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Seven tips for a successful parent-teacher partnership

Posted by Dr. Claire McCarthy  October 3, 2012 08:00 AM

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Over the past couple of weeks I've gone to three school open houses: one at Liam's elementary school, one at Natasha's middle school, and one at Elsa's high school. At this point, with two kids in college, I can't even count how many I've been to.

As I sat in them, it got me thinking about how much I've learned over the years as both a mom and a pediatrician about partnering with teachers and how important those partnerships are. I mean, think about it. There are days when teachers spend more time with our kids than we do. They have so much power in their lives--and offer so much possibility.

So here are a few hard-learned tips when it comes to partnering with teachers and working as a team. Some may seem obvious, but if there's anything I've learned over the years it's that the obvious is worth stating when things are important. And your child's education is important.

Go to the back to school nights. They set the stage for the year--you get an idea of what the teacher is like, learn about expectations, meet other parents, see the actual classrooms your child sits in...it's a crucial opportunity that you shouldn't miss. It's almost always a real stretch for me to rush from Boston to get to the school in time, and you'd think at this point I'd remember to pack myself dinner, or at least a snack...but it's worth it.

Communicate with teachers. Let them know when you are seeing things that worry you--and when you see things that make you happy! Don't wait until things are really bad--the earlier you give them the heads up about a problem, the better you'll be able to work together to fix it. When I hear about school problems in my patients, I'm surprised by how often parents haven't talked with the teachers about them. But as you think about communicating, remember to...

Communicate with teachers the way they ask you to. If they want notes, don't send an email. If they give you a different email than the school one, use that one. Not only does it encourage mutual respect, it's most likely to be effective, as that's the way they are expecting to hear from you.

Don't ambush preschool or elementary teachers at school drop-off or pick-up. Most of us don't do so great when we are caught off guard and distracted by chaos around us, and teachers are no different. Plus, there may be things that they don't want to say within earshot of others. It's fine to let them know that you'd like to talk, and set up a time and way to do so, but don't launch into your concerns unless it's something they really need to know that day--like "Jimmy cried himself to sleep last night because of something Johnny said to him and I had to drag him here today", or "Jenny said she felt like throwing up this morning but I decided to bring anyway". That kind of stuff the teacher might like to know.

Give teachers the benefit of the doubt. There is always another side to the story; what your child or his friend's mother tells you may not be, well, everything there is to know. Always bring concerns to the teacher first, and try to phrase it along the lines of "Jimmy was very upset about his grade on the project. Could we talk about it?" as opposed to "You didn't grade Jimmy fairly." I've been burned personally on this one...my kids sometimes leave little bits out, like something was late, they didn't follow the instructions, etc.

Talk to the principal if communicating with the teacher isn't working out. Sometimes you need a neutral party. Sometimes the chemistry between a teacher and a kid, or a teacher and a parent, just doesn't work out. I've had that experience too--and I've mediated some of those situations as a pediatrician. Which is another point I wanted to make:

Remember that your doctor can help. Over the years, I have had countless conversations with teachers and principals, helping kids and families get what they need--and helping them understand what teachers and principals are trying to tell them. My job is to look after all aspects of a child's well-being--and their education is absolutely part of their well-being.

That's the point, really: you, the school and your doctor are all a team. You are your kid's team--and you do our best work when you do it effectively, and together.


This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About MD Mama

Claire McCarthy, M.D., is a pediatrician and Medical Communications Editor at Boston Children's Hospital . An assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and a senior editor for Harvard More »

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