- The Washington Times - Monday, October 13, 2003

Mary Tycz of Falls Church remembers a time when she and her son’s teacher didn’t see eye to eye.

She says her son, now a student at Jeb Stuart High School in Falls Church, felt stressed over his workload but that his teacher didn’t see the problem.

A school psychologist eventually intervened to reduce the student’s stress, pleasing both Ms. Tycz and the teacher.

It doesn’t always go so smoothly.

The lines of communication between teacher and parent can be as fuzzy as a bad cell-phone call. Differing schedules, varying workloads and a parent’s defensive tendencies can lead to conflicts that aren’t in the child’s best interest.

Ms. Tycz says her aggressive approach to her son’s situation brought about the satisfactory ending.

“We were miles apart on our perception of the way my child was feeling,” she says of the early stages, adding that some school officials initially took her as an “overwrought” parent. “The school psychologist spoke, and [school officials] believed her immediately.”

Not all parents follow through as she did, Ms. Tycz says.

She occasionally hears a fellow parent bemoan how a teacher didn’t respond to parental concerns, Ms. Tycz says, but in those cases, the parents stopped at the teacher.

“In my case, I went up the rung in terms of supervisory [personnel],” she says.

The nature of a parent’s work schedule also can factor into communication breakdowns.

Bob Anastasi, executive director of the Montgomery County Business Roundtable for Education in Rockville, says any dispute between parent and teacher often can be blamed on overlapping schedules.

“The time the parent has to talk is different than when the teacher also can talk,” says Mr. Anastasi, who worked as a principal and teacher in the Montgomery County School District for 25 years.

Even if a parent’s and teacher’s hours line up, difficulties remain.

“You think you can call the parent at work, but a lot of parents aren’t at offices. They have different kinds of jobs,” he says.

“I think we need to look at it more creatively and make some adjustments,” Mr. Anastasi says. He suggests that schools consider altering teachers’ work schedules to allow one day a week when they come in later than normal so they can communicate with parents after the parents’ 9-to-5 workday ends.

Mr. Anastasi says a more recent communication concern in Maryland is a growing immigrant population, adding language and dialect barriers into the mix.

Michael Doran, principal of Thomas S. Wooten High School in Rockville, says each side should take part of the blame when communication fails.

“Most parents don’t want a call from school. It’s worse than getting a call from the IRS,” he says. “It’s not good news, normally.”

Mr. Doran suggests that teachers make it clear to the parents that they’re both on the same side.

“We’re not out to get the kid; we’re going to solve this and not just blame,” he says. “Good kids can make mistakes… We’re not labeling them a troublemaker. That’s what [parents] fear.

“Sometimes, maybe, the thing we can work on is the timely passing on of information when students aren’t doing well,” Mr. Doran says. Teachers shouldn’t wait until a student is failing to warn his or her parents that a problem is brewing, he adds.

Parents, in turn, shouldn’t bury their heads in the proverbial sand when problems exist at home, Mr. Doran says.

Often the best way to open the lines of communication is simply to show up.

Parent Howard Tutman III, president of the Prince George’s County Council of PTAs, says teachers should welcome parents into their school buildings.

Such an open-door policy can work, assuming a parent gives a teacher a heads-up before he or she drops by, says Mr. Tutman, a Mitchellville, Md., resident who has a sixth-grade child attending Woodmore Elementary there.

“Let teachers know that you have a vested interest in the school,” he says.

Christine Sills, a science resource teacher at Francis Scott Key Elementary School in the District, learned through trial and error some of the best ways to reach her students’ parents.

The seven-year teaching veteran says she prepares materials for parents in several forms, from handouts to in-person speeches, to make sure they understand her rules and perspectives.

Ms. Sills adds that she puts everything in writing and always has extra forms at the ready to give to a curious parent.

The advent of e-mail is making communication that much easier for both parents and teachers. Ms. Tycz says an information sheet, including teachers’ e-mail addresses, is passed out at every Back-to-School Night.

“Voice mail is not the best,” she says. “You get people leaving 20-minute messages.”

Mr. Doran says e-mail avoids telephone tag games, which can bog down quickly.

With e-mail, “they don’t even have to respond. It’s cleaner and quicker. The parents all have our e-mail addresses, and we have most of theirs,” he says.

“There’s still a place for talking and meeting … All direct contact shouldn’t be e-mail,” Mr. Doran adds.

Linda Hodge, president of National PTA, headquartered in Chicago, says the best way to avoid conflict is to have parents and teachers meet before the school year begins.

“First, you get to know the parents before there’s an issue,” Mrs. Hodge says. “That cuts out 75 percent of the problem. Then, parents see you as an ally.”

Teachers, in turn, should give parents constructive criticism of their children, not generalizations.

“Focus on the child’s behavior, not the child,” Mrs. Hodge says.

Discipline and homework matters cause the most ruckus between teacher and parent, followed by attendance issues, she says. It doesn’t have to be that way.

Her advice to parents? At the beginning of the school year, “go find out what the discipline policies are, what the homework policies are, then sit down with the teacher and chat about them before the problem happens, so you know what steps you’re going to take,” Mrs. Hodge says.

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