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Back to school: How to advocate for your child without being ‘that’ parent

(Studio Muti for The Washington Post)

The beginning of the school year brings with it all sorts of feelings for parents. Watching those little people (even if they are taller than you now) head off to their first day of school, shiny backpack at the ready, is not an easy time to let go. If you’re like most parents, you’re wondering what actually happens inside those walls during the day. Maybe you want to talk to the teacher about your son’s propensity to forget his math facts, your daughter’s inability to focus on tests, your child’s issues with a former friend.

But how does a parent let go and stay connected at the same time? How does a parent effectively communicate with that teacher who holds so much power, whose influence will form your child’s feelings about school, about learning, about the future?

Ask about the teacher’s communication style. Melanie Cerritos, a former classroom teacher who is now a dual-language specialist and teacher trainer for the District’s public schools, says her job is to teach teachers how best to communicate with parents and make them feel comfortable. One of the first things teachers should do at the beginning of a school year, she said, is explain how they prefer to communicate with parents. And if that hasn’t happened, this is one of the first things a parent should ask. “Find out what the best time is to communicate with them, whether they would prefer email or phone calls,” Cerritos said.

And then, said Pamela Dawson, a special education teacher in Prince William County, do as the teacher asks. Don’t just show up at the door if the teacher said email is the best way to communicate. “If you have concerns, the best way to reach out is by email. If they don’t respond in a day or so, check back in. And then if they don’t answer, I would call,” she said. “But a good teacher would respond within 24 hours.”

For those concerned that any communication will bother a teacher, she said: “Don’t feel bad. Generally, we have some planning time in our day, and that’s when we check emails.”

Remember, teachers actually want to hear from you. “We want a partnership,” said Alteasha Ervin, program director at the Phillips school in Fairfax County and a former classroom teacher. “There were times when I was a teacher and felt overwhelmed [after the school day] with planning, grading papers. Then I’d be on the phone with parents for an hour and a half. But once that partnership is there, you can minimize that amount of contact. Once that partnership has been established, talking to parents, you won’t be on the phone for an hour, because you talk to them [in smaller amounts] frequently.”

Teachers actually like to communicate about good things, too. Hannah Ojard, counselor at Phillips, said that talking to parents about things that went well helps the overall relationship. In fact, she emails or speaks with parents daily. “I never feel that communicating with parents is a burden,” she said.

But keep yourself in check, and know that teachers can help you with this. “I was a classroom teacher, so I understand that teachers don’t want parents coming in all the time and interrupting the routine,” Cerritos said. When a parent lingers at drop-off or pops back in to talk to the teacher frequently, Cerritos said, it can be hard for the child to transition from home to school. In that case, Cerritos advised, parents and teachers should come up with a plan together so the parent can leave at the same time every day or talk to the teacher outside of school. That way, the drop-offs become routine for the child, making separation from the parent much easier. “Teachers do need to put up some sort of boundaries,” Cerritos said.

At the same time, teachers also need to be understanding, she said: “Maybe families really can only come at certain times, or they don’t have email. That’s why teachers and parents really need to have that relationship to communicate how to talk to each other.”

Yes, sometimes parents go a bit overboard in the communication department. If you are one of those people, the teacher will let you know. “I would just tell parents: ‘I don’t want to sound too blunt. Your child is important to me as well as all the other students in the class,’ ” Dawson said, and then she would work out a better system for communicating with that parent. “As a teacher, this is our family. Your kid is my kid.” So in other words, trust the teacher. Your child’s success is also their success.

Maybe being that parent isn’t such a bad thing. As a parent herself, Cerritos argues that being a very communicative parent shouldn’t be seen as a negative thing. “I want to be proactive. I want to know about a problem before it becomes a huge problem,” she said. With a daughter heading into sixth grade and a son into third, “I still feel all the emotions when a school year starts.”

And so Cerritos uses her experience as a classroom teacher, and as a mom, to help her teachers understand where a parent is coming from and how to use that communication to their advantage. “I really see it as a reciprocal relationship,” she said. “Not one giving more information or one more authoritative than another.”

Amy Joyce is the Washington Post On Parenting editor. Tweets @amyjoyce_berg and @OnParenting.

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