Getting Buy-in from Parents
If you are in a new district, or substantially changing methods and shaking up the status quo, you may need to preemptively defend your program so that you don’t face parental misunderstandings before you get started. Let’s take a look at some ways to get parents on board before misunderstandings brew.
Sometimes the best approach is to fly under the radar. Is your classroom your castle, or do you have a department chair keeping a close eye on you? Are you a tenured, established leader in your school, or a new hire that has yet to map out how power is expressed in your district? If your principal receives parental complaints, does she ask parents if they have first spoken directly to you (thus empowering all involved) or does she pass on the anonymous complaints to you (thus enhancing uncertainty since you cannot even communicate with the stakeholders involved). Consider your teaching situation carefully. Your power to influence other educators and the school community is not rooted in the strength of your opinions or even the depth of your knowledge; your power to defend change emanates mostly from your reputation as an excellent and beloved teacher. Build that reputation.
Make sure that the first impression of your class is a good one. Your school probably has an online grade book, and if not then your students are certainly wondering where they stand in terms of grades. Release that tension as quickly as possible. I make sure that my first two weeks of daily exit quizzes are recorded immediately so that when parents and students log-in for the first time there is inevitably an A there. Those first two weeks are all about developing class routines anyways… consider seriously what you are losing by letting that first impression be a D! If a student were to actually fail my first really easy comprehension quiz, I just would not record it and then pay very close to her the next day during class to make sure she gets an A. After two weeks I tell students that I am now confident that everyone knows how to play the game and I am going to start giving slightly more difficult comprehension quizzes, “so pay close attention to what we say in class”. Everyone has an A at that point, and most students keep the A throughout the rest of the year. Nothing motivates like success.
Demonstrate a technique that is your strength during Back to School Night. The parents who attend are the community voices that will either defend you or band together to run you out of town. Don’t waste your chance to impress them with a research-filled power point or a lecture about homework; they will trust you if they feel in their hearts that you are competent. I spend my 10 minutes on a quick demo of card talk because I can easily personalize and remain 100% comprehensible. I want to show them that our class might not be like the language course they once took in high school, and that might be a good thing. On the way out the door I have a student volunteer handing out an information sheet with my absentee policy and other details. Some parents read it, especially those who approach school like a perpetual courtroom where they are the lawyers defending their children, but most leave my classroom with Spanish buzzing in their heads and a nebulous sense that they can trust me.
Don’t let your policies blind you. In my class, grades reflect whether students engage and, well, if they actually attend class. I know that they will acquire the language if they are simply present and understanding… it is my job to make sure I pace the conversation so that everyone in class understands. However, we cannot be successful if they don’t come to class. I now have the track record to prove to administrators that this approach leads to success on outside assessments (in my case, the AP and IB exams). However, in my zeal to make sure that students attend my class I have, at times, imposed draconian punishments for absences.
Let me explain something peculiar about my district: I am frustrated that so many extracurricular coaches can excuse students from my classes. All of the time. I once caught the ASB secretary changing my online attendance records. It is outrageous. I reacted strongly with policies to try to keep kids in my class. Strongly. It took me a few years to perfect my grading system so that students would not skip class to make prom posters (an example that really happened, absences excused by the ASB director), but I was still burning relationships with students, parents and other educators. The problem is that they maintain that they have the right to routinely pull kids from my class. I was fighting an entire school culture. Even worse, at times I was blind to the ways that my attendance policies failed to adequately distinguish between students shirking class and students missing class because they were living in debilitating poverty.
If you are a new teacher in your district, understand that your policies may upset the culture of your workplace. Be flexible and avoid confrontation until tenured. If tenured, keep in mind that any confrontations you take on, even unwittingly, may impact your entire career. You might decide that the fight is worthy, like I did, but remember that ‘burning bridges’ is long-lasting.
Get in the habit of looking at your grade book and identifying students who need an intervention. Leave behind your sense of indignation, even if students have freely chosen this path. Dig them out of their hole. If you have one of these crazy attendance policies that attempts to deal with an even crazier school culture, recognize when to throw in the towel. If the kid is already failing, the policy clearly does not have the intended impact. Dig the kid out and find a new way to motivate the student. Parents will be grateful.
Allow parents the ability to find evidence of rigor in your classes. For some parents it is all about the grade, but not for all. Some parents may be upset if their children say your class is extremely easy. Many people still associate the concept of rigor with difficult mental exertion, which is not the case when acquiring a language. Luckily we have the evidence that will impress many parents. Have your students copy the Write & Discuss text that the class creates each day into a notebook. For homework once a week, have students translate one of the W&D’s to their parents and ask that a parent or guardian sign the page.
Some parents are still looking for conjugation charts, but many will be surprised by the richness of the language that their children already understand. Now, some parents will leap to ask their children to start speaking. In that case it might help to tape a copy of Grant Boulanger’s beautiful poster (right) in each students’ notebook in order to communicate to parents the order in which skills emerge.
Cultivate other signs of success in your classroom. I like to build a text-rich classroom with the annotated One Word Image posters covering the majority of my wall space. Not only does the text inspire my students, but the colorful student-created images speaks to a class in which students are truly engaged in their learning (um, or “acquiring”). Be sure to display your classroom library during Spring parent-teacher conferences so that parents can see that there is substantial rigor in your classes; in the month before you meet with parents track student reading so that you can show them the exact books that their child has chosen to read. I like to take this moment to also talk to every parent about literacy during the summer months, encouraging them to bring their children to the public library once a week.