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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 19, Number 2, October 2006

Building positive parent relationships

by Sylvia Bishop

Do you remember your first parent-teacher conference? The first phone call you had to make to a parent or guardian regarding their child? Are you facing any of these communications for the first time?

At the New Teachers’ Conference held March 24–25, 2006, many delegates attended the workshop "Building effective communications with parents." They talked about feeling anxious and intimidated when meeting with parents.

Participants wanted to do their best for their students. That includes giving parents and guardians insight into students’ strengths and the challenges they face in the classroom. This sometimes creates feelings of anxiety. Sometimes parents are better acquainted with the situation than are teachers new to the school or grade assignment.

The BCTF offers support for building effective communications with parents through workshops, School Union Rep Training (SURT), and conferences. Locals may book SURTs through the Training Department of the BCTF. Local offices receive a booklet outlining the topics offered and may survey their staff reps on which topics are of interest or need. Outside of SURTs you will find the "Working together with parents is good for kids and teachers" workshop. In the last several years, the new teachers’ conference has offered workshops focussing on building effective parent–teacher relationships.

These training opportunities are not just talk. The Federation ‘walks the walk’ with a number of different outreach activities that include parent participation. For several years the BCTF Public Education Conference has invited one parent per local to attend and covers the cost of their participation. The Federation also invites parents to be workshop presenters or facilitators on topics related to the conference theme. In February, a parent panel presented "Parents as Advocates." At the October public education conference, the topic will be "What parents want for their children" with a panel presenting their point of view as parents of Aboriginal students, of ESL students, and of students with special needs.

The Federation has also invited parents to facilitate workshops at summer conference. This year, the topic was "How to talk to parents about hot topics in education." Delegates to the BCTF AGM may have seen the BC Confederation of Parent Advisory Councils’ (BCCPAC) display booth staffed by one of their executive members and heard greetings delivered by their president at the opening plenary.

Also available are six presentations that PACs may book free of charge for parents. In 2004–05, there were 162 presentations by teacher volunteers to approximately 2,000 parents. Feedback from the parents acknowledges the value of the presentations and an overwhelming number stated appreciation for teachers taking the time to come and talk to them. Visit bctf.ca/parents.aspx to view the brochure.

The Federation has encouraged locals to identify a member to serve as the local parent contact. This member will work closely with the local executive on outreach activities with parents. It is important both to sustain and build on the good will and support parents extended to teachers last fall. Realizing this, one local is designating a parent contact in each of its schools. Another local is working with its DPAC to put a program together for a spring conference.

Parents tell us that these and other efforts build positive relationships. Many parents who stopped by the BCTF booth at Vancouver’s Word on the Street, held September 24, 2006, thanked teachers for the work they do. We also heard this message from runners in Run for the Cure who stopped by the BCTF table.

BCCPAC provides support to their members on building effective communications with teachers.

At their workshops, parents often talk about feeling anxious and intimidated when meeting with the teacher. Sound familiar? Some of their questions are about how the teacher will view them as parents. Will their concerns be addressed? What will the teacher say about their child? They want to be acknowledged for the tough job they have as parents. They want to be respected and, above all, they want to be heard.

BCCPAC also invites teachers to participate in its activities. The BCTF is invited to send two guests to their annual fall conference and spring annual general meeting. At the fall conference, participation in their workshops is welcomed. A display booth is available for distribution of materials. Parents stop by with questions and good conversation follows. Their annual general meeting is a policy-setting business meeting. Interested delegates have taken the time to discover the teacher perspective on some of their AGM resolutions.

It is interesting to note both parents and teachers share the same kinds of apprehensive feelings. They also share a desire to help the student be the best she or he can be. How can nervousness be overcome in order to better support the student? Here are some practical suggestions.

Effective communication is all about establishing a good relationship. Think about your friends. When you are with them you are probably relaxed, at ease, and open. You have a lot to talk about and stories to share. You listen to each other. When your friends come to visit, you are probably warm and welcoming.

Now think about your role as a teacher. How can you make parents feel relaxed when they meet with you, or talk to you over the phone? How can you make the meeting time comfortable? Sometimes it can be as easy as a warm smile, sincere greeting, handshake, and eye contact. If you are meeting face to face, privacy is as important as the seating arrangement. When the teacher’s desk is used to separate parent and teacher, distance is created. Instead, sit across from each other in a way that respects personal space while creating intimacy. On the phone, your tone of voice can have a huge impact. Take the time to check that this is a good time to talk. If not, arrange a mutually convenient time to call.

Make sure that the conversation provides both talking and listening time for everyone present. Everyone brings some expertise to the meeting. As a professional teacher, you can best speak to the learning strengths of the student. The parent knows the child outside of the school community and can bring valuable information to the discussion.

When you call a parent for the first time, or set up the initial meeting, you can set the stage for a strong and positive relationship that will support their child’s/your student’s success for another school year. Think of the parent as a friend and treat them the same way. It can make a huge difference to everyone.

Sylvia Bishop is an assistant director in the BCTF’s Communications and Campaigns Division.

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