02/20/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Changing Relationships With Parents and Students

I asked myself, "Why should the parents of my black students want to attend a teacher-parent conference?" My answer was they shouldn't and often don't. The reason was that the teachers spent all the time "proving" why their children were not up to par (inferior).

I realized that I had to change the balance of power in the conference. I had to make the parents feel that what they felt and thought were equally important to my observations and limited paper proof. I admitted that my knowledge of their child based on the dubious value of some tests, some student work, and my observations were minor compared to what they could bring to the conference based on their years of living with that child.

Instead of telling them all the negative things about their child that many teachers had been taught to do, I greeted them in a comfortable, friendly fashion and then gently encouraged them to tell me about their family. What did they do for fun? What were some of the best moments they had with their child? What did they see in the future for him?

By demonstrating that I genuinely was interested in them and their life (which I was) they gradually relaxed, became friendly, and poured out their hearts. Most said it was the first time that anyone had let them talk about their child.

Once this moment occurred I could ask them questions about how they dealt with any problems they had with him and what they expected me to do if their child broke school rules. By this time we were working together to help each other provide the best possible climate for educating their child.

The child was always included and his input was also considered. Seeing how his parents and I cooperated later made it possible for me to help him by a simple call to home (if necessary). Most of the time the rapport established was so proactive that I had few problems with him. Usually a smile, a word of caution, or a strong look was all that was necessary to get his cooperation.

I also began the practice of having a parent meeting for all the parents within the first few days of school. In that meeting I would outline my year's goals and how I planned to do them. I had many different techniques that bothered some people so they had the chance to remove their child to a class with a teacher that they felt better reflected their values. This was another way I demonstrated my respect for their beliefs and it left me with parents who allowed me to teach with the greatest amount of freedom.

I didn't have this option, but I suggest that teachers meet with parents the week BEFORE school begins. This would give them the chance to get to know the parents and their child, develop rapport, and have a clearer picture of their class before school started. It would make their planning a better fit with the composition of each unique class. This could be voluntary, but the teachers should be paid for this. It would eliminate the need for two weeks of partial school that occurs during conferences. With the rapport established the teacher could just periodically send home a brief letter explaining where the child is in the different subjects. (Better yet is all of his work would be in a computer with periodic printouts sent home, which might show the need for a conference.)

I also sent home on Fridays what had happened in class during the week and what we were going to do (generally) the next week. This gave the parents constant updates and equally important something to use to ask questions and discuss what was happening in class. It eliminated the -- "What happened in school today?' -- "Nothing!" that so frustrates parents.

On Friday, I also sent home much of the child's independent work so there would be no surprises if I needed to ask the parents in to discuss lack of progress.

I was transparent and willing to share power -- I always said, "Joe is YOUR child, I'm only borrowing him for a year, so your opinion on what I do with and for him is important to me." Then, I proved I meant it.

I had unbelievable support from minority and all parents during my forty-five years in classrooms in four different school systems. It was a paradigm shift in my attitude that enabled parents to share in their child's education. Schools say they want parent involvement, but what they offer is telling the parents what the schools want them to think and do. The schools dictated the parents' role.

I offered them a new way of viewing their role. It was based on their honest input and I responded to that. I didn't always do what every parent requested, but if I didn't, they knew exactly why I disagreed and we found ways to compromise. Seldom did a parent leave without feeling that their feelings and opinions were very important. That is a paradigm shift.

If more teachers understood this and took the freedom to operate in this manner, it would lead to the kind of academic freedom for teachers that would cause a dramatic shift in how students learned.