Photo courtesy of Adriana Corona
Adriana Corona, the mother of one of the author's students, holds a student contract, designed to help maintain work-life balance that she developed with her son, high school senior Kelly Haro. This was the first assignment teacher Guadalupe De La O gave her students this year. Such agreements are an example of ways teachers can help build better relationships with parents.

As educators, we’ve long felt a deep desire to engage families in their child’s schooling, but our efforts often go amiss.

Teachers will say the best way to engage students in their classes is by building relationships with them. It’s time we extend the same commitment to parents.

We hear stories in the media and are forwarded silly memes about how parents are gaining a deeper appreciation for teachers during quarantine, but have we stopped to thank parents for trying their best and sharing this struggle with us? As we launch into another semester of distance learning, we must try harder to reach families. How do we do that?

It starts with empathy.

Amid the pandemic, we can still find ways to strengthen and support the village that helps raise our students.

Yes, reaching out often can often be discouraging. After a full day of teaching activities comes the daunting task of calling parents to let them know their child didn’t turn in their assignment, is at risk of not passing a course or had a challenging day in class.

Some parents seem supportive and agree to speak to their child and resolve the matter, but then you see little to no change in the student’s behavior.

Perhaps you sprinkle in some positive calls to let parents know their child’s grade had improved. But some parents are so used to getting negative phone calls, they seem unsure about how to react and their lack of enthusiasm dampens yours.

Then there is that parent you’ve always wanted to talk to, but can never get a hold of. Maybe this leaves you feeling defeated as the weeks go by.

We must remember that on the other side of the screen are moms and dads working at essential jobs; grandmas and foster parents focused on meeting the basic needs of their children; and parents juggling multiple conference calls while they adjust to a house bustling with activity.

A couple of weeks into distance learning last spring, my principal took a big risk when he decided to host a virtual town hall via Facebook Live. For years, I have sat at town halls held in our school’s multipurpose room as the same few familiar faces showed up month after month. It was a shock to my principal and our school community when more than 200 parents joined us online and asked questions in the chat box.

Did parents finally care enough about their kids to attend in droves?

No, we realized they’ve always cared, but this time we were meeting parents where they were. They could participate while cooking meals for their families and without having to find child care. The light bulb clicked on for me: We now are in a new digital community space with the ability to transform our communication and relationship with families.

Sure, since that town hall, I’ve called a couple of parents who seem defeated, discouraging me from making more such phone calls. Yet I’ve also reached single, working moms who call me to get an update on their child’s progress.

If I had given up after the calls that left me beaten down, I wouldn’t have been able to claim even those small victories.

Every single connection we make matters. Every family we reach will build a relationship with us as we continue distance learning. We must ask ourselves: How can we get more creative in reaching parents? What other great ideas are out there?

My first assignment this school year was to have my high school seniors explain their schedules to their parents and set up routines to establish their “work-life balance.” They drew up an agreement about when they would focus on their schoolwork, when they would contribute to their household chores, and when they would conduct some self-care activities.

They documented their conversation by taking a photo of their agreement and their parents. This informed parents and left students feeling supported and happy that their parents also had homework.

Maybe you can pick up the phone, start from a place of non-judgment and say, “We’re in this together. Thank you for trying your hardest. I want your child to succeed. How can I help you?”

•••

Guadalupe De La O is a science technology engineering and mathematics (STEM) educator and science instructional coach in her ninth year of teaching at Alliance Renee and Meyer Luskin Academy High School.  a charter school in Los Angeles. 

The opinions in this commentary are those of the author. Commentaries published on EdSource represent diverse viewpoints about California’s public education systems. If you would like to submit a commentary, please review our guidelines and contact us.

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  1. Thomas Courtney 3 weeks ago3 weeks ago

    I am with you! I have been thinking on a very similar line here since March 13. I feel like this is the most important takeaway from the pandemic, at least in terms of my classroom. When I came across your commentary, it was very refreshing to read. And I agree with SD Parent as well. Long ago, when I was but a teacher aide, a veteran teacher observed how teachers have a tendency to … Read More

    I am with you! I have been thinking on a very similar line here since March 13. I feel like this is the most important takeaway from the pandemic, at least in terms of my classroom. When I came across your commentary, it was very refreshing to read. And I agree with SD Parent as well. Long ago, when I was but a teacher aide, a veteran teacher observed how teachers have a tendency to talk “at” parents.

    Throw in two decades of high stakes testing or else, and it seems to have taken a total absence of any kids in our classes to bring us around to it again. Thank you for pointing out this often overlooked, yet essential and necessary change!

  2. SD Parent 1 month ago1 month ago

    Kuddos to Ms. De La O. It is so refreshing to hear from a teacher who wants to treat parents as true partners in her students' educations and to actually listen to parents about their challenges rather than just taking "at" them about what they should do. To really be effective, this type of parent engagement should start for students at a much younger age, so I hope that this concept can be … Read More

    Kuddos to Ms. De La O. It is so refreshing to hear from a teacher who wants to treat parents as true partners in her students’ educations and to actually listen to parents about their challenges rather than just taking “at” them about what they should do.

    To really be effective, this type of parent engagement should start for students at a much younger age, so I hope that this concept can be expanded to elementary school teachers. Meanwhile, teenagers generally believe that their parents are idiots and can be outright rebellious towards their parents, so by high school, peers and teachers actually have a greater impact on students. While I would encourage teachers of middle and high school students to continue to do outreach, I would also encourage them to work with students – both those who are succeeding as well as those who are struggling – to brainstorm ways to help the students who are struggling. For example, students I’ve worked with have said that a teacher just taking an interest in a student’s life outside of school has made them want to try harder in that class because they feel valued as a person.