As Jewish day school parents, we tend to be very involved in our children's education. The very process of selecting a Jewish day school is a form of involvement. There are countless other ways to be involved, including helping children with homework, volunteering at school, raising funds, and communicating with teachers about our children's progress. As a former day school teacher, and parent of three day school children, I recognize the unique nature of parent communications in private Jewish day schools, and I wanted to understand the phenomenon more deeply.
In my research for my Doctoral Dissertation, as part of my degree in Curriculum and Instruction, I surveyed and interviewed teachers, parents, and school leaders at five Jewish day schools in the Southeastern United States. The objective of my research was to illustrate the nature of parent communications at these schools, and to determine their impact on teachers' day-to-day classroom practices. Essentially, I was looking to understand the nature of parent communications in private Jewish day schools and how they manifest themselves in the classroom. The results of my study can be used to drive and inform discussions about how to build and maintain positive, meaningful parent-school relationships. I also used the data to develop tips for fostering positive and productive parent-teacher relationships.
It was clear from survey and interview responses that parent-school communications take place on a very frequent basis, and that they are fairly equally initiated by both parents and schools. Teachers overwhelmingly favored email as a means of communication (96% of responses), while only about half of the parents preferred email. The other half of parents preferred phone calls, texting, and in-person communications. This discrepancy can easily be explained by the fact that teachers have many parents with whom they need to communicate on a regular basis, and email is an efficient means of doing so, while parents generally only have a handful of teachers. It is relatively simple for a parent to meet in person with each of his or her child's teachers, while a teacher, who may have dozens of students, simply does not have the time to meet personally with the parents of each student on a regular basis.
Interestingly, all of the respondents who had prior experience in public schools noted that the levels of parent-school communications in private schools go above and beyond those in public schools. The difference is like “night and day,” said one fourth grade teacher. While the reasons for this greater parent involvement vary, much can be attributed to parents' desire to transfer their own success to their children. Many parents in affluent schools, which generally describes private Jewish day schools in the United States, feel that part of their role as parents is to help their children navigate obstacles, including challenges they may face in education, as part of guiding their children towards the success that they fully expect their children to attain. An understanding of what motivates parents to become involved in their children's education, and to reach out to teachers, can help schools work together with parents to create positive partnerships.
One component of my study was to ask parents and teachers the same survey questions about parent-teacher communications, and then to compare the results. I wanted to ascertain whether parents and teachers viewed this phenomenon the same way. In many areas, parent and teacher responses did not differ significantly. One question where the responses indicated a difference in perception asked how the respondents would describe the tone of most of their parent-teacher communications. Nearly 95% of parents viewed their communications as positive or mostly positive, while teachers seemed a bit more wary, with only about 65% of them feeling the same way.
What can account for this gap? One teacher described some parents as “very challenging and very difficult. They're used to being heard and having the final say.” Another teacher from a different school reported having “less than a handful of parents” that she would identify as “ugly,” but they were a vocal group. This probably is also related to teachers' preference for email. Even benign news might be difficult for teachers to deliver in person or over the telephone if the teacher feels that the tone of the conversation could become unpleasant.
Parents and teachers both want to create positive learning environments so that students can succeed. So how can parents and teachers avoid negative perceptions that can accompany parent-teacher communications, and learn to view each other as partners with the same goals? I have compiled a list of tips for parents and teachers that can help to build and foster partnerships that can serve to benefit students.
- Be aware of how you are presenting yourself. Are you disparaging something the other party has done? Are you raising your voice or emailing in all caps? These will automatically put the other person on the defensive, reducing the possibility of honest and productive communication. Present yourself in such as way that others will want to listen to your concerns.
- Don't present a problem without being ready to discuss how you plan to address it. Mention what steps have already been taken, and provide suggestions as to how to work together to improve a situation.
- Communicate positive information as often as possible. Parents love to hear that their child asked a thoughtful question in class, or showed kindness to another student. Teachers, let the parents know that you noticed these positive qualities in their child. Teachers also want to be recognized for their efforts, so parents, fire off an email about how you appreciate how the teacher took a few extra minutes to clarify a math problem, or made the science lesson so engaging to your child. When parents and teachers engage in positive communications, they will be more willing to work together to manage negative situations that may arise, since they already recognize that the other party is not “out to get them.”
- Teachers: Recognize that parents tend to have a visceral response to negative news about their children. Some parents receive this type of information very personally, since they view their children as reflections of themselves. Discussing concerns about children with their parents is not the same as discussing a defective lamp with a salesperson. It is a very personal experience. Be aware of how you may be perceived, and be sure that you have made every effort to establish yourself as someone who recognizes Little Johnny's positive qualities, before you need to tell parents that Little Johnny hasn't been completing his homework. Follow tips 1-3.
- Parents: Understand that, while your child is important to them, teachers are being bombarded with daily parent requests for more homework, less homework, more tests, fewer tests, more recess time, less recess time, and so on. Yours is not the only opinion they are hearing. Teachers must make some decisions for the greater good of the class. If you think the teacher should be doing something differently, politely discuss your reasons why you feel the class would benefit from a change you want. Along the same lines, recognize that teachers have many parents communicating with them on a daily basis. You don't want your child's teacher spending their day on the phone and email instead of teaching, so be realistic about when to expect a response to your communications.
Most of the parents and teachers who participated in my research indicated that their school is a “community,” a “family” that works together for the benefit of the students. Most parents felt that their child's teacher truly valued their child, and most teachers felt that parents were supportive of their efforts. Like any community or family, there will always be a few members whose company you don't enjoy, and there always will be a few people who are not doing the best possible job. However, I urge you not to let a few negative people prevent you from realizing the benefits of a positive parent-school partnership. Students will stand to gain when teachers and parents feel about their schools the way that the parent of a second-grader in my study did, when she said, “it's a school, but it seems more like a community, a family, a close-knit family community.”
Dr. Rebecca M. Solomon is currently the Director of Curriculum at Hochberg Preparatory School, a Solomon Schechter school in Miami, Florida. She previously worked as an independent school principal and as a teacher in Jewish day schools. She has completed a Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction from Florida Atlantic University, where her Doctoral Dissertation focused on the impact of parent involvement on private Jewish day school classrooms.