Photograph by pixelfit / Getty Images
Photograph by pixelfit / Getty Images

Communicating with your kid's teacher looks different this year. But it's crucial to student success.

Educators offer parents advice on staying in touch despite at-home distance learning.

With the coronavirus pandemic still gripping the United States, many parents are concerned about how their kids will learn and thrive in such uncertain times—especially as so many students are back in some kind of distance learning. One of the best ways to ensure a child’s success? Establishing a good relationship with their teachers.

Prior to the pandemic, parents could speak with teachers through regularly scheduled in-person meetings, quick conversations during pickup and drop-off, or chance encounters during sporting events, school plays, or other events. Even so, many kept communication to a minimum, says Kimberly Diefenbach, a first-grade teacher at Mineral Point Elementary School in Wisconsin, who’s been teaching for 14 years.

“A lot of parents would tell us, if we don’t hear anything, no news is good news,” she says.

But with many school districts moving toward online learning this fall, Diefenbach says that dynamic is likely to change, as caretakers and educators lean on each other to figure out the best way forward. We asked experts from National Geographic’s education community for advice on navigating the new world of parent-teacher “conferences.”

How much is enough?

Frequent check-ins allow everyone to address gaps, clarify assignments, and generally make sure kids are getting everything they need to succeed in a virtual classroom.

“It’s also appropriate for parents to ask teachers how they will be informed about their child’s progress and how they can be helping at home,” Diefenbach says.

Ultimately, the level of contact should be determined by the student’s needs.

“If a student is struggling academically or emotionally, or if a parent is having difficulty helping his or her child, then daily or weekly contact would be expected,” Diefenbach says.

On the other hand, if your child seems to be doing fine, a monthly or bimonthly check-in may be all that’s needed.

Educators are generally open to many styles of communication. For instance, apps like Seesaw or Google Classroom can be very effective, Diefenbach says. For parents, messages can be sent quickly and conveniently without the need for a meeting or special trip. Teachers gain the benefit of keeping all of their correspondence in one place.

That said, not all families are capable or comfortable communicating by app, says Mark Sandy, a third-grade teacher at Mount Rainier Elementary School in Maryland. But he encourages parents and guardians to reach out however they can—be it text, email, or phone.

“I am 100 percent open to any consistent form of communication,” says Sandy, whose school will begin the year remotely.

Is there such a thing as too much communication? Both Sandy and Diefenbach say possibly, but this can be easily avoided by respecting teachers’ time and acknowledging that they have outside lives and families as well. Establishing boundaries from the beginning—like what hour is too late for a teacher to take a call, or generally how long an educator needs to respond to a text—will help foster meaningful communication.

“I always let parents know that I am here, working with you, and not necessarily for you,” Sandy says. “Because if we work together, then we’ll get the best for your children.” (Here's how you can support your child's teacher—and vice versa.)

Whole-child approach

Communicating with teachers isn’t just a way to check in on your child’s upcoming assignments and general performance. It’s a way for educators to understand what’s going on in your child’s life beyond school. And that may only be possible through open communication between parents and teachers now that physical face time with children is limited.

“If we’re taking that whole-child approach,” Sandy says, “knowing parents and being connected to parents is so important, because it gives you a lens into what’s happening at home.”

For instance, simply understanding a child’s family dynamic might yield insight into whether they have access to help or educational resources outside of school. Or it can allow a teacher to adapt a lesson plan so that it can address a child’s individual struggles.

“All of those things play a role in me being able to get the most out of the student who’s in front of me,” says Sandy, who’s taught for 19 years.

Additionally, parents should feel comfortable talking with teachers about any technology concerns, how attentive their child is being during lessons, and their social-emotional well-being, Sandy says.

Even letting a teacher know how long it takes a child to complete lessons can be valuable information. When working remotely, Sandy says it’s a lot more difficult for teachers to sense when a student is struggling. It can also be tough to differentiate between what he calls “productive struggle”—working hard to get through a challenging problem—and a true inability to grasp a concept. Having another set of eyes on the situation makes parents and guardians an invaluable asset.

Perhaps the best thing parents and teachers can do for each other this school year is remember that everyone is just trying to make the best of a bad situation. That sometimes means understanding what not to communicate to teachers, lest parents add to educators’ stress.

For instance, “questioning mandated assignment content, giving unsolicited feedback about presentation methods, and telling us how we could have done a better job with the lesson” are all unproductive forms of communication, Sandy says.

“Letting us know that their child is struggling or did not understand is welcomed and necessary,” he adds. “However, lesson analysis unfortunately reinforces the myth that anyone can teach.”

Diefenbach also encourages parents to voice any concerns to teachers first before turning to other parents or community members, especially on social media. This builds both trust and respect.

“I just want parents to know that we're out here working hard to do the best that we can for your children,” Sandy says. “And we’re thinking way outside of the box to try to make sure that we meet every single need.”