advice, aha moment, being a teacher, being me, parents

How to Have Courageous Conversations With Your Child’s Teacher

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Every year it has happened to me, you check your email or your voicemail not expecting much and there it is; a message from “that” parent that makes you so upset.  That message that makes you question everything you have been doing, everything you are trying to do.  And you cannot help but get a little angry, but get a little defensive, to immediately want to protect yourself rather than stop and think.  It is so hard sometimes being in a world where communication is so easy and words can be interpreted in a million ways.  And while those messages may seem hurtful at first, they can become the biggest inspiration for growth, if we let them.

No one sets out to be “that” parent.  No one sets out to send an email that can be read a million ways, to make a phone call that you know might dampen someone else’s day.  But sometimes we have to start the types of conversations that we hope to never have with our child’s teachers.  Sometimes we have to ask things that may be seen as questioning them.  And it is so hard.  Especially when you are a teacher and you know exactly how something can be taken.

And yet, for the sake of our children we have to find ways to have tough conversations.  When something is not working for our child it is our right and responsibility to speak up.  But there are ways to do it nicely, to where it will not immediately be taken as an attack but rather as an invitation to further discussion.  So what can you do?

Be nice.  Politeness goes such along way.  If you are about to ask some tough questions, use your manners and do not speak down to someone else.  All the teachers I know take great pride in their work and no one sets out to have bad experiences in their classroom, so show respect by the tone of voice you use whether written or spoken.

Investigate by asking questions.  If I believed all of the things our daughter, Thea, told me, I would have a crazy view of her school, after all she is 6 and sometimes pretty tired by the time she gets home from school.  So when something happens I always ask questions before I jump to any conclusions.  Often times what really happened is not what a child shares, so give the teacher the benefit of the doubt.

Do your research.  We oftentimes think that teachers have all  the power over what happens in their classrooms, but we do not.  Anything from district initiatives, state standards, and federal regulations all influence what we do in our classrooms, so make sure the teacher has control over whatever it is you are questioning, particualrly if it something that has upset you.

Ask for clarification.  When Thea came home with a reading log 5 days into kindergarten I emailed her teacher asking what the reasoning behind it was without sharing how much I hate reading logs.  I needed to make sure her teacher knew I was not questioning her, but rather trying to understand.  Once I had more information then I could ask further questions.

Leave room for conversation.  When we come across as brash or hotheaded, we are not inviting further conversation.  Ask for help.  Ask for support and ask to be a partner rather than dictate what someone should do.

Over-explain.  I would rather a parent over-explain their reasoning than under-explain.  Sometimes when we are too brief, we leave a lot of room for interpretation which almost always ends up being a negative experience for the recipient.  So state your point, explain why, and give enough information for the teacher to have something tangible to respond to.

Be specific.  If something is harming your child tell me how.  If your child has reported something to you tell me what that is.  I cannot sort through a situation or even respond to it well if I do not know the details, which can lead to further misunderstanding.

Keep it to your child.  If you are concerned for your child, state that, but do not generalize or ask questions about other children.  Teachers have to adhere to strict privacy laws and often cannot answer questions about children.  If this is a concern for many parents have them as part of the conversation to, do not just say that you speak for them.

Go to the teacher first.  Sometimes our gut reaction is to head to the top when we really need to first speak to the teacher.  It is common courtesy to give someone a chance to speak before others are involved.  That does not mean administration cannot be involved, it just means the teachers should have a chance to respond first.

Call rather than email.  Email can be misinterpreted in so many ways, trust me, I have probably misinterpreted intentions at least once a month, but a phone call or meeting is easier to navigate.  If someone is truly upset about something, I would much rather they seek me out and schedule a meeting, letting me know what we will be discussing, then sending an email.  And also, be mindful of school hours; if a teacher is in the middle of teaching they probably cannot speak to you at that moment.

Treat the teacher like you would want to be treated.  I cannot stress this enough; teachers are human  and sometimes we mess up.  It is not because we tried to, but it does happens.  If you treat us the way you would like to be treated in a tough conversation then our conversation will be much more productive.  Much can be handled via an honest and lighthearted conversation, even serious topics.

Gently question.  There is nothing wrong with questioning a teacher’s practice if you are seeing it harm your child, but do so gently.  Teachers spend a lot of time planning for best practices, and thus take pride in their work.  That does not mean it is always in the best interest in the child (public behavior charts, I am looking at you) but that can be a pretty hard thing to face.

And finally, a word to all of us teachers.  While criticism, even if just perceived, is hard, it is also a chance for us to reflect, grow and become better teachers.  Yes, there are times when criticism will be just that and those moments are hard to get through.  But in the end, I truly believe that when a parent asks us questions, even if they come of as a rude or disrespectful, within those questions are a seed for reflection, an opportunity to pause and make sure that what we are doing is in the best interest of children.  We are all trying to do the very best we can, after all, let’s not lose sight of that.

If you like what you read here, consider reading my book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.  The 2nd edition and actual book-book (not just e-book!) just came out!

being a teacher, new teacher, parents

A Few Ideas for Parent Engagement

recite-xt5ct

Parent engagement is a natural component of the elementary experience, after all, with class parties, whole school events, and weekly newsletter, parents have an easy time becoming involved in their child’s education.  Not only is parent involvement invited, it is expected and so schools and individual teachers create plenty of opportunities for parents to be involved.

Yet, with the gradual release of responsibility as students age, parent involvement becomes less and less of a focus.   We expect them to still be involved but not nearly as present.  Not nearly as informed.  After all, their children should be growing into responsible teens, which I agree with,  however, not all children are ready to be left to their own devices.  So rather than an expectation of parent involvement in the upper grades, how about an invitation instead?  Here are a few ideas to do just that.

The beginning of year parent survey.  Parents know their children best so we need to tap into that goldmine at every age.  It doesn’t have to be long, mine this year is 5 questions, but at least it gives parents a chance to communicate with us as we start the year.

The weekly newsletter.  This bastion of elementary classrooms does have a place in our older classes, but keep it short and to the point.  My team does a bullet point version of things parents can ask their child about and also an update on upcoming deadlines and projects.  If parents would like more information, they can access our website.

A beyond-the-homework website.  We have a website that yes lists homework, but it also gives team information, school announcements, helpful tips, as well as has a Google calendar where everything we are aware of for school is listed.  Parents can subscribe to it and get the news delivered via email.

Morning/Evening events.  This year I will be inviting parents along with their children in for literacy mornings or evenings where we will discuss books, view book trailers and such.  Perhaps none will show up but I want to create the opportunity either way.

The positive notes or phone calls.  It is hard to reach out to 120+ parents so split it up as a team if possible.  Keep a master list of who has had positive news about their child shared with them via email, phone call, or post card.

Go beyond the twice a year conference.  Every few months I invite parents to set up meetings with me to discuss the progress and goals of their child.  Not many take me up on it, however, they have the opportunity to come in if they would like.  And yes, that is me spending my time outside of hours to meet with parents but it is completely worth it in the end.

Weekly emails.  I send home a weekly email or so to parents discussing all things English, I keep it short and sweet and I post it on our blog too.  Parents can choose to delete it if they would like, I would rather have parents feel over-informed than under-informed.

Learn their names.  This is a not an event but a process.  I have a hard time keeping track of all of the names but I think it speaks volumes to know who it is I am speaking to.  When I don’t know I simply ask, I would rather admit it then pretend to know.

Keep learning transparent.  I try to post pictures and video from our classroom as much as possible so that parents can see what we are doing.  This year I plan on doing more of this as I feel more secure as a 7th grade teacher.  Again, they don’t have to view it, but at least it is there.

Open door policy.  I know that most parents are too busy to stop by but the point is; they can if they want to.  While I cannot stop teaching and speak to them, they can at least get a glimpse of what we are doing and how engaged their child is.

Staying connected and nice.  I know that we teach many students, I am up to 120 some I think, yet, for a parent you are only teaching their child.  So stay humble, stay nice, stay inviting, and if you mess up; admit it.  Having a teacher that truly cares about their child is on the wish list of every parent, even as they age.

What other ideas do you have?

If you like what you read here, consider reading my book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.  The 2nd edition and actual book-book (not just e-book!) comes out September 22nd from Routledge.  

being a teacher, community, parents

It Is Not Just Student Relationship We Should Worry About

Today our incoming 7th graders found out which teachers they will have.  I hope they are happy.  I hope they are excited.  I hope they have heard wonderful things about our team.  I know we can’t wait.  Today was also the day that Thea, my now 1st grader, found out her teacher, a moment that was exciting yet filled with questions as well.  Will her teacher “get” her?  Will she love school?  Will this be another incredible school year for her?  What will my role be as a parent of a 1st grader?

For years I have tried to create a welcoming environment for all the people that are attached to our classroom.  For years I have tried, along with my team, to create spaces where parents/guardians can feel like they have a voice, are welcome, and also can engage in tough dialogue with us when needed.  It is something that we pride ourselves on because it has not just happened, we have had to work at it knowing that parent/guardian relationship is vital to a child’s success.   So I was dumbfounded when I came across an article titled “Ten Types of Parents that Teachers Secretly Hate.”  I read it  (I won’t link it here because I don’t feel like giving it traffic) and I was so disappointed in it.  Is this really what we as educators want to tell parents?  That we secretly hate them when they are involved in their child’s education?  That if they don’t follow our rules for engagement then we will complain about them behind their backs?  Is this even what we want to be told as parents?  That teachers secretly label us and hate some of us?

Yet, it wasn’t just the labeling of the various types of parents that upset me, it was the complete disregard for the cause behind this behavior.  There was no discussion of why a parent might be over-involved, might be absent, might be going straight to the principal rather than us.  There was no acknowledgement of what can lead to these types of parental behavior that we “secretly hate.”  No discussion of what a poor school experience can do to future relationships.

I have worked alongside many types of parents and guardians.  Some have been wonderful interactions, others have been tough.  Some led me to tears while others led to great moments of joy.  I am thankful for every single interaction I have had, even if it was a hard one, because each one has made me grow as a teacher.  And sometimes the hardest ones have been the ones I have grown the most from.

So before we assume that parents are a certain way to annoy us, to discount us, to somehow make our workdays harder, how about we assume that all parents/guardians want what is best for their child?  How about we assume that the reason they approach us in a certain way is because that is what they have had to do in the past? How about we assume that they may be absent because circumstance is keeping them from our schools, not choices?  How about we afford them the benefit of the doubt and try to get o know them before we label them as being a certain way.

Much like we try to uncover the past of our students to find out how it affects them now, we should also be trying to uncover the pasts of the adults attached to them.  I am sure I will meet many of the archetypes of parents listed in the article in the coming year, but what I won’t do is assume that I know why.  What I won’t do is hate them.  What good will ever come from that?

We all know relationships matter most when it comes to a successful school year, so why not actively build a relationship with adults as well?  It starts now, not when something comes up, not when it is too late.  What will you do to reach out to them before they reach out to you?

PS:  I posted my welcome parent survey today, I cannot wait to read their answers.

If you like what you read here, consider reading my book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.  The 2nd edition and actual book-book (not just e-book!) comes out September 22nd from Routledge.  

being a teacher, new teacher, new year, parents, students, survey

3 Beginning of the Year Surveys For Students And Parents

I believe in the power of a  great survey and have been giving them to my students ever since I started teaching.  This year, I am breaking them up for different days and will have students do them in class so I can gather them and mine them for information.  One of these is for my entire team to use as well.  Please feel free to use and adapt to fit your needs.  The three surveys are

Beginning of the Year Survey.  To see this survey, go here.

How are you as writer?  To see this survey, go here.

How are you as a reader?  To see this survey, go here.

To adapt these, simply click the link, go under “file” and then click “Make a copy.”  That way you can edit it and tweak as needed.

To see all of the other forms I use, including technology permission forms, student-led conferences, and other survey tools, go here.

As far as parents go, I have a very simple survey.  I ask them what their hopes and dreams are for their kids and then if there is anything else I should know.

(In the past, I have used a more extensive parent survey, to see that go here).

I am a passionate teacher in Oregon, Wisconsin, USA but originally from Denmark,  who has taught 4th, 5th, and 7th grade.  Proud techy geek, and mass consumer of incredible books. Creator of the Global Read Aloud Project, Co-founder of EdCamp MadWI, and believer in all children.  The second edition of my first book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students” is available for pre-order now.   Second book“Empowered Schools, Empowered Students – Creating Connected and Invested Learners” is out now from Corwin Press.  Join our Passionate Learners community on Facebook and follow me on Twitter @PernilleRipp.

being a teacher, communication, end of year, feedback, hopes, parents, trust

Why You Should Ask For Parent Feedback Even When You Are Afraid of the Answers

I just hit “Send” and for a moment my hand hovered over the “undo” button.  Perhaps I didn’t need to ask these questions, perhaps this year I would skip the annual end of year parent survey.  I don’t know why after 7 years of teaching, asking for feedback is still so excruciatingly tough.  Not from the kids, that I ask for every single day, but from the adults, the parents/guardians, the ones at home that see the effects of the teaching I do every single day.

For a few weeks I have wondered if I even wanted to send it this year.  If anything good would come from it, or if my self-esteem could handle it?  This was my first year teaching 7th grade and in so many ways I have felt like a brand new teacher with all of the flaws, the mishaps, the bad teaching that comes along with the first year title.  So now as the end of the year is in sight, I was compelled to just forget all about the feedback, pretend I don’t want to know, pretend to not care.

But that’s not the truth.  Because I do care.  Sometimes probably too much.  I know that I have screwed up.  I know that I could have been better at reaching every kid and teaching them what they needed.  I know I have failed some times, and I know some of my feedback will say that.  Some will probably crack my facade and make me feel pretty terrible.

And yet, if I don’t ask, I can’t grow.

So I let it go, and I now I wait, hoping for the best.  I hope there are some that will see how hard I tried to reach every kid.  I hope there are some that will see the thought, effort, and diligence that went into this year.  But I also hope there are some that will take a moment to give me advice, to tell me how I can grow.  Because I know I need to, and that is the bottom-line.  This is not about me, it is about the students.  And while I may have an idea of what I need to work on (and boy, do I ever), there is nothing like the perspective of a parent/guardian to show you things you never even thought of.  If we truly mean that we are in this for the kids, then we have to include those at home.  We have to ask the tough questions, even if the answers may sting.

If you would like to see my parent survey this year, here you are.  Student surveys will be done in class next week.

I am a passionate teacher in Oregon, Wisconsin, USA but originally from Denmark,  who has taught 4th, 5th, and 7th grade.  Proud techy geek, and mass consumer of incredible books. Creator of the Global Read Aloud Project, Co-founder of EdCamp MadWI, and believer in all children.  The second edition of my first book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students” is available for pre-order now.   Second book“Empowered Schools, Empowered Students – Creating Connected and Invested Learners” is out now from Corwin Press.  Join ourPassionate Learners community on Facebook and follow me on Twitter @PernilleRipp.

aha moment, being me, parents, Reading

Because I Can’t Help Comparing My Kid

“It’s ok mom, I already know those…”

Thea, my now 6 year old kindergartner, looks me square in the eye and waves away the cut out letters I hold up that were sent home from school.

“Awesome, so what’s this one?”  I hold up an “R” knowing that she knows this one for sure, after all, it is in her first and last name.

“Ummm….n?” Thea says, smiling and totally not focused.

We try again, clearly, we have differing views of what it means to know something and I feel the tiger mom in me rise up and rear its sometimes ugly head.  After all, some of her friends are reading, and not just a few words either, but books with whole sentences and beginnings, middles, and ends.  How come mine is not even getting her letters?  How come mine is not getting it?  What am I doing wrong here?  I stop before I get frustrated, no point in continuing when it won’t be a good experience.

Later I call my friend, a kindergarten teacher, and ask her if this is normal.  Should Thea know her letters by now?  What is her problem?  She stops me mid-sentence.  “She’s normal, Pernille.  Kids learn to read at different ages.  Don’t force it.  Don’t push her too hard.  Make it magical.  Make it fun.  It will come.”

And you know what, I know this.  I know this in my core.  I know this because I say it all the time.  I tell my students that they will learn at their own rate and that they have to keep trying.  I tell their parents that their child will get it as long as they keep at it.  I tell it to myself when I teach something for the third time and wonder why it isn’t clicking.  Kids learn.  And kids learn at different rates.  Yet, why do I forget it with my own kid?

I forget because we learn in an environment that is obsessed with labels.

I forget because most learning is ranked, tested, and compared for it to matter in an official way.

I forget because numbers define my child in school just as much if not more than her personality.

I forget because letter grades, scores, and assessments is the language we use to speak about our children.

It is so easy to focus on, it is so easy to remember, even if her amazing teacher tells me other things.  Even if our district doesn’t believe in standardized tests.  Those numbers still tell part of her story.  It is my choice whether I listen to that part or not.

Until we remove the numbers, until we remove the levels in our conversations, until we stop sending home the test results; they will always be there to lead the conversation.  They will always be there for parents like me that cannot help but compare, not because I want to but because I automatically do it.

Our children’s educational journey deserves to be bigger than a number and it starts with me.  Thea will get there.  Thea will read one day.  Not because I forced her, but because she wants to.  She believes it, now it is my turn.  Now it is our turn.

I am a passionate teacher in Oregon, Wisconsin, USA,  who has taught 4th, 5th, and 7th grade.  Proud techy geek, and mass consumer of incredible books. Creator of the Global Read Aloud Project, Co-founder of EdCamp MadWI, and believer in all children. I have no awards or accolades except for the lightbulbs that go off in my students’ heads every day.  First book “Passionate Learners – Giving Our Classrooms Back to Our Students” can be purchased now.   Second book“Empowered Schools, Empowered Students – Creating Connected and Invested Learners” is out now from Corwin Press.  Follow me on Twitter @PernilleRipp.