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September 1, 1998
Vol. 56
No. 1

Tips for Reaching Parents

Cooperation and support from parents can lead to a positive climate in the classroom. Here are some tips for delivering powerful presentations to parents.

Curriculum Night, Back to School Night, Meet-the-Teacher Coffee—whatever the name, many teachers find this the most important meeting of the year. Parents are invited to come to school, usually at the beginning of the school year, to hear teachers explain their classroom plans. All teachers want to make positive first impressions on parents. And, as the saying goes, "You don't get a second chance to make a first impression."
In many schools, the new generation of parents is older, busier, better educated, and more assertive, acting as consumers of their children's education. Their expectations are high. If parents leave feeling confident that their children will succeed academically and emotionally, then the meeting builds a strong foundation for positive parent-teacher relationships throughout the year. If parents leave doubting their children's success, then the meeting may produce a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Few teachers choose their career because they enjoy making presentations to parents. Although some do look forward to Curriculum Night as an opportunity to meet parents and share with them the year's plans, other teachers dread the meeting and consider the ultimate objective to be survival. Most reactions fall somewhere in between. Unfortunately, preservice and inservice programs rarely help teachers improve the quality of their presentations. Teachers must acquire these skills through trial and error.

Tips for Presenting to Parents

For 10 years as a teacher, a vice-principal, a principal, and an assistant superintendent, I have conducted research and given workshops designed to help educators better understand the evolving relationship between parents and teachers. I have talked with more than 100 teachers about their "tricks" for successful parent presentations. I collected the following strategies from individual interviews and group meetings with K–8 teachers. The list is a menu, not a checklist, from which teachers may pick and choose as they feel comfortable. The most important prerequisite for successful presentations is confidence.
1. Have a handout or an outline on the desks when parents arrive. The handout serves three important functions. First, parents may forget much of what they hear at curriculum meetings. Written materials that parents can refer to periodically at home will save you from answering the same questions in the future. Second, the handout will help you stay organized and on schedule throughout the presentation. Third (and most important for those of us who have a fear of speaking to groups of adults), during the presentation, parents will focus their eyes on the handout, which greatly reduces the number of eyes staring at you.
2. Tell parents how and when you prefer them to contact you when they have questions. Teachers often have very different preferences about how parents should contact them and when contact is most appropriate. Tell parents what you prefer and most of them will cooperate. Include this information in your handout.
3. Check the Parent Handbook or other information about curriculums or procedures that parents have received from the school or district. Many times, the school or district has already sent parents a good synopsis of the program. You can save preparatory time by reviewing this before your presentation. More important, by familiarizing yourself with the handbook, you will be consistent with terminology and avoid difficult questions from parents who perceive what you say as different from what is written. You can be sure many parents have read the descriptions carefully.
4. If your school has individual fall conferences, make a sign-up sheet available. This deters parents from attempting to have a "short" conference about their child after your presentation. A scheduled conference date does much to quell a parent's burning need to ask, "How is my child doing?"
5. Be organized, clear, concise, and cordial. Parents will assume you conduct your presentation in the same way you teach your class. This is often not the case, but you will have a hard time convincing parents of that. Curriculum Night is an opportunity to build parents' confidence in you as a teacher.
6. When parents make unrealistic suggestions, fight the urge to talk about what you can't do. Parents often do not know what it is like to teach more than 20 children at once, and sometimes they make suggestions about classroom operation that you know are not feasible. Focus your answers on what you can do. Politicians frequently turn negative questions into positive answers. Watch the next presidential press conference to see how it is done!
7. Leave some time at the end of your presentation for questions. Many parents today are accustomed to questioning the professionals in their lives. They question (and disagree with) their pediatrician, clergy, boss, and each other. Scheduling question time at the end of the presentation—and telling parents early on about this scheduled time—avoids disruptive questioning that may break the flow of your presentation.
  • "How will physically or behaviorally challenged students be included in your classroom?" This may be asked in a variety of ways, but the question behind the question is, "How are you going to ensure that this student's needs don't detract from my child's education?"
  • "How will the most able students be challenged?" In recent years, many schools have eliminated or dramatically decreased ability grouping and gifted and talented programs. Parents who perceive their children as having the ability to work above grade level have become increasingly concerned that they will not be adequately challenged.
  • "What is the homework policy and what role should parents play in the completion of homework?"
  • "That is a good (or interesting) question (or point), and I need to think about it more. Please call me (or send a note), and we'll set up a time to talk." Note that the onus for initiating the next communication is on the parent. Often, your acknowledgment of the point is sufficient. The parent is not likely to pursue further discussion, giving you the option to drop it or seek a conference.
  • "I understand your point of view and know that others think similarly." Then, go on to a new topic. When you acknowledge that parents are not alone in their thinking, they feel validated, thereby decreasing the need to prove the point with a debate. Remember, validating and agreeing are two different things. Validating a point with which you disagree, and withholding your disagreement until a more appropriate time, is diplomacy, not surrender.
  • If you feel you must disagree with a statement, start by pointing out the areas of agreement. You can then say, "We obviously differ on some points, and I would be happy to discuss this with you further at another time." You may want to leave it there or invite the parent to set up a time to talk later.
10. Don't be embarrassed to practice in front of the mirror, a colleague, or a friend. Typically, rehearsal time for a nationally televised, 30-minute presidential speech lasts from 4 to 10 hours. And remember, this is after a team of writers has taken weeks to write the speech! So take at least a few minutes to review or rehearse your presentation in front of a friendly audience.
11. Discuss your presentation with your colleagues who teach the same grade or classes. Some teachers find that coordinating presentations is difficult, for both personal and logistical reasons. However, like it or not, parents are bound to make comparisons. Coordinating, or at least sharing information, with colleagues will prepare you for the inevitable comparisons and may possibly reduce their occurrence.
12. Use innovative technologies. Teachers continue to find new methods for improving their parent presentations. Some use slide shows and videos. Media programs may take time to prepare, but many teachers find they are effective ways of telling and showing parents what really happens in the classroom. One school district has its own television studio, and teachers can record a production similar to a nightly news broadcast. Teachers also find that recording programs enables them to say what they want to say—the way they want to say it—without the fear of making a mistake because of stage fright. After watching these recordings, parents can then ask personalized questions.

From Stress to Success

In most schools, teachers vary in their ability and confidence to conduct par-ent presentations. But teachers often find that as their ability to present increases, their confidence also in-creases, leading to even better presentations. Thus, the cycle continues toward more confident presenting—and better teacher-parent relations.

William B. Ribas has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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