Friday, 1 May 2015

Building good working relationships with parents

Getting parents on side benefits everyone – make contact and listen well
Engaging with parents is one of the more difficult aspects of an NQT’s induction year. You may have excellent subject knowledge and have been trained in managing classroom behaviour, but dealing with difficult or hard-to-engage parents brings a different set of challenges.
A student teacher will have been largely sheltered from involvement with parents on their school placements by more experienced colleagues, but once in the job, this relationship becomes part of the front line of teaching.
So how do you go about initiating and maintaining a good working relationship with parents who may have little interest in their child’s education, or who simply don’t have the confidence to come to school?
“Getting parents on your side is hugely helpful, but failure to do so can be a huge battle, so it’s important to get things right,” says Dr Sara Bubb, educational consultant and teacher trainer at the Institute of Education, University of London. “Those early days are difficult because much of it has to be learned on the job.
“Appearance and perception is the first step because you need to make the right impression, while at the same time getting across the important messages about your expectations.”
Bubb believes that NQTs should appear confident and reasonably assertive at the first meeting, even if they are quaking in their boots. “You also need to look the part; so if you have a jacket then wear it, as it looks more formal,” she suggests. 
Making eye contact and nodding in the appropriate places show that you are listening to the parents, particularly if they have initiated the meeting because of a problem. “You need to leave them in no doubt that they are being heard and that you care, as this can build great bridges in what might otherwise be a difficult or awkward situation,” she says.
Engaging with families in primary schools is nearly always easier than in secondaries. Parents, usually mothers, tend to accompany their children to school and often linger around the school gate, affording staff and especially new teachers, great opportunities for conversations, says Tracey Smith, head of Tower Hill Community Primary School in Witney, Oxfordshire.
The extended services coordinator at the school has responsibility for parental engagement but, of course, it is for every teacher to establish good relations with the parents of the pupils in their class. The school pays a great deal of attention to the involvement of parents, not least because a third of the pupils have special needs and a similar proportion is entitled to free school meals.
“The most important thing is to be available and obvious, at whatever time of the day but particularly in the mornings and at home time when the parents are around,” Smith advises. “Our NQTs wear a badge so that everyone knows who they are and which class they are teaching, so that parents don’t have to ask, as some may feel awkward about doing so. This immediately breaks down barriers. 
“All teachers, including NQTs, have to take the initiative and this is particularly important with difficult or hard-to-reach parents. We set aside a day during the second week in September when parents are free to come into their child’s classroom after 2.30pm to meet new teachers, without the pupils being present. This is mainly to enable everyone to put names to faces, but it is also an opportunity for the teacher to gather information and to inform parents about the boundaries they want to set, their values and expectations, and to convey messages about the importance of the relationship between school and home.
“Parents need to know that we don’t just want to see them if something is wrong or we are going to give bad news, but that it is an ongoing process.”
One way of getting off on a good footing in a new school, Smith suggests, is to write to every child in the class before starting the job. “NQTs need to make themselves known as early as possible, and one way to do this is to send an individual letter or short note to every child’s home, with a brief introduction.
“This helps the NQT to get to know names, but also gets that relationship off to a good start by stating to the family that you are looking forward to meeting them and teaching their children. Parents really like this personal approach.”
At Medina College, on the Isle of Wight, meanwhile, staff set up a Facebook page for parents, which gives them a forum to discuss issues that may concern them. “We have had some fairly challenging issues being raised, which the school may not want publicising to a wider audience, but we believe it makes the process of communicating with parents and the decisions made in school more transparent,” says Nathan Thomas, the headteacher.
NQTs at the school are always given a Year 7 tutor group so that they are both new to the school and can share the journey through the school together. Each tutor group also has two tutors, so the new teacher has the benefit of the experience and expertise of a more senior colleague. An ongoing programme of professional development relating to parental engagement is offered to all new staff and regular meetings are encouraged to foster good relations.
“We are big believers in focusing on the good, as well as seeking help with the negative, so we send home messages in the form of postcards and mobile text messages offering praise for good work and behaviour,” Thomas adds.

Prepare for challenges

The potential for challenges is always present. Broaching difficult issues, such as poor behaviour or complaints about the teacher, needs to be done with consideration for the views of all parties and an NQT should never be afraid of seeking support from a more senior colleague if he or she feels the conversation has strayed into difficult areas.
The Teacher Support Network and Parentline Plus charities carried out research three years ago into the relationships between teachers and parents, and sent its recommendations to the government and schools.
It advises schools to appoint a member of staff as a parent support worker with expertise in dealing with a range of family issues that may affect pupil learning. This worker should be a visible part of the school community and help to support the school and families in understanding their roles.
Furthermore, it says that all school staff should be trained in parental engagement, and schools should focus more on accurately appraising a child’s progress rather than just reporting the positives or negatives.
Highly effective strategies for engaging parents are becoming increasingly embedded in schools with the national roll-out of the Achievement for All programme. Piloted four years ago and used primarily to target vulnerable groups and pupils with special needs, AfA comprises a framework for raising achievement with parental involvement at its heart.
Links with parents are established and maintained through the use of a “structured conversation”, in which staff initiate discussions about what strategies should be employed to best serve the interests of the child. By taking part in these talks, parents play a role in supporting the school.

Contact points

In most schools, specific members of staff are assigned to liaise with parents, but these approaches are eventually cascaded down to all staff, including NQTs. 
“We have a family liaison officer who instigates the contact but even so, some parents remain reluctant,” says Paul Green, head of Lyng Hall School in Coventry, one of the AfA pilot schools. “There has to be information-sharing on all sides, with a clear dialogue about academic outcomes.”
He adds that although instigating and maintaining links with parents might be difficult for NQTs, it was for more senior colleagues to guide and support them, whether this be their mentor during the induction year, the head of department or head of year. 
Schools using the AfA scheme have become more creative about how to engage parents. Some have held initial meetings in the family home, or organised neutral venues if the parents expressed a reluctance to come to the school.
“NQTs should be made aware of school policies in relation to parental engagement so they don’t do anything that might contravene and therefore undermine that,” Green warns. “I have not yet met a parent who does not want their child to do well, but we have to break down barriers and it is usually teachers that must take the initiative.”
Rachel Barrell, course leader for primary teacher education at the University of Worcester, agrees and believes that if NQTs can get the relationship right with parents, they can secure a valuable ally.
“Parents know their children better than anyone else and can provide valuable insights into their behaviour, interests and motivations,” she says. “For children with complex needs, particularly, it is the parents who may be able to help the teachers to get the best out of them and that interaction is really important.
“Engaging with parents should never be an inconvenience – it is an integral part of the learning process.”

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