Schools tend to send home a lot of information. But do you communicate back? One of the most valuable step a parent can take is to start a dialogue with the teacher. You both have the same goal—for the student to be successful. Why not approach that goal as a team?

“Teachers have a breadth of understanding of a particular age group that a parent is unlikely to have,” says Carol Tomlinson, a professor at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education in Charlottesville and a former preK-12 teacher. “They know what development is like and what a student needs and how the child is faring in comparison to peers. That gives parents a status check that is hard to get otherwise. As for parents, they have a depth of knowledge of their own child that the teacher will never have. If teachers and parents combine that breadth and depth of knowledge, they have the potential for making a great difference for the child.”

What To Talk About

Teachers want to know from parents what makes their child tick and how their child learns best. If your son is obsessed with baseball and learns best through hands-on activities, let the teacher know. If your daughter is into music and absorbs information best when it’s explained out loud, mention that. Knowing about a child’s special interests and learning style can help a teacher get through to them in class.

Your child also benefits when you tell the teacher about weak spots. Mentioning that your son struggles with multiplication or your daughter needs help with reading will allow the teacher to address these problem areas sooner.

If your child is having trouble learning something new, it’s important to tell the teacher. “Parents need to be willing to speak for their children if something is not working,” says Tomlinson. “No one else can do that for their child in terms of advocacy.”

Lisa Martin spoke up when her son, Ben, a 5th grader at East Side Christian School in Greenwood, S.C., was struggling with memorizing spelling words. The teacher’s approach was to have students learn by writing, and he assigned Ben extra homework to write the spelling words over and over. But Ben continued to struggle, and his mom became frustrated by the burden of two extra hours of homework each night.

So she met with the teacher and told him, “I appreciate that you’re trying to help Ben with spelling. But writing doesn’t help. He’s more auditory. He remembers everything he hears. If he says words aloud, he remembers them.” The teacher was open to Martin’s input. He eliminated the extra homework, encouraging her to use the auditory approach with her son instead. Ben, who had been failing, got a C on his next test.

Teachers also want to know about issues that arise at home. “I want to know about things going on that might cause a child to be stressed or depressed or emotional or to act out, things such as divorce or illness or death in the family,” says Sue Beck, who teaches 5th grade at Bill Arp Elementary in Douglasville, Ga. “Giving a teacher a heads-up on those kinds of things can really help us communicate better with the child during the day.”

Finding Common Ground

In some cases, parents and teachers can be intimidated by one another, says Tomlinson. “Parents feel hesitant to express themselves for fear of treading into territory where they don’t belong,” she says. “Teachers can feel defensive when parents make suggestions.” (For tips on approaching a teacher about problems, see “Start a Conversation” below.)

Parents can help build a good relationship by offering sincere, specific praise for teachers’ efforts, telling them what helped and that it made a difference. And teachers can communicate with parents regularly, not just when there’s a problem.

For their part, teachers ought to share with parents what they do to try to make lessons work for students, their goals for the year, and the parameters and constraints they operate under, such as state curriculum standards. This can help parents better understand where the teacher is coming from.

“Parents need to honor the teacher as the expert, and teachers have to acknowledge parents as the experts in their particular child,” says Anne Jones, a former K-12 teacher and now director of teacher education at the University of California, Riverside’s Graduate School of Education. “What I find in the vast majority of cases is that both parents and teachers really do want what is best for the child. So if everybody starts in that space, communication works out pretty well.”

Perhaps the best thing that parents can do to foster good communication with teachers is to encourage their children to talk to their teachers directly. “Many times, parents are prone to do for their children things the children can do for themselves,” says Tomlinson. “So help kids learn to be their own advocate. Rehearse with them what they could say to the teacher, like ‘This isn’t working for me. Could we talk about it for a minute?’ It’s much more empowering for kids to represent themselves.”

Start a Conversation

Believe it or not, your children’s teachers really do want to hear what you have to say. But if the first thing you do is criticize a teacher or complain that your child received a bad grade, you’re likely to put the teacher on the defensive. Instead, seek a collaborative, problem-solving approach. Here are examples of how you might start a conversation with a teacher:

  • “My child is having this problem. Can we meet and come up with a solution so she can feel better about school and we can work together to make her education experience positive?”

  • “I want to share with you my perspective on something that is happening for my son. I understand my perspective may not quite match yours because I’m hearing about things through the view of an 8-year-old. But this is of concern and I’d like us to share perspectives.”

  • “We were disappointed to see our child’s progress report. Can you help us understand ways we might work with her in the areas where she’s not doing well?”