Communication: What Do Parents Want, and Why on Earth Do They Want It?

By: Deborah Cipolla

Having been an extremely involved parent during my son's preschool years, his entrance into kindergarten was at least as much of an adjustment for me as it was for him. Gone were the days of stopping by for a quick visit whenever my schedule permitted. We were in more structured territory - Catholic school, no less - and I felt I had lost control of my child's life for a substantial part of the day.

I asked for a copy of the class' daily schedule, read their textbooks and became a room parent, but still didn't know many details about how my son actually spent his day. Try getting information out of a five-year-old who can't tell the difference between six hours ago and six days ago.

Communication with his teacher became critical, but the large class size was a major hindrance to personal interaction: The poor man had 34 sets of parents to deal with. With a sister who has been an educator for some 30 years, I had tremendous empathy for my son's teacher - a first-year teacher, at that - and didn't want to be just another demanding parent with an agenda. But I was. Well, maybe not demanding. But I certainly had expectations and needs, and I was determined to get them met.

What did I expect? Coming off those highly communicative preschool years (in the toddler classroom, daily reports of time, quality and quantity of naps, meals and bowel movements were sent home), I wanted to be able to envision how my child was spending seven hours of his day. That's more waking time than he spends with me during the week, and I didn't want such a major part of his life to be a black hole for me.

I did not expect daily reports - though, of course, I would have welcomed them. The photocopied, general notes from the teacher to the parents, which came every few weeks early in the year, were helpful. But as the year progressed, the notes dwindled into nonexistence. In fact at this point, late in the school year, the notes going home to parents are more likely to come from me, informing them about activities and parties that I organize.

At progress report time, the report was sent home and parents were told to schedule an appointment with the teacher if there were questions. Of course I had questions! This report told me my child knew "most of the letter sounds," while at home he was reading third-grade books and the daily newspaper. It told me he had trouble focusing on his work, while at home I had trouble tearing him away from tasks. Clearly there was a gap between home and school.

To jump to the end of this story, the simple answer was to increase my involvement in the classroom, which, fortunately, was not only encouraged, but welcomed. (Remember, 34 students?) That allowed me to mine my own information about what was going on in his day. I learned which kids set him off, so that I could help coach him on how to handle differences peaceably, and I saw first-hand how he responded to both boredom and challenge in the classroom. Most importantly, it gave me the opportunity to get to know the teacher and his aides on a much more personal level, and to learn the issues they were coping with as they struggled to find the time to actually do some education in the course of the day.

What kind of teacher-to-parent communication would I want in an ideal world? Here's my wish list, and perhaps with the exception of progress report meetings, I think it's as applicable to the high school years as it is to kindergarten:

  • A weekly report. It wouldn't have to be in-depth. A half-sheet of paper with a few highlights of classroom activities would suffice, including a one- or two-word description of what they studied in various subject areas. Perhaps one line personalized for each child, with one highlight of a great thing he or she did that week and/or one thing he or she needs to work on.
  • Regular meetings with parents at progress report time. I wouldn't make it optional. Communication is critical, especially in the early years as children - and parents - are forming habits that will continue throughout the child's school years.
  • More proactive solicitation of parent involvement. In my case, the teacher sent home a note at the beginning of the year, asking parents to volunteer in the classroom. But there was no follow-up. Instead, parents had to pursue the issue with him. This was no problem for me, but as late as March, I talked to one parent who was still waiting for a response to her offer to volunteer, which she had submitted in September. I encouraged her to make the next move, and within a matter of days she was spending several days a week in the classroom. She told me later that it was an incredible eye-opener to see what went on in the class during the day. Exactly my point.
  • Immediate communication with parents when a discipline issue arises. I was astounded when my son informed me - quite by accident - that he already had been sent to the principal's office several times. I would liked to have known this in real time, so I could have talked to my son about his behavior while it was still fresh in his mind.

On the flip side, there absolutely has to be parent-to-teacher communication as well. Like any child, my son has "issues" at various times. Whenever he goes through a particularly trying time, I make sure his teacher knows about it. If there's a behavior problem at home, I assume it's evident at school too. I solicit his teacher's - and the aides' - help in letting me know if anything unusual is going on with him during the day. It also helps them deal with situations that may arise in school. I approach my son's behavior as a team effort between home and school, and I present it to him that way too. I want him to know that the two are not so separate, and that both good and bad behavior at school will be discussed at home. I think it was a revelation to him to know that I actually was aware of what he did during the day. That alone seemed to curb his acting-up at school a bit.

Bottom line? Parents are caught in up balancing work, children, spouses and other family relationships, personal problems, money issues, and more. Teachers have to deal with an incredible variety of personalities, cultures, discipline styles, administrative pressures, their own personal lives... all the while, trying to teach a bunch of kids who, at times, couldn't care less. Okay, everyone's stretched too far. But unless both parents and teachers make the time to communicate with and support each other, the children are the ones who lose. Not the parents, not the teachers - the children. I'll take a leap and say that on behalf of those who choose to have children and those who choose to educate them, that's the last thing anyone wants.

One last note: It's easy to view "the class" as an entity in and of itself, which, of course, it is. But each of the children who make up that class is the most wondrous, precious, unique creature to walk the earth, through a parent's eyes. That individuality must be reflected in the communication between parent and teacher. Nothing makes me feel warmer about my son's school than his teacher relating some story or observation that tells me he really has spent time with my child. Parents want to know that their child is getting the attention they need and deserve. A teacher's personal communication tells them just that.

Deborah Cipolla is the mother of a brilliant and challenging kindergartner, who spent his first weeks in class tying his teacher's shoelaces together when he wasn't looking. In her other life, she is a director of marketing communications for a Silicon Valley software company.