For the most part, parents / care-givers and educators share a common goal. We eye-roll at the silliness, smile at the creativity, take joy in the successes and marvel when expectations are exceeded. Parents and care-givers are mostly warm, helpful and prepared to work with you, the teacher. But what to do when they are not? How can we manage when those who care for a child at home reject our methods or push their own agenda in contrast with the goals set for a child or class? Here is some advice for managing those trickier situations.
Remember the Reality
Parents and care-givers are part of young learner teaching so it’s useful to see meetings as an opportunity rather than a chore. No one is trying to do anything intentionally damaging but approaching the same context in different ways, from different points of views, won’t always lead to the same conclusion. Your whole world is a class full of children; their whole world is their child.
Other colleagues may have had dealings with the home contact before, having had for example, siblings or the student at a different level and it’s important to go in with an open mind and not be overly influenced by what they say. Forewarned is fore-armed but not necessarily with the full story. What can be described as pushy could also be described simply as ‘high expectations’.
Like any human interaction anger is often misdirected, so consider any stressful home situations you might be aware of (e.g. divorce, house-moves) and consider how you would like to be listened to. It is possible to acknowledge how they feel without agreeing that the issue is exactly as they see it. Reaffirm your common goal frequently – that every child gets the best learning experience – while showing interest in their concerns.
Show initial compromise by finding a suitable time to meet. If you can do this face-to-face then do so. It might seem scarier to meet with a ‘difficult’ person but people rarely become further irate in person and it’s good to start off being able to show them that you are, quite literally, there for their concerns.
Don’t be afraid to ask for time. People often want instant meetings and instant results. We know the importance of formulation time as teachers, and taking a moment to think through what we want to say is crucial. If there are any hot tempers that can serve as a cooling off period, too.
When the meeting does happen, sit with the parent, not opposite. Opposite is often seen as an aggressive move (think about your bank manager or a police interrogation) and, practically, if you are going to look at a learner’s work or coursebook or curriculum then it’s just physically easier. In the same vein, avoid any sort of emotional mirroring. Be empathetic but never insincere and, if there is anger – wait it out.
Take notes as they talk and demonstrate your commitment to a follow up. This doesn’t have to be another meeting, it could be a phone call or an email. It might even be school administration that will phone but show that you are committed to finding a solution and working together.
As we said before, you have a common goal in that everyone wants the best for the learner. You need to be clear that learning outcomes have a class as well as an individual objective. An acceptance on your part of the customer as the bill-payer / adult who has guardianship of a child will help you to remember that they do have a right to be there and to be heard. In fact, they often expect it.
Find a way to link their expectations with the reality of the learning process. If you are in a language centre then you will have a very different curriculum and syllabus to that of mainstream classes and probably more of a communicative focus. If you are working towards an external exam then there will be various parts that need to be focussed on and not just fluency.
Sometimes the context can be unclear to those who care for a child and some kind of parental / care-giver training can often be useful. It’s quite common to hear that they asked their child how you say ‘’_______’’ in English and the young learner couldn’t manage to answer: but they’ve done so in L1. We would rarely, if ever, ask a young learner to translate so although they can answer the question, they can’t in that context. Make that clear to care-giver; demonstrate the different strategy.
Seek a Solid Solution
There’s no single approach that works here. No one size fits all. Don’t feel pressured by a colleague’s successful dispensing with a complicated situation from the week before. It’s important that you know exactly which child is being talked about – large classes can be confusing, especially in the first term – and let the home contact explain exactly what they see as the issue without interruption.
If you have found the learner difficult don’t assume the same of the care-giver. A rush to judgement won’t help solve the issue. Try, if you can, to provide a variety of suggestions that are reasonable resolutions and work together to select one. This kind of co-operation is generally well received. The parent / caregiver will feel understood and that there is something workable and practical going forward.
Remember, also, to keep your school in the loop. Often there are procedures for these situations and support there to help you navigate the more difficult waters. Don’t assume that these procedures are the same from school to school, either. Find out what the institution expects from you in terms of dealing with home contacts and then apply this advice to their guidelines.
In many situations an interpreter might be required. For many, the teacher included, this can be an entirely new encounter. Try to talk directly to the parent / care-giver, maintaining eye-contact, without looking constantly at the interpreter. Most of the time the person interpreting will be a colleague from the school and not someone with official training so talk to them beforehand about what you would like from the meeting and how you would like them to interpret. Ensure that, even with a third person in the room, the meeting is still between you and the care-giver. Don’t allow a conversation to develop between the parent / care-giver and interpreter that doesn’t include you.
Try to keep some sort of log of what you have talked about or agreed. As the year progresses the number of these meetings will only increase and it’s easy to get lost in what’s been said and to whom. Ultimately, the more organised you are the easier your life will be.
No one ever said teaching children and/or teenagers would be easy but with a little patience, a little help and some compromise, it doesn’t have to be difficult.
Sarah Findlay has worked as a TEYL teacher, teacher trainer and academic manager for the last 15 years. She works residentially with children, parents / care-givers and group leaders for several weeks a year on specially designed short courses in the UK. You can contact her on [email protected]