You can’t be in the classroom with your child every day. (Trust us, the other students will notice you trying to squeeze into a second grader-sized desk.)
But that doesn’t mean you can’t be a key part of your child’s education.
Decades of research have shown that parental involvement is one of the most important factors in determining a student’s success, leading to higher test scores and graduation rates, better attendance, and increased motivation and self-esteem–all of which help a child get into a good college, laying the foundation for a financially successful future.
One of the most effective ways to take part in your child’s education is to establish a good relationship with her teacher, which will help ensure that she’s getting a great education. Especially in the formative grade-school years, teachers who can tailor a curriculum to best suit a child’s needs can help foster a lifelong love of learning.
Just how do you that? We went straight to the teachers themselves: two New York state public school teachers, who have had plenty of experiences, good and bad, with their students’ parents.
Here’s what they had to teach us.
Do: Remember that your teacher is a person.
“The best way to lay the foundation for a good relationship with your child’s teacher is to remember that she or he is a person who just wants to do a good job,” says Tara Kantor, a high school English teacher. Kill her with kindness, and assume that you both want the best for your child.
Don’t: Assume that new or young teachers are bad teachers.
“There’s a lot of prejudice against younger teachers,” says Kantor. While experience is great—especially when it comes to classroom management—young teachers bring energy and new teaching methods to the classroom. After all, every great older teacher had to start somewhere!
Do: Find out—and remember—how your child’s teacher wants to be contacted.
“At the beginning of the school year, your child’s teacher will likely send home a letter explaining how she or he would like to be contacted,” says Mikele Bertinetti, an elementary school teacher in New York City. These days, many teachers prefer to be contacted via email, and will give parents their email addresses. If you haven’t heard from the teacher after three to four school days, feel free to inquire.
What’s Your Teacher Mode?
Are you frequently in touch with your child’s teacher? What systems have you put in place to make sure you’re involved with what’s going on at school?
Don’t: Show up after class expecting to talk.
Often, parents will show up to chat right as class is letting out. “It’s not appropriate to distract a teacher when class is dismissing, especially since she’s responsible for making sure that students are either on their way to the next class or getting on school buses,” says Bertinetti. Teachers often have meetings scheduled after class, or may have personal obligations. Showing up unexpectedly signals that you don’t value the teacher’s time and can be seen as disrespectful.
Do: Ask for help if you don’t understand your child’s assignments.
Send a note or email your child’s teacher if you’re confused by subject material or a recently assigned project, says Bertinetti. If a teacher knows that a parent doesn’t feel confident in helping her children herself, the teacher will often take the time to help the child more extensively in school, to make sure that he understands the assignment well on his own.
Don’t: Back off from overseeing their homework.
On a similar note, it’s really important for parents to stay involved and to oversee their children’s at-home work. This allows them to flag any problems their child might be having and bring it to the teacher’s attention, says Bertinetti. After all, you don’t need to speak Spanish to be able to keep tabs on how your kid is doing in class.
Do: Bring it to the teacher’s attention if you feel your child is either struggling academically or not being appropriately challenged.
It’s the teacher’s responsibility to make sure that there are different activities based on students’ individual needs and academic levels. If your child isn’t being sufficiently challenged in class, ask if she can be given more challenging work, or if there are enrichment exercises you can do with her at home.
If your kid is struggling, his teacher is the best possible resource for help. A teacher can recommend extra exercises you can do to help your child on your own, or suggest professional or peer tutoring services. College or graduate students will often tutor at a discounted rate.
Don’t: Take your problems directly to an administrator.
Both Kantor and Bertinetti agree that this is the worst thing a parent can do. Immediately going higher up in the hierarchy doesn’t allow your teacher to try and fix any problems on his own and will be interpreted as an aggressive move. If the conversation isn’t productive, or you feel that the teacher isn’t being responsive to your concerns and changes won’t be made, then reach out to a department head or a school administrator.
Do: Shift the conversation away from grades.
If you’re worried about your child’s grades, it’s absolutely fine to address those concerns with her teacher. But there is a right—and a wrong—way to have that discussion. If you start off talking solely about grades, the teacher may feel like you’re trying to pressure her to change the grade your child got, says Kantor. Instead, frame the discussion around “understanding,” so you can understand where your child is falling short, an approach also more likely to keep her teacher on your side.
Don’t: Fret over teacher gifts.
Kantor tells us that she’s never met a teacher who held it against a parent for not sending in a gift. That said, as we all know, it’s always nice to feel appreciated, so sending a small gift or a nice card will show you value your child’s teacher’s work. It’s the thought that counts—and it goes a long way!
Do: Check in with your child’s teacher frequently.
There are generally two parent-teacher conferences scheduled within the ten-month school year, Bertinetti says. And, in that time, a lot can change. Once a month or every other month, reach out to your child’s teacher (via her approved method) to find out how your child is progressing and whether there’s anything to work on. Checking in any more frequently will be overkill, but not checking in at all sets you up to be surprised when those conferences do roll around.