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Working Together with Your Child's Teacher

"Writing a brief note to the teacher at the beginning of the year sets a positive tone," says Robert Brooks, Ph.D., coauthor of Raising Resilient Children (NTC/Contemporary Publishing). "Tell a bit about your child's strengths, weaknesses, and interests." Include contact numbers at home and at work, including an e-mail address if you have one, and invite the teacher to share any concerns with you.

During the first few weeks, the most important thing you can do is carefully read all the handouts from the teacher. These will be the key to understanding classroom rules and routines. Open-school night will probably be your first formal introduction to the teacher. When you visit the classroom and hear about the curriculum, pay attention to the teacher's expectations for parents. For instance, if your child will be learning to read, the teacher may talk about how to be a good reading mentor and keep a daily reading log. Find out how she prefers to be contacted. Open-school night is not the best time, however, to have an in-depth discussion about your child.

On open-school night, teachers ask for volunteers. "Parents should get involved as much as they can," advises Melanie Bowden of San Mateo, California, a former teacher now at home with her two daughters. "If you can't come in during the day, you can still take the guinea pig home for the weekend or make phone calls to other parents to organize a class trip." Most teachers understand if you aren't able to volunteer. (After all, teachers are never free to volunteer in their own kids' classrooms.)

At the first parent-teacher conference, you'll get more specific details about how your child is doing. It's also a good time to establish a friendly relationship with the teacher. "You should plan for the conference before you get there," Dr. Brooks suggests. Think about positive things to tell the teacher -- as well as any concerns you might have -- and bring a list with you to make sure you cover everything. Even if you're unhappy about how the school year is going, avoid criticizing the teacher. "Remember that you're on the same side," Dr. Brooks says. "You both want to do what's best for your child."

If the teacher offers negative feedback, try to get him to be as specific as possible so you can figure out a solution together. For instance, if he says your child is stubborn, ask him what he means. It might mean that she's getting into confrontations with the teacher, or it might simply mean that she sometimes has to be asked two or three times to stop drawing and join the group for circle time.

After the conference, it's important to follow up on any issues that you or the teacher have brought up. If he agrees to monitor your child's reading progress more closely, for example, schedule another conference a month later to discuss how she's doing.

You can probably handle most problems in a conference or with a couple of additional phone calls. However, if you and the teacher don't see eye to eye at any point during the year, it's a good idea to ask the principal or a school counselor to mediate and suggest a resolution, says Rosemarie Clark, coauthor of The School-Savvy Parent (Free Spirit Publishing). Try to have a positive attitude. If you attack the teacher, the principal is likely to defend her instead of listening to your point of view.

Throughout the year, let the teacher know whenever anything difficult is going on at home, such as the death of a pet or an impending divorce. "Teachers also need feedback about assignments," says Charlotte Ackerman, an elementary-school teacher in Tuscon, Arizona. "If homework takes your child hours to complete, write the teacher a note. That way, she'll be able to make adjustments for next time." It's nice to get positive feedback too, Ackerman adds. "When I get a note saying, 'Lisa talked about the science experiment for days,' that tells me it's a thought-provoking activity and I should build on it."

Establishing a good relationship with the teacher will also help your child feel more comfortable and confident in the classroom. He'll know that you're working together to help him have a happy, productive year.

Stay in touch.

Introduce yourself as soon as you have the opportunity, and find out whether she prefers that you communicate by phone, note, or e-mail.

Lend a hand.

Volunteer to be a class parent, chaperone field trips, or speak for Career Day. If you can't take on those commitments, or if you work full-time, ask the teacher what you can do to support his work, suggests Parents adviser Kathleen McCartney, Ph.D., a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Donating supplies or snacks, or even making copies, can be a big help.

Be open to input.

Try not to get defensive if the teacher offers constructive criticism about your child. If there are areas in which your child can improve, ask how you can help.

It's easier than you think to get labeled an annoying parent. Teachers say they're irked when parents:

  • Criticize or disagree with the teacher in front of the kids.
  • Speak to the teacher in the same way they speak to their children.
  • Send their child to school sick.
  • Frequently take their child to school late or pick him up early.
  • Send sugary snacks despite requests not to.
  • Don't read memos from the teacher or sign permission slips.
  • Call the teacher at home when it's not an emergency.
  • Send their child to school without requested supplies.
  • Help too much with homework.
  • Forget to send lunch or lunch money.
  • Try to have a quick conference with the teacher at the beginning of the day.
  • Ask the teacher how their child compares with other kids in the class.
  • Go to the principal with a problem rather than discussing it with the teacher first.

Copyright © 2008 Meredith Corporation. Originally published in the September 2001 issue of Parents magazine, the August 2004 issue of Parents magazine, and the August 2003 issue of Parents magazine.