Communicating with child’s teacher essential

Another school year begins, and children once again prepare themselves to face the scary — at least for a kid — prospect of having to get used to a brand-new teacher.

But guess what, Mom and Dad? So will you.

It’s something many parents may not make it a point to do, but creating a good working relationship with a child’s teacher can be a key ingredient in the child’s academic success.

And as classes resume at schools across the valley this week, Southern Nevada’s teachers would love it if parents would step up that first day, introduce themselves and stay in contact as the school year progresses.

Honest, said Davida Sims, director of advancement at the Adelson Educational Campus. “There’s nothing (teachers) love more than parents who are involved and excited.”

Although it makes sense, creating an ongoing relationship with their kids’ teachers isn’t something many parents tend to do. That’s particularly true when children reach higher grades.

“I’ve noticed when kids are younger, especially elementary school age, parents are really gung-ho and excited and they really like to be involved,” Sims said. Then, parents tend to draw back in middle school, junior high and high school when, she said, “kids need you more.”

Janice Beckmann can’t imagine keeping her daughters’ teachers at arm’s length.

Abby is starting seventh grade and Ally is a fifth-grader at the Adelson Educational Campus, and Beckmann said the girls — and the family — consider the teachers the girls have had over the years friends.

It probably helps that regular and frequent parent-teacher communication and interaction is encouraged at Adelson Educational Campus, Beckmann said. “It’s just kind of an open-door policy.”

Why do parents shy away from getting to know their kids’ teachers? For some, it could be a fear that teachers would think the parents are (to coin a phrase) apple-polishing or, worse, trying to step on a teacher’s pedagogical toes.

Parents might sense that “there’s definitely a line there,” said Catherine Thompson, principal of St. Francis de Sales School.

Another, probably more likely, reason is that parents simply might be too busy with work, family obligations and other commitments to talk to teachers on anything but regularly scheduled open house or parent-teacher conference nights.

“I think that’s genuinely the biggest reason why parents check out and leave it to the school,” Sims said.

Finally, a parent might be reluctant to contact a teacher because he or she detects a leave-us-alone vibe on the part of teachers or administrators.

But, Thompson said, “I think that in a healthy, respectful environment, parents and teachers can work together. We want to work together so your child can be successful.”

“Teachers are shocked and excited when a parent calls and it’s not just ‘You stink’ but they want to do what they can to help Johnny get ahead,” Sims said.

Parents and teachers typically do meet at scheduled conferences throughout the school year. Teachers also typically communicate with parents via notes sent home with children and, at many schools, online parent link pages on which Mom and Dad can keep up on school events, grades, assignments and attendance.

But, beyond all of those, teachers say they’d find it helpful for parents to introduce themselves in person and that the first week of school is the perfect time to do it.

During those first few days, Thompson said, “teachers are usually in that mode of getting to know children.”

“It certainly should start the first week of school, like on back-to-school night,” said Steve Buuck, CEO of Faith Lutheran Middle School and High School. “You can go and meet the teachers, see what they have to say and introduce yourself.”

From there, Sims said, “I think you would build the relationship in the same way you would deal with any relationship. The first thing is to be positively proactive. So introduce yourself. Say, ‘Please reach me by phone’ — or cell or email — ‘that’s the best way to reach me.’ ”

Assure the teacher that it’s fine to use the contact information you’ve provided not just if there’s a problem, Sims added, but to discuss anything positive or useful, too.

The goal is to let teachers know that the parent never will consider it an imposition to hear from them.

Conversely, the teacher will know that the parent wishes to be actively involved in their child’s academic life.

“If you throw that out to a teacher, they’ll be so grateful, because, truthfully, the only time they hear from parents is, ‘Hey, you give too much homework’ or ‘That test isn’t fair,’ ” Sims said.

Then, make note of the contact information — phone, email addresses and the like — a teacher may send home on the first day of classes or which might be included on an online parent link page.

“Ask teachers how they prefer to communicate,” Thompson said. “Do they prefer email? Do they prefer face to face? Do they prefer phone calls? Each teacher may have a different preference.”

Now that you’ve made the initial contact, keep in touch. For example, teachers probably would appreciate knowing if a child is struggling with homework or having difficulty with a particular lesson or subject.

But also feel free to let teachers know about nonacademic occurrences in a child’s life that might affect his or her learning. For example, the death of an uncle, the arrival of a baby brother or sister, a grandmother’s moving in, a parent’s job loss or family economic troubles all can affect a child’s performance in class.

Also keep the teacher informed about things you may notice about your child — that, for instance, he seems to be enjoying this reading assignment or struggling with that math assignment — that a teacher wouldn’t necessarily discern.

“Teachers appreciate hearing the little nuances kids’ parents can provide to them,” Buuck said.

Fill teachers in about special needs your child may have. In the same vein, Buuck said, offer — ideally right at the start of the school year — “any insights you could give the teacher” about a child’s interests or learning style.

“Say, ‘My son or daughter is coming off of this,’ or ‘We’ve had success when a teacher does this,’ or ‘We’ve found this helps her learn better or study better,’ ” Buuck said.

“What teachers see — all we know — is what you see in school, and that’s not always what parents see at home,” Sims said.

“Teachers are always looking for how to reach kids,” Sims added, and if a parent can offer a clue or two, “I couldn’t imagine a good teacher would think anything but ‘Thank you.’ ”

When a parent and teacher keep in touch, the process also can help to shed light on issues that, left unattended, might lead to minor problems that eventually turn into major ones.

“I find that in teaching, what usually happens is we work in crisis mode. To the parent, no news is good news, and that’s life in general,” Thompson said.

But if things begin to go “a little off-track, by inviting parents to come in rather than waiting for that progress report or report card to be distributed, they say, ‘This is what’s going on,’ and all of a sudden everyone is like,’ Oh, that explains a lot.’ ”

However, while teachers welcome parental involvement, parents should understand that teachers are busy people. So, if the parent would like to go beyond email or phone calls and meet the teacher in person, always call ahead.

“Schedule an appointment. That’s a biggie,” Thompson said. “I may have an appointment with another parent, or a meeting, or I may be working with a student after school. So it’s always good to just mail or call the school office.”

And that leads to another caveat: There can be a very thin line separating the involved parent from the so-called helicopter parent who becomes excessively, and unhealthily, involved in a child’s academic life.

Staying on the proper side of the line can be “a delicate balancing act,” Buuck said.

At Faith Lutheran, for example, parents can use an online parent link page to access their kids’ grades 24/7/365. Having immediate access to test scores and grades can be “a double-edged sword,” Buuck said, adding that he has known of a parent or two who would, say, phone principals in the early afternoon wanting to know why that day’s science test grade hadn’t yet been posted.

So, Buuck said, “what I’d suggest is parents monitor their kids’ grades at least once a week or every two weeks.”

Then, he said, “if I see a trend — my kid’s missing three straight assignments or has done poorly on two tests — then I’d send an email to the teacher to say, ‘Have you any insight?’ ”

Contact reporter John Przybys at jprzybys@ or 702-383-0280.

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