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Building relationships with parents can be a daunting task–especially when you teach hundreds of kids. But it’s always about communication. There aren’t a lot of shortcuts, unfortunately, but putting the time into building relationships is ultimately worth it. Listen as Andrew and Lindsey discuss the benefits of a good relationship with parents (8:30), strategies to build those relationships as an elective teacher (11:30), and how to mend fences when problems with parents do arise (17:15). Full episode transcript below.
Take a look at some of Lindsey’s best articles:
Welcome to Art Ed Radio, the podcast for art teachers. This show is produced by the Art of Education, and I’m your host, Andrew McCormick.
You know as a young teacher, and I’m talking like first year here, I remember sitting in my office minutes before my first parent-teacher conference feeling really, really nervous. I remember that feeling of doubt, that these parents were going to see right through me that I was some sort of a fraud, or so young and inexperienced that I couldn’t possibly know what the heck I was talking about or doing in class.
I remember my good friend and mentor/teacher, Dave, coming over to me. I think he could kind of tell that I was a little nervous and he said, “Well, you’re gonna see how far the nut has fallen from the tree.” It was a really great icebreaker. It got me to realize that parents, capital P, Parents, scary parents that people warned you about, they’re just people too and they’re trying their best to do what they know is good for their kids.
We all know certain teachers that will tell you, “Oh, you know, the parents here aren’t very supportive” or “Watch for Mr. And Mrs. so and so, they’re a real handful.” It turns out, about 99.9% of my interactions with parents have been super positive. A little side note on that whole dynamic, I made a really deliberate decision a few years ago that I was never going to listen to another teacher’s advanced warning about not only parents but fellow teachers, admins, or more importantly, students. I decided that I wasn’t going to let another person’s drama affect how I view this other person. It’s been a great little shift in my psyche and how I work with all different types of people.
Back to parents specifically, I’m super excited to bring on AOE writer, Lindsey Moss to talk about how we can best work with parents. She’s written some great articles on the trials and tribulations of working with parents, and being a parent herself who’s also a teacher. That’s a whole other thing that we can all, probably most of us relate to. There are so many positive aspects of building great relationships with parents whether it’s advocacy, relying on them for volunteer work, or even helping out with some funding gaps when things get tough. We’ve got to work at developing and maintaining those relationships.
In 12 years of teaching I’ve had hundreds of really positive parent-teacher relationships, but like I said earlier, there is that 0.1% out there that maybe think I’m a horrible person and I’m doing a bad job. Okay, sure, every once in a while as teachers, we are going to step into a contentious parent-teacher relationship, but I think that there are some ways that we can work ourselves out of it. I’ve honestly had three or four parent-teacher relationships that have gone sideways, and each and every time I can attribute it to a misunderstanding, a miscommunication.
All of those things can be easily cleared up if folks can just kind of come to the table, literally and metaphorically, with an open mind and an open heart. My go-to move has always been to listen, and then to try and come to this mutual understand early on that we both want what’s best for this kid. We may just have different opinions and approaches, but let’s start on that basic assumption that we both want what’s best for this kid, and then when we can build from there.
It’s a little weird question that I was going to ask Lindsey about but now I think I’m going to hold off. I kind of realized that I may be the only person with this hang up. I’m jealous of music teachers. There, I said, I am. They seem to have some of the best parent-teacher relationships, they’ve got like booster parents, they’ve got awesome advocacy strategies. For elementary music teachers especially, twice a year they get all of the kids performing, dressed up like an adorable, almost every single parent in the district comes.
It’s hard for art teachers to generate that much heat and interest especially at the older levels when art becomes an elective that kids can either take or not take. Imagine if secondary art teachers could just pull off an art show, arts night that had as many parents attending a chorus concert or show choir performance, that would be awesome. That’s my goal for 2017, to be as big and visible and supported as the music department.
We’re talking here about advocacy, making big changes in your classroom and then sharing it with parents and the broader community. That is one of the many things that I love about some of the AOE classes that I’ve taught in the past, specifically I’m thinking about Creativity In Crisis and Project Based Art Room. Not only are you going to learn some new strategies and ideas, but you’re also going to learn some great ways that you can share those new ideas with the broader community and make yourself more visible.
Head on over to theartofed.com and check these and other great classes under the courses tab. Remember, the cool thing is they start up every month so you’ve got tons of opportunities to catch one. All right, so I’m really looking forward to this talk and that I get to bring on someone other than Tim for a change. I’m excited to hear what lindsey has to say about working with parents.
Hey Lindsey, thanks for joining me.
Lindsey: Thank you for having me.
Andrew: Really quick, I know you’ve been writing for AOE for some time now and you’ve written some really great articles on advocacy and the trials and tribulations of being a parent and an art teacher. For any Art Ed listeners out there who didn’t catch any of those, can you may be introduce yourself and let everyone know where you teach and how long you’ve been teaching?
Lindsey: Sure. I live in Northern Illinois and I’m an elementary art teacher. I teach kindergarten through sixth grade, and I’ve been in the same district in basically the same position for 12, 13 years. That’s all kind of running together. I live in the far, far western suburbs of Chicago where it starts to become sort of farmland and rural. This year has been an interesting change in the season of my art teaching because after having taught elementary this long, I have my own daughter in my school, in my art class as a first grader this year. I’m sort of on both sides of the fence when it comes to parenting and art teaching this year.
Andrew: Yes. I’ve got a similar boat happening next year for the first time. My daughter will be in eighth grade next year which means she’ll get to have dad as an art teachers, so that will be an interesting experience for her and for me. We’re talking about parents and parenting, and being an art teacher and dealing with parents, and how to build those really great relationships, how to lean on them for help, maybe advocacy. Maybe let’s flip the script a little bit in how to avoid those negative relationships, those antagonistic relationships sometimes that you hear about. I’m assuming that you can speak to having both some positive and maybe a negative interaction with some parents. It hasn’t been all rainbows and candy canes for you, has it?
Lindsey: No. Actually my husband is also a teacher, he teaches fifth grade. Between the the two of us I think that we have experienced the really high positive side of that and the really low negative side. The best case scenario is you develop a relationship with a parent that last longer than even your time with their kids does. Somebody who’s an advocate for your program even when it’s no longer serving their own children because to them it’s an invaluable tool for the community. You got the rough side of things where you open your email account and you see a last name in the inbox and you think, “Oh, there goes the day.” I can kind of speak to both sides of it.
Andrew: I’ve had that happened before where it’s funny, sometimes that one negative comment kind of across the bow from a parent. In secondary teachers case maybe it’s about grades, or in the elementary maybe it’s about, maybe some behavior issues, or why does my kid have to take art, they don’t like it anyway. It can be a real, real downer, but I’ll try to maybe stay away from that until the end where maybe we talk about how to avoid those, or fix those once they happen because they’re probably, to be honest, it’s going to be hard to avoid having any of those at all. I want to talk about the positive benefits of cultivating a really great parent-teacher relationship. What would you say is maybe the number one benefit and then you can maybe list some other ones that you’ve seen in your experience as well?
Lindsey: The best benefit to a really positive parent-teacher relationship is they just understand what you’re trying to do, and that understanding of your passion, and your good intention and the reason that you went in to your profession in the first place. When somebody really has a deep understanding of why you’re doing what you’re doing, they can’t help but want to be a part of that and help out whether that’s advocacy, whether that’s helping financially or donating things to your program. If that’s just from the behavioral side, making sure that their kid is invested in the class and doing what they’re supposed to be doing.
Really understanding is the broader thing you’re hoping for where you’re developing a parent relationship, and that goes both ways. I think people who teach art, it’s like art is sort of like a part of who you are, like what you do professionally is one of the most important aspects of who you are as a person. I feel like that coincides with parenting too because parents, they understand that, raising their kid and being the best parent they can be is the most important objective for them. It’s two different mindsets on the same side of the issue.
Andrew: Right. Even to spin it forward a little bit, as a secondary level, one of the things that you can have parents to become really good advocates. I love what you said about maybe they even advocate for your program and for you as a teacher even after their kid is gone, is it sort of builds what you’re doing out in the community. It’s one thing for the kid to say, “Mom, dad, I love art.” If mom and dad are a little skeptical they might say, “Well yeah, of course you love art, it’s one of those easy A classes.”
If the parents in question hear it from another parent who’s like, “Man, you know, that Mrs. Moss or that Mr. McCormick, they’re really doing some like awesome stuff. And you’ve got to get your kid in that program. They’re dealing creativity, and steam and some really innovative stuff.” That’s a win-win where they promote your program and not just you having to do it, they’re doing it for you.
Lindsey: Absolutely. The end goal is that you would have a whole community that would advocate for your program. That’s how art program stay in the longterm.
Andrew: We were kind of talking off mic about there are some programs, I’ll pick on music just a little bit but I won’t get into it too much. I don’t want to turn off any music teaching fans out there that we might have. I think of sports, like booster parents. There are certain program who, their parents really go to bat for the program and for the teachers. I’d love to see more and more art programs go that route where you just have like a whole legion of community members speaking your praise because of the relationship that you’ve built with them and through their kids.
Let’s dig deeper maybe into some of how to build those great relationships, and here is what I sometimes find maddening. If you look at the elementary level, you might have a classrroom-teacher with 26 students let’s say. Probably not too difficult for that teacher to reach out to all 26 of their student’s parents, right? As an elementary teacher, you’re talking easily 400-500 kids, boy that can become really challenging and a whole different set of issues might come about. How do we do this? How do we connect and build those really good relationships?
Lindsey: I think one thing is to change the mindset that it’s impossible to have meaningful relationships with that many people. When you look at it on a year by year basis you’re thinking you got four to 700 kids or however many. In reality, a classrroom teacher has one year to build that relationship so they can go deep fast, but you have a longer period of time with kids. At the elementary level you have them for years, kindergarten through sixth grade, or at the high school level you have them for four years. Also, unlike a classrroom teacher, you’re going to have their sibling probably too so you want more chances than just one calendar year to develop a relationship or make a connection with that parent.
Part of it is kind of playing the long game rather than the short game. You don’t have to get to know everybody right away but you have longer than you think to make a connection with the family. I think also, I mean this is maybe not the most helpful advice for an elementary teacher who has however many kids, but I think real relationships don’t always happen in a school setting where you have a parent-teacher conferences or you see someone on curriculum night.
A real relationship happens when you have small talk and casual conversation with somebody time and time again over time, and that really comes from being at school functions that may or may not be art related. When I really get to know a parent it’s because we had a conversation during intramural cross country, or I saw them at a music program and we ended sitting together and talking about X or Y issue. Those are the more organic relationships that grow out of something authentic that wasn’t forced I think anyway.
Andrew: I’d like that idea a lot, and I think that the longer you’re in a district, and you’re in a building, and people get to know you it just becomes easier and easier. I’m thinking about first year teachers out there, it can seem a little daunting to think about wanting to build those relationships. I really do like your advice that, you know, think long game and think how many years do you have these students and will be working with these families.
Do you have any number one trick or hack that you think some art teachers may not be doing that would help them build those good relationships? For example, one of the things that I learned a long time ago that has served me well is, I really do try to implement this, I never make my first interaction with a parent be a negative one. That’s kind of a no brainer, but boy, sometimes it can be challenging because you can have a kid just stepping it on like day three of the semester and it’s like, “Oh my gosh, I gotta call mom and dad and I gotta say something negative.”
What I might try is give them a call and say, “Boy, I really have enjoyed having, you know, Johnny in class for these first three days” then give it a couple of days and, “Oh boy, I’m really sorry to have to bring this us. Just a couple of days ago …” I don’t know, that has served me well to start off the relationship on a positive note because then I think they’re more receptive to any sort of corrections or things that you need to bring up. Do you have any hacks that have served you well like that?
Lindsey: I would say, and this is something I’ve kind of learned this year as a parent and a teacher at the same time, like hearing about my own kid. When you feel like someone has a legitimate interest specifically in your child that anything they say is much more well-received. Before I had Lyndon in my art class, when I would talk to a parent I would give general feedback about their student. Now as a parent, when you hear a general feedback I feel like that could apply to any kid.
When a teacher in my school says something that’s really specific only to her, it makes me feel like they really notice her as a person and an individual, and they really care about what’s best for her. Anytime that you can have a conversation that inserts things that are specific only to their kid, I don’t know, for me that [buy in, it makes me feel like that relationship is more meaningful.
In that case, when someone who has a legitimate interest in my daughter then says, “You know, she’s having trouble with X or Y.” I feel like that comes not from a place of criticism but from more of a place of concern and love.
Andrew: We’re going to hit on that because I want to talk about the worse case scenario, but I don’t want to go out on that. I think we’ll circle back to some ideas about that parent-teacher dynamic where you are both things in the same school district. I’ll kind of make a mental note to come back to that idea because I do think that the idea of coming from a point of love and concern and caring is much different than as a parent when you feel like it’s coming from a point of criticism, but we’ll come back to that.
I want to do, kind of dwell just a little bit on the doom situation, the doom scenario where you have, for whatever reason, a negative parent-teacher relationship going on. Do you have any advice in your experience of maybe how we can avoid those? Maybe if we can avoid it, we did our best and we’ve got one happening, are there some things that we can do to try to repair those strange relationships?
Lindsey: When things are not going well with the parent, I think that the first step is to always take the high road and apologize. In this situation, whether you’re right or wrong, you’re the professional. Sometimes making a statement that clears the air that … You know, sort of a nod to like, “We may agree to disagree on this issue, but the bottom line is I really care about having your kid in my class and I want them to love art. So how do we move forward?” The first step is a reconciliatory statement whether you say that in person or email it.
I think the next step when you’re having a negative relationship is to dilute the interaction. If you have three or four interactions with a person and they’re really negative, you need to dilute that with a whole bunch of interactions that were positive which I guess kind of circles back around to what you mentioned about calling a parent with something complimentary about a student initially at the start of the year.
If you have a single parent that you’re having a negative interactions with, I would say the gut reaction is to avoid that person, but that’s the opposite thing you want to do. You want to make sure that when they think of you they’re also thinking of positive things that have happened. Finding anything at all, you could email or call about that is positive would only help the situation at that point.
Andrew: I know there’s a bunch of schools and a bunch of people out there teaching in schools that use the PBIS method of behavioral supports. I think kind of a golden rule of PBIS schools is a four to one ratio. If you do deem an interaction with a parent or a student to be a negative one where feelings are hurt, or there’s a misunderstanding, and there’s some resentment or anger. To offset that you probably need to have about four positive interactions before you’re back to square one. I really do like that advice of loading up on some positives.
Lindsey: Especially because what we teach is such a part of us, it can be really easy to get defensive when somebody is critical or questioning choices you’ve made professionally, or asking why you have done things a certain way. I think that it’s important instead of being defensive to like really listen. I had a super bizarre experience once with a parent. An early elementary level had done this portrait project where like half of the portrait they were supposed to show a calm emotion and then the other half of the portrait they were supposed to show a wild emotion. The kids use like red, and horns and crazy stuff for the wild emotion side.
I got a phone call, a parent left a message that she really wanted details about what exactly the assignment was. I just thought, “Ugh man, you know, like this is not gonna go well.” When I called her back I started the conversation, I felt like I had to tell her, justify exactly what they were doing. As the conversation rolls along, I realized I should’ve just listened to her because she had some crazy story where she thought that her house was haunted and she wanted to make sure her kid wasn’t demonic and possessed.
If I had just listened to her for the first two minutes of the conversation I could have avoided all these misunderstanding. That’s like a really severe, crazy example. Sometimes you can’t know where somebody is coming from and I think a lot of times when people are concerned or upset about something, really they just want someone to listen. That’s like more than half of it. Putting your guard down and not coming at it from a defensive angle and just listening is maybe a huge portion when you’re having a parent problem.
Andrew: Yes. I think listening is the number thing. I recently had an interaction that wasn’t great. There’s this tag line that my school started this year that, I don’t know, maybe all the other teachers have forgotten about it but I’ve been glomming onto it with a lot of behavior issues is, try to be curious and not furious. If your knee-jerk reaction is to be offended, or upset, or … To avoid that and just be like, “Okay, why is this person having such an adverse or-or opposite reaction of what I thought was gonna happen? So maybe I need to listen and find out what’s happening.”
This parent was pretty upset with me. I just want to throw this out there that I think that 99.9% of the times that I’ve had a negative interaction with a parent, it’s been because of a misunderstanding or miscommunication that he said, she said, where the kid goes home and says, “When Mr. McCormick said this” and then the parents hear that and it’s like, “Did you?” It’s like, “No, I never said that’s completely out of context.” Mostly everything is a big misunderstanding.
Communication and listening are the number one part of diffusing those. One of the things that I’ve gone to is I will not email back and forth with parents when it gets too a certain point. When it’s just like, “Hey, Johnny is doing great. He just had that one late assignment and now the second one is due on Friday”, that’s great for email. If it’s a lengthy email, email is so easy to misconstrue people’s tones and meanings and all of that. If I have a parent that calls me or emails me and is upset, I’ll just say, “I think you and I should come in and we should have a talk with my administrator present also.”
That serves a couple of different function. It’s going to keep you cool and not defensive and upset because no one wants to seem unprofessional in front of their boss and lose their cool, but it’s also as a sort of a neutral third party to hear everything and make sure that both sides are being civil and that you air things out well. I’ve had to do that maybe once or twice and I think that that has been a game changer, it’s really saved me because I’ve had these big misunderstandings. When you can approach it with a calm, cool head, it’s way easier to resolve that stuff.
Lindsey: I totally agree. I think while sometimes it can feel less confrontational to use email with a parent, I feel like sometimes people forgot there’s a person on the other side of the computer, you know what I mean? I feel like email interactions can escalate really quickly, whereas if you just pick up the phone and call someone or meet face-to-face, I feel it’s way more effective. Although it’s also more time-consuming, I feel it’s beneficial especially when emotions are running high.
Andrew: I agree. It might be a little more time-consuming and the short game like you mentioned before, but in the long run, cleared up now, get over it, let’s solve the problems and then it’s not a perpetual thing. That goes so far to repairing those things. Like you said, apologize. If there was something taken out of context or taken the wrong way, apologize for it, you’re the bigger person and you can say, “I’m sorry that it went that way or you took it that way, that was not my intention.” That’s I think probably is step one to rebuilding those relationships. Boy I feel like we’re getting really Dr. Phil like advice here, we’re telling them how to fix their relationships. Giving out dating advice here with Lindsey and Andrew.
I want to come full circle here and kind of come back to parent-teacher where you’re both in the same building. You said that parents want to know that the teachers coming from a place of care, and concern, and love and not criticism. I do think it’s easy as a parent when things don’t go well to think, “Ugh, they’re criticizing me, they think they know all the answers.” Now that you have a child in the district, how does that overall changes your whole look on the parent-teacher dynamic? How does it changes your teaching and how does that maybe changed your parenting?
Lindsey: From the teaching side, it’s interesting because I come from an elementary perspective. A lot of what I thought we’re best practices, like end of the year portfolios, a variety of things, I’m kind of like looking at it now from a parent angle because advocacy is always at the forefront of what you’re trying to do to maintain a strong elementary program especially. For example, my daughter will be in my first grade class and I’ll have lesson that I thought was really dynamic, and involved a lot of choice, and was probably very exciting for her.
Then we’ll be at the dinner table talking to my husband and he’ll ask how school was, she’ll be rattling off her day and he’ll say, “Well, did you have art today?” and I’m perking up, like I’m ready to hear this jam of great art knowledge that Lyndon has gleaned in like the 45 minutes I had her. She’ll be like, “Yeah, I got to play in the sandbox” because I got a sensory table at the back of my room. If kids are done cleaning up three minutes early, they can use the sensory table.
My 45 minutes of what I thought was like a fabulous art lesson is distilled down to Lyndon playing in the sandbox which has nothing to do with anything we learned that day. As a teacher, that makes you think about like what are other kids going home saying about your program. I think that’s why I’ve kind of been rethinking how I use social media, that sort of been something I’ve been looking at more this year now that Lyndon’s in my class. I understand what kids are getting out of this, but what are parents thinking their kids are getting out of my class I guess is sort of like a difference.
Also, I think a lot of elementary art teachers do end of the year portfolios, that’s what we think of as best practice to show growth over time. It’s interesting now as a mom because I think how my husband hasn’t seen … It’s December, and my husband hasn’t seen a lot of Lyndon’s art in person. Electronically he might see some of it but he hasn’t seen it in person and he won’t until the art show. Maybe that’s like a paradigm I need to think about changing for the future.
Andrew: I love that story, it just makes me think like yes, kids and adults just talk a whole different language. You’re seeing this thing as this beautiful lesson and it’s, “We had play time.” I really think that that could be the basis of so many of these emails which is like, “Um, my daughter says you’re not doing anything in art and you’re making devil faces and all of these stuff.” It’s like, “Oh my gosh, these are taken so out of context.” It’s really nice that you’re able to see from both side of the spectrum.
Lindsey: Yes, it’s been an interesting year. I’m excited to see … She’s a first grader so right now having her mom be her art teacher is like the coolest thing in the world. We’ll see how that changes over time. She might be ready to be done by sixth grade, but for now we’re both really enjoying it.
Andrew: Hey Lindsey, thanks so much for coming on, I really enjoyed this conversation, it was a lot of fun.
Lindsey: Yes, it was a lot of fun, thank you for having me.
Andrew: That was a really great talk that Lindsey and I just had. I just want to sum up here with some of my big takeaways from her advice. They are communicate, communicate, communicate. It doesn’t always have to be at school, and it doesn’t always have to be right away. Again, think about the long game here. Always keep your interactions positive and try think about how your students are talking about your program at home.
The little nugget there at the end that I thought was so great was how Lindsey was being more proactive with social media to promote her program, and possibly dispel any of those misunderstandings like, “Oh, we’re just playing in art class.” Always be a professional and make sure you take the high road in case things ever do go side ways.
My big advice is sit down face-to-face and try to avoid emails as those as it’s really easy to misinterpret things when things do get a little emotional. It isn’t easy to build or rebuild great parent-teacher relationships, but it’s very doable and the pay off is well worth the hard work.
Art Ed Radio is developed, produced and supported by the Art of Education with audio engineering by Michael Crocker. Before we sign off, again, I just want to share and encourage you guys to go check out AOE’s Art Ed Now conference which is just about a month away. It is getting closer and closer but there’s still plenty of time to head on over to theartofed.com and register for this online conference.
If we’re talking about changing up how we do things and then sharing those new ideas and strategies with the community, I can’t think of a better way to do that than by attending this great conference, you’re going to have tons of new great ideas. Head on over to theartofed.com now and check out the impressive lineup. As always, new episodes of Art of Ed Radio are released every Tuesday, and additional content can be found under the podcast tab on theartofed.com. All right guys, thanks for listening.