When parents and teachers work together

Fiona Vaz

Several years ago when I was studying in school, the only time my teachers had the chance to meet my parents was during the report day. Four times, every year, my father would accompany us to school and go through our examination papers as we sat next to him afraid, jotting down our marks. My father almost never stopped to speak to my teachers about my performance. My teachers would, if at all, hurriedly drop a few words describing my performance. There was no positive relationship between my parents and my teachers. I thought that was how it was supposed to be until I became a teacher and began to build a relationship with all my students’ parents. The open days, or report days, were helpful, as parents would line up to discuss their child’s performance. At other times, my co-teachers and I, made it a point to visit students’ homes to get to know their parents and life circumstances better. Research has shown that teachers, who are able to build a positive relationship with parents, are able to improve student achievement. Building a positive relationship with parents can help students recognize that their learning has value besides making parents feel involved in the learning of their children. There are other benefits of a strong positive relationship between parents and teachers – young children begin to trust a new person and teachers of older students don’t feel alone in addressing potential misbehaviour of their students who are young adults.

There are several ways in which teachers can build a positive relationship with parents. Many suggestions abound on the Internet and literature elsewhere on how these relationships can be built. Here, we will look at some of the ways that have proven to be effective on the part of teachers who have built these relationships with parents. We will also look at the ways that help parents build a positive relationship with teachers and the school.

Teachers’ ways of building relationships
Ms Ray* (name changed on request) has been teaching in a government aided private school in Mumbai for a few decades now. She shared some ways in which she has been able to build a positive relationship with parents. The parent-teacher meeting or ‘the open day’ as they are referred to, are some of the most important days in her annual calendar. “On these days, parents and teachers have dedicated time to speak to each other. The open days might have very few minutes but these are still valuable minutes where teachers can establish a working relationship with parents.”

Another method that Ms Ray uses to build a rapport with the parents is the notes that she regularly sends out to them. There are various options for written notes such as the remarks columns of the student handbook or even feedback on student assignments. She ensures that she keeps the feedback positive or at least solution oriented instead of criticizing the student or parent to reduce defensiveness, which is important for relationship building.

Ms Ray cautions that not all parents are equally interested in building a relationship with teachers. “They like a certain amount of interaction, but there are some parents who prefer some distance. They are involved in the learning of their children and are respectful, but as teachers, we also have to gauge what is the preference of the parents so that we don’t overdo it.” Therefore, a positive relationship also means not being too intrusive and recognizing professional boundaries. Ms Ray says that it goes both ways, as excessive communication can lead to a negative relationship, as some parents tend to constantly be in touch with teachers appearing to almost tell teachers how they should be teaching.

At the same time, the relationship between parents and teachers has to be authentic and not forced to please parents. Ms Mondal (name changed on request) is a special educator in a school in Navi Mumbai and did not know what to expect at first as schools moved online abruptly. She slowly discovered that a more informal relationship began developing with the parents. “Especially with younger students from primary grades, the help of parents is needed [in using the computer] and that paves a way for a discussion about areas to work on with the child.”

These interactions have not always been positive or welcoming. Ms Mondal continues, “Often there are parents and extended family in the room who might prompt their child to answer in class or criticize the teachers’ way of teaching. It used to be hurtful as teachers had to be composed in class.” These behaviours negatively affected teachers’ morale. On being asked how she addressed this issue, Ms Mondal says, “I shared with parents that other parents were complaining which made them understand. I also changed the way I taught and stopped accepting responses when I knew they came from adults in the families and not from students”. With time, Ms Mondal says, these behaviours have stopped and parents interact with her only after class. In the case of Ms Mondal, being authentic and honest with parents seemed to have helped.

Some schools have made use of modern communication technology to communicate with parents regularly. Some teachers use messenger services and at the time of the pandemic, in the past one-year have used emails, as well as chat functions to communicate with parents and build meaningful relationships with them.

Illustrations: Jisha Unnikrishnan

Parents’ views
As Ms Ray pointed out, you need two parties to build relationships and therefore parents too have a role to play in building relationships with teachers. Pranali Sawant is the mother of a six-year-old who studies in an international private school in Mumbai. Sawant describes her experience from before the pandemic when her daughter was enrolled in a pre-primary school and now when she is in first grade accessing online classes.

During pre-primary, Sawant found that schools and teachers provided several opportunities for parents to be better involved in school because of which a relationship was formed with the parents and the school. The parent-teacher meeting that was held every 1.5 or 2 months were crucial for Sawant to get to know her daughter’s teachers better. Teachers used to organize workshops for parents through which parents gained insights on how to support their children more effectively. Sawant shares that the regular activities that parents had to do with their children such as storytelling, increased interactions with teachers leading to a personal and positive relationship with them.

As schools moved online, the interface with teachers has increased even more, as online learning has meant that teachers and parents are interacting regularly. Sawant says that because her daughter is very young, she has to sit with her for the entire duration of her classes. At these times, the teachers answer any questions raised by the parent using the chat function. At other times, the teachers might speak to parents for a few minutes at the end of the class. Sawant says that writing notes to teachers was an effective way to communicate with them when schools functioned in a regular manner. “At times, when [my daughter] did not want to do her homework, I would send a note to the teacher who would then give an extension for my daughter to finish her homework, which helped my daughter as well as me,” recalls Sawant.

Sawant recognizes how important it is to have a strong relationship with teachers and other staff of the school. “Teachers from pre-primary school still remember everything about my daughter, even if it is after a few years. I can rest assured that my child will never get lost,” she says.

Abhayanavita Sarika who is a parent of a 17 year-old, shares how her husband and she made the effort to build a relationship with their son’s teachers at Tomoae School, Amravati. They not only met the class teacher during the parent-teacher meetings, but also all subject teachers, which ensured that teachers began to get to know them. Today, as the 12th class exams stand cancelled, she feels there is no real need for it either as his teachers have been able to provide a strong feedback throughout the past 12 years of his education. A strong positive relationship between parents and teachers therefore can provide a sense of safety and security and a feeling that the child is not invisible.

Facilitating positive relationships between parents and teachers
Although the benefits of a positive relationship between teachers and parents are evident and there are some ways to foster them, relationship building can be a challenge for some parents and teachers. In one interview, where a parent requested anonymity, I was told that several private schools in Delhi refuse parental involvement in the schools’ decision-making. These, often elite, private schools set aside such opportunities only to influential parents who are often family members of founders or donors. On the other hand, public schools and those that serve the marginalized, might find it difficult to build relationships with parents due to several reasons such as hesitation from parents to converse with teachers as they might think that they know less as often they are uneducated. These parents lack the confidence to ask teachers questions, as they believe that teachers may know more and might not view their questioning favourably. This lack of involvement by parents can negatively influence teachers who may misconstrue this reluctance as parents not prioritizing the education of their children. However, this cannot be further from the truth. Parents of children who belong to marginalized backgrounds often believe that a good education can be their chance to climb out of poverty, and are very interested in their ward’s education. But a cyclical relationship might ensue where the parents’ hesitation might encourage reluctance from teachers and schools further alienating parents.

An education non-profit named Saajha has been working to aid better relationships between parents and schools in Delhi, Jharkhand, and Karnataka. At its core Saajha believes that the involvement of parents with the schools can result in a thriving learning environment for children. Urvashi Nagpal, who has been working with Saajha shares that it is important to believe in the respectability and dignity of parents. “There is an inherent power imbalance between parents and teachers in government schools and it is important to make parents feel valued,” says Nagpal. Saajha’s aim of fostering positive relationships between parents and teachers is hinged on areas such as the role of parents within the home, in the community and policy level in supporting the education of their child. There are some innovative ways that parents are encouraged to build a relationship with the teachers mainly through being members of the School Management Committees (SMCs).

In addition to their membership in SMCs, several avenues are provided to improve parents’ involvement in schools. One such effort is called Saajha Vishleshan Sabha in which parents and teachers jointly assess the reading abilities of children which can help both stakeholders to begin building a partnership to improve the academic abilities of children. Another effort was to conduct summer camps for parents where they learnt different ways in which they can confidently engage with teachers.

A very significant effort that Saajha has made with parents and the school was to involve both of them in creating a school vision plan. The school vision plan can enable parents to ask for added amenities for their children like better infrastructure or even learning outcomes. Saajha’s efforts move a step forward where they also involve politicians and MLAs, and representatives of other departments that affect schools such as the police, the horticulture department to come together and address any issues that might influence the learning of children. These SMC Sabhas, as they are called, in a way bring teachers and parents together to hold governing bodies accountable and create a new form of partnership between the teachers and parents.

Nagpal says that the positive relationship that ensues between parents and teachers empowers parents to bring about wider changes in the communities, their children’s and their own lives. ‘Initially, mothers especially were only focused on household chores, but now you can see them catalyzing changes in their community. They are more involved in their children’s learning and are able to communicate clearly to teachers when their children are unable to understand some schoolwork. Parents are also now helping other parents in enrolling their children in schools,’ says Nagpal.

According to Nagpal, one of the best ways in which teachers can build a positive relationship with parents and students is through house visits. She understands that it can be difficult and controversial even to expect overburdened teachers to do more, but with the right kind of support from schools, teachers could gain a far more holistic understanding of the lives of students and parents through a simple house visit. At the Azim Premji Foundation School in Yadgir, Karnataka, for example, one day of every week, school closes early to enable teachers to use the time for house and community visits in the village. School support therefore is a key influence in enabling teachers to build a relationship with parents.

To conclude, positive relationships between parents and teachers are important, as Sawant says, to ensure that children are not lost, both literally and figuratively. Large schools and classroom sizes can be extremely invisibilizing places and a teacher who knows a little about you can go a long way in making a child feel seen. At the same time, as Ms Ray says, relationships are not built alone and an enabling ecosystem of schools, communities, and teachers has to be fostered to build a relationship together.

The author is an educator and researcher, examining the relationship between schooling and gender. She can be reached at fiona@integral-asia.org.

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