The Whole Nine Yards With Independent School Parents


I’m fortunate to work at a wonderful independent school, where the vast majority of parents are gracious, supportive, and wholly vested in playing a critically helpful role in their children’s education.

But after seven years in the classroom, I have some helpful advice for how teachers can build and sustain positive relationships with parents—as well as appropriately handle difficult circumstances.

#1: With offensive parents, keep it brief, and contact an administrator
As Understanding Independent School Parents coauthor Alison Fox Mazzola writes in her great little book, “teachers deserve an environment where [they] are supported, trusted and respected.” In fact, good administrators shield teachers from offensive treatment, even from parents.

Three years ago, as yearbook advisor, I proposed doing away with full senior pages, which each graduating student filled with photos of family and friends. With an expanding school quickly approaching over 100 seniors, the publication had grown to resemble more of a senior book than a true yearbook, while giving short shrift to the contributions and accomplishments of other community members.

I also wanted to support my school’s sustainability efforts, and afford more room in my publication’s budget to update technology. Since yearbook is a class, not a club, I felt a greater responsibility to teach my students the most up-to-date reporting and newsroom skills.

By allocating each senior a half-pages, not a full one, I would have enough funding to purchase new computers, cameras, a green screen and advanced multimedia editing software. The book would also be sleeker and more appealing—graphically and in content.

I received a number of calls from senior parents, upset about the break in tradition. I had sent a letter home over the summer, explaining the reasons for the change—but the sheer volume of calls indicated that I either misjudged how many parents would actually care, or I simply didn’t do enough to inform. Whatever the case, I had very positive conversations with all but one parent.

That mother, particularly upset, accused me of not caring about students or my job, even going as far as to suggest that my decision to move to half a page made me a “horrible person.”

I always log and take notes on parent phone calls, a good practice in case you need to recall the details of a conversation (or if one took place). I delete those files each summer, but I’ve kept my response to this call: “I hear you’re upset, but I no longer feel comfortable speaking with you on the phone. We should meet face-to-face, but with an administrator also present.” I then ended the call and reported to my head.

I will never forget the support of my administration, nor my sudden realization that sometimes, five percent of parents will consume 95 percent of my time.

I recently spoke with Mazzola, curious to hear her thoughts about such parents and what can be done about them. “What I found the most difficult about those parents is that you can’t convince them,” she says. “You can’t influence their thinking. They just have their ideas, and that’s just what they’re going to believe. No matter what you do, no matter how many meetings you have, no matter how many e-mails and how many phone calls or how many things you tell them, how many times they’re even allowed to visit the class, you’re not going to influence their thinking.”

#2: Involve parents in their children’s education
Independent school parents want to know how they can help educate their children, and it’s very much the teacher’s job to foster and facilitate that yearning. I’m constantly surprised at the genuine concern my students’ families show over the learning process, which almost always translates into a happier, more successful student.

Great teachers welcome parent support and curiosity. I’ve lost track of the number of wonderfully positive conversations I’ve had with parents about my curriculum or assignments. Those conversations morph into how impressed I am with something in particular that Johnny or Sally did or said, letting the parents see that I really know and care for their child. Sometimes, parents ask what they can do to help their child succeed—and it’s crucial that you lay out an approach that involves their direct action.

At times, I’ve asked parents to encourage their child to see me for extra help before, during, or after school. When parents are familiar with a concept, I encourage them to speak with their child about it, and to let me know when they offer assistance on homework. I’ve also asked parents to visit my class, and to observe students giving presentations.

#3: Prepare for a successful back-to-school night
Early on, the best way to earn parent support is to run a successful back-to-school-night—which, in many cases, can be a lot of fun. When speaking to parents, I do my best to bring the same vigor and eagerness I bring to my students in the classroom.

I love what I teach, and I make that known not only by what I say but also by how I say it. I’m animated, excitingly talking about my own work in history or journalism, the two subjects that I teach. I also show parents how to navigate the class page, what I have planned for the year, and how to contact me. I always give out my cell number, which has never been abused. Parents like knowing they can easily reach me, and I like to afford them that comfort.

All the while, I’m careful not to monopolize the short time we have together. I want to hear from the parents. I want to learn their hopes and fears for their student, and how I can support them in our collective mission to help all kids meet their greatest potential.

#4: Write effective student comments
I’m a big supporter of writing student comments a few times a year, mostly because a grade fails to adequately explain each student’s unique strengths and weaknesses. A great narrative reassures parents that you know their child on a deeper level, and that you care greatly for his or her success.

My first paragraph is a generic synopsis of what the class has been doing recently— and what they will be learning in the coming weeks. I wrote this generic paragraph two years ago, after I had tweaked my United States History curriculum.

My expectations in American history continue to grow. Having taught research and study skills, I have gradually amplified the course’s difficulty. Upon returning from the holidays, students engaged the central issues of Civil War Reconstruction. After writing a paper on this topic, the class investigated the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. Throughout, students read an array of primary and secondary sources, further developing their analytical skills. A range of assessments, including in-class essays and quizzes, requires students to remain vigorous. To tap various learning styles, I have made a concerted effort to vary classroom activities with multimedia presentations, videos, music, and student discussion. In coming weeks, the class will consider World War I, the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, and America’s response to and involvement in World War II. They will proceed with a more involved inspection of the Cold War, as well as the culture of the 1960s and America’s response to the Vietnam War.

Afterward, I write about each of my 60-75 students, offering insight into how each has progressed. I include an actual narrative below, and I’ve changed nothing but the student’s name.

Sally continues to be a quiet but welcome addition to American History class. Around the discussion table she has made many impressive remarks, especially upon referring to the text. At the same time, I encourage Sally to become more confident in her abilities. I sense that while she sometimes wants to make additional comments, she hesitates to do so. From what Sally does contribute, again, something I wish she would do much more, she clearly engages with material on a meaningful level. Accordingly, Sally should know that I value the views she holds and the questions she asks—and I am certain her classmates do as well. Sally has experienced trouble on various writing assignments, including an essay on the relative successes and failures of Civil War Reconstruction. Her thesis statement lacks focus, and she never explains what she means by “values” in her introduction: “The Reconstruction of the South was a failed attempt at peace, because the values for which the Civil War itself was fought, were forgotten.” I am happy to report that Sally performed much better on a recent in-class essay, asking her to analyze America’s changing socioeconomic identity during the Gilded Age. My comments to her read in part, “Your writing is much improved in your introduction, and I give you credit for really trying to find an objective narrative voice. I like how you lead up to your thesis, but I think you spend too much time on the immediate post-Civil War South. Instead, try to focus on how to hint at topics you will discuss throughout the body of your paper.” I wish to reiterate how much I respect Sally, who has displayed steady progress.

#5: Call home to report good news
Parents rarely receive a positive call home. Two times a semester, I make a point to call parents and tell them how impressed I am with something their student did or said. It surprises me when parents nervously answer the phone, as if a student did something wrong. They are all the more relieved and proud when I have just good news to report. These calls let parents know that I care as much about recognizing success and improvement as I do about spotting struggle and weaknesses.

These calls also reassure parents that I’m not out to make life more difficult for their child, that I’m fair in my assessments and feedback, and that I genuinely want to see students succeed.

#6: Look neat and professional
Nothing spells “unprofessional” more than a messy looking teacher, especially when meeting with parents. Since you never know when you might run into a parent, it’s a good idea to come to school looking neat and professional. I know some teachers who never come to work without wearing a tie, arguing that a visitor should never have any doubt as to who is in charge. I’m not sold that wearing a tie is essential to accomplishing this task, but it can’t hurt—and it’s an even wiser move for younger looking teachers, also looking to earn authority in the classroom.

#7: In most instances, avoid e-mail
When I receive e-mail from parents, I reply the very same day. I teach five classes and coach, and I understand as well as anybody that teachers are incredibly busy. But by not responding in a timely fashion, you make your school and yourself look lazy and unprofessional.

If the e-mail is anything beyond a simple request, like reminding Johnny to meet for extra help after school, it’s always wise to request a face-to-face meeting instead. It’s remarkably easy to misconstrue tone and meaning via e-mail, which heightens fears and emotions.

Mozalla, a seasoned veteran who has taught in independent schools for over two decades, discusses how as a rookie teacher, she made the mistake of engaging in detailed e-mails with a parent, upset over what and how her child was learning.

“I kept trying to appease her over e-mail,” Mozalla tells me. “It just escalated and escalated and escalated, and I realized three months later—after probably 75 e-mails—that really in the long run, I would have saved myself some time if I had actually sat down and met with her . . . . I should have planned a once-a-week meeting with her. It would have saved time over responding to her twice daily or four times daily emails.”

#8: Post assignments and class lessons online
Mozalla’s good advice notwithstanding, I post at least four weeks’ worth of lessons and assignments online, and they are easily accessible to students and parents alike. Few things hurt a teacher’s reputation more than being perceived as unprepared and disorganized.

Besides, parents should know what their child is studying, and students should have a clear idea of what they will be learning. On many occasions, this planning has also allowed me to meet with parents and students in advance about how to prepare for more challenging assignments. When students miss days of school, neither they nor their parents need to e-mail me about missed work.

#9: Coach, attend, or participate in after-school activities
In my experience, another great way to foster healthy parent-teacher relationships is to attend or involve oneself in after-school activities. I coach varsity cross-country, and beyond adoring engaging with students in a non-academic setting—which has a host of benefits unto itself—I enjoy interacting with parents on a daily basis. We speak not only about how their child is doing athletically, but emotionally, and academically as well. I can’t express how often this rapport has helped me realize how to communicate more effectively with teens, both on the field and inside the classroom.

Three years ago, a parent told me how worried she had grown about her son, also one of my star runners. He had recently lost a close relative, and through his grief, she told me, he had become saddened and depressed.
The family had not reported their loss to the school, and I certainly had no idea. But upon hearing the unfortunate news, I understood why this student-athlete hadn’t done as well in two recent races. As it turns out, his grades were also falling. With the mother’s permission, I notified my runner’s teachers about his loss, which in turn increased my colleagues’ sensitivity.

Takeaway message
Parents really can be powerful allies in fostering their children’s education, provided we take the time and make a thoughtful effort to cultivate positive connections with them.

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As a coach, history and journalism teacher at Brimmer and May, a wonderful independent school in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, I have the absolute best job in the world. I am thrilled to get up every morning to engage with interesting young people, and I'm equally fortunate to have such amazing colleagues and mentors. As the founder of Spin Education, I encourage you to check-in frequently and submit posts and lessons—all in an effort to better our practice as teachers.


  • Reply February 22, 2014

    Chase Mitsuda

    Such helpful suggestions David. I am so impressed with how you comment on student performance in #4.

    I am wondering what feedback you receive from parents regarding these in depth comments, and do they have an effect on student performance?

    Do these comments accompany the letter grade on the report card, or are they sent independently?

    If they are sent independently, are they sent hard copy or through email?

    Every beginning teacher should read this post. I wish I had this advice as a rookie.

    • Reply February 23, 2014

      David Cutler

      Great to hear from you, Chase. For the most part, parents are genuinely eager to read the narratives. I do get feedback from parents, but often not as much as I would like. Still, just because I don’t hear as much feedback doesn’t necessarily mean that parents don’t appreciate the narrative. I know for certain that most students read them, and I love engaging with them about my thoughts on their progress. All of this aside, the narratives provide me with a terrific opportunity to reflect and really think about a student’s particular progress. The comments do accompany a letter grade, which is sent home to parents in addition to being posted online.

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