If you ask me what is the single most important aspect of my teaching that I have improved upon since my early days of teaching, I would tell you without hesitation: parental collaboration. There are many steps to great collaboration: establishing mutual respect, deciding upon a mode and schedule for communication that works well for both of you, having a healthy level of transparency, planning the student programming together so that everyone is on board from the very beginning, truly bonding over the incredible human that you are both responsible for their growth and development, and extending grace or benefit of the doubt, just to name a few.
Real talk: as a first year teacher, I really thought I knew a lot. I thought my degree in special education, the books I’d read, and the papers I’d written really made me an expert in what I was doing…. I’ll pause while you control your laughter….. I didn’t see the extreme collaborative nature of the job that I was embarking on and I spent a few years growing in my understanding of this challenge. Over the next decade, I established and grew some of the most rewarding parent/teacher relationships of my career. It takes time and sometimes some growing pains, but the end result is oh so sweet.
Establishing Mutual Respect
This is so key and does not happen overnight! I believe that it is best to extend respect to the parents of your students from the get go. They have an incredibly challenging task and they are the expert on their child. We should not assume that they know all the “formal” terms, but we also should not assume that they don’t. Working closely with your parents in developing programming and implementing strategies helps to navigate the technical level at which it is best to speak. Receiving respect from your students’ parents/guardians is not about proving to them how important, experienced, or educated you are upon the first meeting. It is about slowly proving these things with the great job that you do. I like the adage: “You’ve got to give it, to get it.” and I think that applies here.
This will be different for each individual teacher according to your caseload, your type of classroom, your school district expectations, and your own personal preferences, but be open to finding out what your student’s parent prefers as well. You may need to compromise somewhere in the middle. Every year I have taught, my written, email, and telephone communication has evolved, so don’t get stuck in what worked in years past. One of the best practices I have is to design the daily take home sheet with the parent at the beginning of the year. The information that each parent needs is diverse. Some parents really need information on what their child ate and if they used the restroom, while others are focused on what maladaptive behaviors they exhibited, while others want to review the academic and functional skills that were addressed so they can communicate about them at home. Usually I will open a GoogleDoc and share it with the parent so that we can view and adjust the daily sheet until it is reasonable for both. Beyond a daily sheet, the communication required for each parent will be different. Some parents I check in with each week via email, others we meet monthly face to face, while others do not feel the need to communicate that frequently as long as the daily sheet is consistent and designed to meet their needs.
As I mentioned before, I thought that I knew a whole lot when I started teaching. I also was under the impression that I had to be perfect. I’m not sure where I picked up that notion, but I never wanted to admit that I didn’t know something or I hadn’t been trained on something yet. I could have been learning so much more from everyone around me, including the parents of my students, if I could have just admitted that I had room to grow. I also wish I had been confident enough to just admit it when I made a mistake. I tried to keep up a facade of perfection and that was exhausting and insincere. I spent so much time trying to fix every little misstep, when I could have just been open about it and moved on, collaboratively figuring out solutions with the parties involved. Extending transparency is key if you would like to receive a level of transparency from your students parents. They may let you know if there was a slip up in routine at home or if an unexpected factor recently came into play instead of you having to see the effects and trying to get information after the fact.
Something else that have grown in since my early days is the level of parental involvement in IEP planning. I have always followed guidelines and expectations, providing information and updates to parents on the required timelines, but I suggest doing more. I urge you to involve parents/guardians (and the student if at all possible) in the development of the IEP from the very beginning. My current planning process involves a transition update meeting with parents weeks before the IEP meeting, then we work collaboratively on the goals (again in a shared Google Doc), meet to finalize goals, meet with related and direct service providers to discuss the schedule of services and integration of goals, and then we may meet an additional time to discuss supplements, transition paperwork, extended school year services, and any concerns they may have going forward. Yes, that is a lot of meetings, but they make all the difference in the world! The IEP meeting (ARD meeting in TX) then gets to be a celebration of the student and their progress (ideally led by the student, but that’s another post!). We aren’t presenting brand new information, parents aren’t forced to feel overwhelmed or caught off guard, and we aren’t nit picking details. Our meetings are filled with happy tears, lively brainstorming for the future, and proof of our collaboration efforts.
Now onto the mushy stuff. One of the biggest and strongest suggestions I can give newer teachers is “let your guard down”. Always maintain professionalism, but let your students’ parents see how much you truly love their kid. This will foster a more trusting relationship. The best ways to do this: share photos, write down and share funny or heart-warming anecdotes, share work samples, celebrate victories from home and at school together, write personalized thank you notes for all that they do well, and cherish any thank yous that come your way.
Two of the fabulous parents of my students that I have been blessed to work with. We went through hard times together and got to experience joy together. Now, years after having their children in my class, I get to call them friends.
I think that showing grace needs to go both ways. It is understanding that the other person is human and giving them the benefit of the doubt that they are doing the best they can. I find myself giving more and more grace the closer my own children at home get to the age of my students. I understand so much better when sometimes a parent forgets to pack a snack or charge the ipad. I try my best to keep my children home when they are sick, but I also am guilty of sending them when they are questionable and hoping that they make it through the day. I get that sleep schedules get out of routines, despite your best efforts. Situations where I might have jumped to conclusions or thought the worst in my younger days, I can see where the parent is coming from. Starting at a place of understanding and showing grace is so much more likely to have a positive outcome that the alternative.
Now collaborating well with parents is not a skill that anyone can have all figured out, squared away, never need to grow in again. It is a constant growth process, but the improved positive, approach makes all the difference. I am so passionate about this topic, I am presenting on it during the Texas Autism Conference in San Antonio. Reach out and let me know if you will be there too!