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September 2011

Parents and Teachers

Partners in Education

By M. Therese Gnezda, Ph.D.

Everything parents do offers children a chance to learn; for them, life is learning. From the day our children are born we, as parents, share their early learning experiences with them. We are the first people to know how they learn, what they know, what they are ready to learn and what motivates them to learn. It’s often said that we are our children’s first and most important teachers—and we are.

But once we enroll our children in an early childhood education program (day care, preschool or preK) or once they begin formal education in elementary school, our role in educating our children changes. We begin to share the responsibility for educating our children with their teachers. We intentionally become partners with the teachers in our children’s education.

The Partnership

A partnership between parents and teachers is built on trust and respect and geared toward a common goal. In this case, the goal is to promote the child’s education and healthy development. We respect the teachers for their expertise in working with children, their knowledge of child development and the guidance and support they can give us. The teachers respect us for our knowledge of our children, our love and commitment to them and our desire to give them a solid foundation for their education, growth and development. Communication that goes both ways, from parent to teacher and teacher to parent, is the key.

Communicating With Each Other

Last year, I was afraid of the teacher. I didn’t think she cared about talking to me, because her job was to teach Trisha, not to bother with me. I didn’t want to ask her how Trisha was doing because I thought it would seem like I was afraid Trisha wasn’t learning enough and that I was questioning her teaching. I was also afraid to tell her what I thought about how Trisha was doing in school and what she was ready to learn, because she might think I was one of those obnoxious parents who was trying to tell her how to teach and who thinks her child is a genius. But I need to know what Trisha’s life at school is all about. She’s still my little girl. This year I’m gonna try to get to know the teacher a little better. Really, all I want to know is how Trisha’s doing and what she’s learning so I can help her at home.

Sometimes it seems difficult to communicate, especially when parents and teachers see each other infrequently. However, there are several ways to open the lines of communication.

Taking children to school and picking them up offers an opportunity for informal, yet direct, contact between parents and teachers. This is a common way parents communicate with teachers in early childhood programs, but it doesn’t work for all parents, especially working parents, and it is unlikely to happen when children are in elementary school.
For working parents with children in early childhood programs and for parents of elementary-school children, rather than seeing the teachers on a daily basis, most of the contact is likely to be through phone calls, emails, written notes, report cards or conferences requested by the teacher or the parents. When parents and teachers are truly partners, they expect to communicate with each other, so it’s important to clarify the easiest way to get and stay in touch.

Partnership may be built on communication, but it is filled with expectations, too.

What Parents Expect from the Partnership

As parents, a fundamental expectation we have for teachers is that they work with our children so they will succeed in school. This includes an expectation that they will support our children’s natural curiosity about the world and love of learning. We hope the teachers will teach our children to find value in education and confidence in their own abilities to learn.

But we have more specific expectations, too. In early childhood programs, we expect teachers to help our children learn to get along with other children and teach them basic academics so they will be ready for kindergarten. In elementary school, we expect the teachers to teach our children to read and write and to teach them fundamental math concepts and skills. We also expect teachers to help our children learn to use their budding academic knowledge and skills to explore a wide array of subjects including science, social studies and the arts. We expect them to challenge our children as they grow and help them understand the relevance and usefulness of what they learn, striving toward increasingly complex thinking and learning. We also expect teachers to keep us up-to-date on what our children are learning and how they are doing in the program.

At our conference, the teacher told us that Hannah was very helpful in setting the tables for snack and that she has mastered the concept of one-on-one correspondence. Each day She places the correct number of napkins on the table for the number of children in the class. We were so proud!

What Teachers Expect from the Partnership

Teachers have expectations for us, too. Teachers expect parents to encourage their children to excel and to promote a positive attitude toward school. They also expect parents to support what they are teaching and what the children are learning at school, as Sarah’s parents do.

“Books” was the main topic of the week. The children were learning about the format of books, that illustrations and words represent ideas, how ideas progress from beginning to end. They were also learning vocabulary associated with books, such as people who write books are authors and people who create the pictures are illustrators. Sarah was excited by what she was learning and shared this with her parents. They responded not only by reading and discussing books at home but also by having her write her own book.

During a walk with her father, Sarah collected lots of pretty leaves. They talked about why the leaves were different colors and why they were falling off the trees. They had a lively conversation about fall. When they got home she made a book about fall. Using invented spelling she wrote down her ideas, one idea per page. She illustrated each page. Sarah couldn’t wait to take her book to school tomorrow to show her teacher. She proudly told her father,“I’m an author and an illustrator!”

Teachers also expect parents to help them understand their children. Often this involves parents sharing details of things happening in a child’s life that may affect the child’s attitudes and behaviors and have an impact on learning. As in the following example, teachers and parents learn a lot from each other.

Charlie, age 3, was having a hard time getting along with the other children. He hoarded toys, hit children who wanted to play with something he wanted and shunned their efforts to play with him. This behavior was unusual for Charlie. When the teacher mentioned it to his parents, they told her he was acting this way at home, too. His baby brother just started crawling and was getting into Charlie’s things. The parents were trying to get him to share, but he usually refused and threw a tantrum. He just wouldn’t share, but they were working on it. The teacher said Charlie was too young to understand the concept of sharing, and it was perfectly normal for him to get angry when someone else wanted to play with his things or something he was using. Together, they discussed how they might help Charlie overcome this problem.

Partners Are Resources for Each Other

We help teachers understand our children. As partners, parents and teachers are resources for each other. They share their knowledge of a child’s likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses and developmental progress. If they are truly partners, they will turn to each other with questions about the child and value each other’s knowledge and suggestions of how to handle things.

Rita’s parents were concerned because she wasn’t reading yet. She was 4 years old and would be off to kindergarten next year. They asked the teacher if she was behind the other children in her class. They also asked how to help Rita learn to read. The teacher reassured them that Rita was too young to really read (which would happen some time between 6 and 8 years old), but that she was well on way.

Rita was learning to recognize common words; she was learning letters and their sounds, and she knew lots of the basics of reading. She knew that we read from left to right and from top to bottom on a page, and that words are separated by spaces. Her teacher suggested that Rita’s parents continue to read with her at home and practice letters and sounds. She also suggested that they make labels with her to attach to items in her room, and practice “reading” the labels.

Teachers can reassure parents that their children are developing “normally,” but they can also alert them to any developmental concerns that should be discussed with their child’s pediatrician.

Connor’s teacher was concerned because he didn’t seem able to focus on any activities. He was always moving around, and often at storytime, when he was supposed to be listening, he’d blurt out something totally unrelated to what he was doing. The teacher suggested the parents have him evaluated for ADHD.

The Real Value of Partnership Is for the Children

More than anyone else, our children benefit from our partnerships with their teachers. As partners, we acknowledge each other’s importance in the child’s education and work together to lay the foundation for our child’s future success. We help each other to better know our children, and as partners, we always work toward the goal “to promote the child’s education and healthy development.”


M. Therese Gnezda, is an early childhood consultant and conducts parenting education workshops in the Washington, D.C., area.