What parents should say to teachers (according to teachers)

(Bianca Jelezniac/Illustration for The Washington Post)
(Bianca Jelezniac/Illustration for The Washington Post)

The coronavirus pandemic has made the past few years incredibly difficult for teachers, who have had to adapt to teaching remotely (sometimes while their own children were attending school from home), teaching in hybrid classrooms, teaching behind masks and teaching while risking exposure to the coronavirus.

The stress is driving many from the field. Early this year, the Merrimack College Teacher Survey found that 44 percent of teachers said they were “very” or “fairly” likely to leave the profession within two years. Many teachers have already done so, leaving some states with catastrophic staffing shortages for this school year and creating extra work for those who remain.

How can parents best support teachers in a tumultuous time? The Washington Post collected written responses from teachers about what they want parents to know about their work — and what makes a good parent-teacher relationship.

“Parents are often surprised by stories of other parents’ treatment of teachers,” wrote Margaret Flaherty, 42, a high school English teacher at a public school in Byfield, Mass. “When I share some of the things parents have said or written to me, mouths go agape. They can be mean. Very mean. And we are so tired. Start with assuming good intentions and take it from there.”

A number of the teachers’ remarks focused on communication: urging parents to access grade sites rather than asking them for updates, to acknowledge emails sent by teachers and to give teachers time to respond, but, most of all, to try to be on the same team.

Annika Dukes, a 45-year-old alternative education teacher at a public middle school in Vancouver, Wash., advised: “In the first week, a quick email of, ‘Hey, my student really likes …’ something about the class or the teacher is meaningful. It opens lines of communication to partner on students’ learning, rather than only meet when there is a problem to work through.”

Most striking were the heartfelt pleas to parents to understand that teachers mean well and that they’re doing their best. The atmosphere has become so fraught that one public elementary school teacher in Texas wrote on the condition of anonymity, citing the risk of negative attention in a “dangerous” climate for educators.

“We love your kids,” the teacher wrote. “We love our jobs (even though we’re exhausted). And the only things we are activists about is your child’s academic and emotional growth. The constant anger and vitriol we see about book bans, and [critical race theory] are seriously taking a toll on us. We’re not indoctrinating anyone. We’re just trying to teach your kids.”

Below are more comments, which have been edited for length and clarity.

What is the top ‘do’ you would give parents about interacting with teachers?

Do your best to try to know your child’s teacher, and for the teacher to get to know you better.

Juliana Yoes, 47, dual-language first-grade teacher in a public school in Austin

Think of me as a teammate. I always aim to have a true partnership with my families. We can celebrate the great things their child is doing and work together when there are specific areas the child needs to work on. If home and school have similar goals, the child is more likely to feel safe and secure and hit all their developmental milestones.

Nora Rosenberger, 43, early-childhood special-education teacher in a public school in Falls Church, Va.

Do communicate before you are mad. Reach out when you feel inclined, not just when you are upset. Do be willing to accept that teachers may have insight about your child that you do not.

Laurie Chin, 45, speech language pathologist in a public school in Ellicott City, Md.

Recognize that the demands of our work are causing so many of us to leave our profession. Be intentional about how you approach a professional, because they might be desperately trying to tread water in this storm.

Margaret Flaherty

What is the top ‘don’t’ you would give parents about interacting with teachers?

Don’t assume that your child is the same at school as they are at home.

Elisabeth Villemez, 36, third-grade English as a second language teacher in a public school in D.C.

Don’t bring culture wars into your interactions with your students’ teachers. When I was in high school, my mom told me, “I don’t always agree with your teachers, but I know they are challenging you to think and grow better than I can.” She and my dad made sure to discuss our learning with us, helping us work issues and ideas through the values my family had. My parents expected that public schools would prepare us for life and work in a diverse society, rather than serving as an echo chamber with our family or faith tradition.

Annika Dukes

Do not assume that whatever your child tells you is the full picture. Start by giving the teacher the benefit of the doubt, and preface all questions, concerns or comments with, “I know that I am only hearing my child’s perspective here, and I understand that there is a good chance that perspective is incomplete, biased or skewed.”

Ellie Pojarska, 45, 11th-grade English teacher in a private school in Los Altos, Calif.

Do not undermine teachers in front of your student. If you disrespect teachers and schools in front of your student, then they will never engage meaningfully with us. That’s fine if all you desire is day care, but if you want them to learn and grow through school, they need to be expected to respect us. It’s fine if you disagree with us as a parent, but address your concerns through productive channels, and refrain from bad-mouthing schools and staff in front of your student.

John Perfetto, 38, public school special-education teacher from Columbia, Md.

What is something you think parents don’t understand about being a teacher that you wish they did?

We have their child’s interest at heart at all times. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t be teaching.

Rhonda McDonnell, 46, sixth-grade math teacher in a public school in Ellicott City, Md.

We work so hard, but it never seems to be enough. The school systems are constantly giving us new responsibilities, new curriculums and new tests, and most of them are not developmentally appropriate. We need help with life skills and behaviors.

Katherine Reck, 37, kindergarten teacher in a public school in Ellicott City, Md.

School runs from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., and from mid-August through May. That sounds like an “easy” schedule, but it’s not. My work day is typically 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., plus a half-day every weekend, then I teach summer school through June and take classes the rest of the summer. To say that I only work during school hours is like saying lawyers only work when they’re in court or professional football players only work 18 Sundays a year!

Elizabeth Pauls, 57, fourth- and fifth-grade accelerated math and language arts teacher in a public school in Arlington Heights, Ill.

How much teachers give up of their life for your children. The work after school, weekends, holidays, the professional development, the stress, the low pay, the dozens of standardized evaluations we are expected to do that do nothing to show who your child truly is.

Karen Peak, 51, substitute teacher (elementary and special education) in public schools in Woodbridge, Va.

There is simply nothing easy or glamorous enough about teaching that it would be worth staying with if your motivation was to mess with kids. Every teacher who remains is fighting the good fight and trying to help kids despite policies, rhetoric and sentiment that undercut us at every turn. Please trust that we do this to help, otherwise we wouldn’t do it at all.

John Perfetto

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