Tips for communicating with your child’s school

By Amy Landsman
The mom from Timonium was furious. Her sixth-grade son had been bullied, but the Baltimore County middle school both boys attend responded to the abuse by putting the bully as well as her son on a one-day suspension.
Angry that her son was punished, the mom arranged a meeting with the assistant principal.
“I think the chain of command is okay, but I disagree with the assistant principal who made the decision to suspend him. I just think that’s very shortsighted,” she describes, asking that her name not be used.
“She did not give [my son] too much of an opportunity to speak up. She kept putting words in his mouth… at that point, he was beaten down. He wasn’t going to argue with her,” recalls the mom.
Unhappy with the decision, the mom appealed the suspension.
“That’s when they said I had to go to the principal,” she says, adding that she had kept records of her conversations and email exchanges with the school personnel.
Contact and communication with your child’s school is an ongoing process. And there’s a right and a wrong way to make your voice heard.
Angrily demanding to see the principal wouldn’t have done the Timonium mom much good. Instead, she remained levelheaded enough to do the right thing—she contacted the correct person in the chain of command. She only went to a higher level when they couldn’t agree, and she kept records of the proceedings.

Go to the Teacher
Frayed relationships between parents and schools will always occur, but these days, most administrations prefer to make an effort to partner with the families.
“Typically what we recommend to parents is that the first point of contact is always the classroom teacher. She is kind of ‘mission control.’ She is the one who literally has her finger on the pulse of the child’s school experience.” says Noreen Lidston, head of the lower school at the McDonogh School, an independent school in Owings Mills.
Even if your child is having trouble in art or physical education, Lidston urges families to touch base with the homeroom teacher first, because she can “play an important role in terms of mediating an issue that involves another teacher.”
According to Lidston, it’s a common mistake for parents to contact an administrator without telling the teacher about the problem first.
Also, Lidston finds that sometimes parents will come to her with a complaint, but they will not let her talk to the teacher about it.
“I really have my hands tied, if I’m going to honor my word and not say anything. Sometimes it’s useful background [information], but most often it means I’ve been made unavailable to help… If the parent comes in and says, ‘Here’s my problem with the teacher. What should I do?,’ then I can offer the parent some guidance or offer information the parent may not be aware of. That way, I feel I’m being helpful.”
“There is a process,” agrees Dr. Ronald Valenti, superintendent for the Catholic Schools for the Archdiocese of Baltimore. “If a parent has an issue, the first thing you do is address it with the teacher. If you’re not satisfied, you go to the principal… Going right to the top many times does not really help the situation.”

Special Circumstances
There are a couple of extra points to consider if you have a child with special needs who has an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or accommodations in the classroom (a 504 plan). IEPs and 504 Plans are legal documents the school and the parents or guardians sign, and there’s a process you need to go through before making changes. Meetings between families and the school are called team meetings.
“If you see that perhaps the IEP isn’t addressing the need as well as it should be, you need to call for a team meeting and revisit the issue…Parents have the right to call for a team meeting whenever [they feel it’s necessary]. You don’t want to overwhelm the school. You try to use [your right] judiciously,” says Jan Thomas, chair of the Special Education Citizen’s Advisory Committee for the Baltimore County Public Schools.
Email communication, as well, should also be used with care.

Be Careful with Email
“I’m a great believer in email, because it makes life a lot easier. [But] you also have to remember it’s a little like the boy who cried wolf. If you overwhelm [the teacher], it loses its significance,” says Thomas. “You have to decide what’s important and what’s not. I had one parent who, before December, had sent the school over 200 emails. There was an issue, but that would be exhausting to anybody.”
While email is terrific for many things, notes Lidston—such as posting digital shots of a class field trip the same day—there is a downside.
“You can fire off an emotional email that you may regret later on,” she says. “If you need back and forth communication, which needs a tone of voice, sometimes it’s difficult to read in an email the level of emotion… For sensitive matters, in person or on the phone is the best way to go.”
And email isn’t appropriate for everything. Don’t email that you’re picking up your child early for a dentist appointment or that the child will be walking home with a friend instead of riding the bus, because the teacher may not check the email until the class day is over.
While all this emailing between home and school can be effective, not to mention convenient, it does raise the issue of boundaries. McDonogh asks parents to give teachers 24 hours to respond to an email. Other schools also beg parents to please cut the teachers a little slack.
“Just because you have access doesn’t mean it’s going to be instantaneous,” Valenti points out.
Along with email, technology in general has had an enormous impact on the relationship between schools and families.
“Communication is so crucial,” observes Valenti, adding that “parking lot conversations” just don’t cut it in this day and age.
In fact, the 89 schools within the Baltimore Archdiocese use a secure web-based system called PowerSchool to keep in touch with parents.
“Every parent is given an account,” he says.
Parents can access their child’s profile, see whether work has been handed in, view teacher comments, and monitor his or her grades.
“If there’s a situation that the parent wishes to address, the parent can go by email and the teacher can respond by email,” Valenti notes.
Sometimes, schools must walk a fine line with the issue of communication, for instance, how the school should share information with divorced or separated parents.
“We say, ‘We’re going to share as much as we can with everybody,’” says Lidston. “If there’s a restraining order or where there is to be no contact, there is no communication from the school. In a divorce situation, we try to be fair and open. Sometimes, it’s a lot of work.”
As for the Timonium mom, the whole episode of her son being bullied left a bad taste in her mouth. The back-and-forth negotiations over her son’s suspension were “very time consuming,” and she still feels the issue was never properly resolved. BC

Tips for communicating with your child’s school:
•Contact the teacher first.
•Don’t over-use email.
•Keep records of conversations.
•If you’re not satisfied, take your concerns to a higher level.

© Baltimore’s Child Inc. November 2008 (article originally printed September 2007 in Baltimore’s Child.)

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