I dreamed I stood in a studio
and watched two sculptors there.
The clay they used was a young child's mind
and they fashioned it with care.

One was a teacher:
the tools she used were books and music and art.
One was a parent
with a guiding hand and gentle loving heart.

And when at last their work was done,
they were proud of what they had wrought.
For the things they had worked into the child
could never be sold or bought!

And each agreed she would have failed
if she had worked alone.
For behind the parent stood the school
and behind the teacher stood the home!

That endearing poem by Cleo V. Swarat is often used at kindergarten orientations, back-to-school nights and other occasions when educators meet with parents. It speaks to the actions parents want schools to take in regard to educating their children, and the actions teachers want parents to take to complement their efforts.

I offer the following observations on the relationships of schools and parents from a perspective as a teacher for six years, a K-12 principal for five years, a superintendent of schools for 23 years and now as an assistant professor in an education leadership program.

What teachers want from parents

Teachers want parents to work in partnership with them to help students become all that they are capable of becoming. What does that mean? How does it actually happen?

Educators would tell you that there are many things that parents could do to help kids and teachers to be more successful. Before a child begins school, parents could help their children immensely by doing simple but important activities such as reading to them, asking open-ended questions that cause children to think and problem-solve, encouraging them to write and tell stories, and learning number sense by counting everything.

Those activities would help all through elementary school. The work of teachers would also be enhanced if parents emphasized to children that learning is ongoing — even during summer vacations and continually exposed them to activities that caused learning.

But here are some even bigger wishes that teachers have, regardless of the grade level of students. First, teach social skills at home. Children of any age who are respectful, courteous, have a strong work ethic, and treat others with respect will help any classroom to be more successful. Reinforce the importance of homework and make sure students actually do it.

It is also greatly helpful to teachers if parents communicate with them. Let teachers know if your children are struggling with schoolwork or in relationships with other students or staff. If there are any issues that are preventing your children from doing their best with which teachers can help, let the teachers know.

There was another important point embedded in that last sentence. Parents can help their children immensely by instilling the value of continually doing their best at school and in any other endeavor. Whether children are taking care of a pet, tending a garden, playing a sport or learning an instrument, doing one's best is a virtue that facilitates maximum accomplishments, and that attribute can help kids do their best in school.

What parents want from teachers

What do parents want from schools? They want teachers to do their best. Parents expect teachers to be deeply knowledgeable in their field and to work hard. They don't expect teachers to be entertainers, but they do expect teachers to plan engaging, creative lessons that draw students in and generate a love of learning.

If students do homework, papers or projects, parents expect that work to be graded in a reasonable amount of time with insightful, constructive comments. Students' enthusiasm for working hard and parents' support of teachers decrease dramatically if the students' efforts are not met with the same or greater effort by teachers.

Teachers who put forth great effort to reach every child with interesting, relevant lessons are viewed with respect. Conversely, teachers who are viewed as lazy and who do minimal work to plan lessons or grade homework are generally regarded with disdain.

The greatest expectation of them all

Every year, Phi Delta Kappa does a survey assessing parents' attitudes toward schools. An expectation of parents that has been cited in the past and one that engenders tremendous confidence in public schools is that teachers treat kids with dignity and respect.

The belief by parents that teachers care deeply about their children creates much confidence in schools. Indeed, many, many lives have been positively changed due to a caring relationship between teachers and students.

Parents want and expect their children to be liked by teachers or, at the very least, treated as individuals and with respect. Conversely, teachers who are callous, sarcastic, mean or indifferent lose the respect of students and parents as does the school, in general.

What can the school do to help?

So, what can be done to bridge the gaps between the school and home and create a better working partnership? As in many other social relationships, both teachers and parents could work in better collaboration if they talked with each other (which often solves problems) rather than about the other (which typically results in hard feelings but no progress).

The burden of responsibility in the issue of communicating effectively lies primarily with schools. There are so many things that schools could do to communicate well that simultaneously demonstrate respect for parents and their children. Here are a handful of easy ideas that many schools already employ:

  • Post important information for parents on the school's website well in advance before parents ask about it.
  • Broadcast information via the parent mass communication system
  • Have teachers provide the syllabi for courses including the plans for grading
  • Hold informational nights to help parents better understand educational issues and how they can help their children be successful in school
  • Offer regular open forums for parents to address questions to school administrators and suggest ideas for improvement

With such an abundance of technology in most schools and homes, there is virtually no reason (other than disrespect or indifference) for inadequate communication with parents.

Communicate with reluctant parents

Teachers and school administrators should be mindful that some parents view themselves as inferior to teachers. Parents who are less well-educated than teachers are often reluctant to talk to teachers about their concerns. Therefore, schools should plan ways to engage those parents through home visits, phone calls, emails and face-to-face parent-teacher conferences.

The need to be proactive in reaching out to parents is particularly important with parents who don't speak English. Send information to those parents in their native language. Hire bilingual teachers or support staff if possible.

In the last district where I served as the superintendent, we found that holding parent nights just for the parents of English language learners and having their children act as translators was increasingly successful in engaging those parents to be partners with our efforts to educate their children.

Be diligent about meeting with parents whose children who may be floundering — even if the parents initially rebuff your efforts. Remember that the school and home working together can achieve remarkable results.

Educators should also remember that they educate the whole child. Offering workshops on how to prevent bullying, cyberbullying, drug use or date-rape, understanding the earning potential associated with higher education, the college admissions process, etc., that are of interest to parents helps them to be better parents and demonstrates that the school cares about them and their children.

Teachers and parents should be partners

Do the parents have any responsibility to communicate well with the school? Yes. Parents should start with their child's teacher, who can often resolve the problem. If you feel like you are not being taken seriously, talk with your child's principal. Likewise, if you think the curriculum should be strengthened or more programs for students should be added, talk with the appropriate school administrator.

Advocate to make your school an excellent one, rather than a mediocre one that merely attempts to achieve state-testing standards. Those state standards are important, of course, but they should be viewed as the floor of what a school could and should accomplish rather than the ceiling. In efforts to disagree with the status quo and advocate for excellence, remember the axiom of talking with someone rather than about them.

Let's read that poem again. It's clear that both the teacher and the parent have a critical role. The roles are different with each bringing a particular influence into the process.

Legions of lives have been changed for the better by caring teachers. Yet parents play an even bigger role in instilling values in their children — values that lead to success in school and life.

There is no room for complacency on the part of either teachers or parents. Both must continually put forth their best efforts. Proactive communication from both parties enhances their relationships and effectiveness.

The school's work is buttressed by the parents' work, and the parents' work is enhanced by the school's. In partnership, both the school and parents can help children become all that they are capable of becoming.