough how much I recommend you do this. The FIRST TIME you have any issue, reach out and ask if you can meet in person. You will most likely never have to do it again, so do it early when there is still so much time in the year, and not come May when there is no hope of recovering the student’s grade.
Need help with keeping up with parent communication? Click here to download my free contact log template! Interested in more practical systems and tips for high school science teachers? Check out my course, Secondary Science Simplified™️!