Teaching Tips: Healthy parent-teacher communication

I wrote this post in reply to a question posted by a piano teacher. The original post looks something like this:

Dear teachers,

How would you react if a parent said:

"He (the student) is not practising. You need to encourage him."

"The lesson is supposed to be just for fun!"

"You need to find a special way to work with her (student) because she will only do it if she is interested and likes it... Use jokes or games."

"Our previous teacher did this in a different (better) way."

"You need to be strict with her. Don't let her to behave badly during the lesson".

At a glance, these seem like harsh, critical, even hilarious comments for a parent to make but these comments can be common and needn’t be perceived as a personal accusation or problem to a teacher! Here are a few things to bear in mind.

Parents love to help you 'navigate' their children!

Most parents love to talk about their kids. The underlying fact is this:

Parents want their child to be understood and cared for by others.

If a parent tells you that the child is having problems and you need to do ‘x, y and z’, it may feel like a direct (and personal) criticism… but most of the time it really isn’t! Parents are only trying to help you 'decode' the wonderful and curious human being they created... Perhaps they might be a little anxious about making sure that happens, or perhaps they’re not very good at explaining things. So maybe it all comes out wrong! As soon as they learn to trust you, they will relax. Pay attention to what they say and try not to feel under attack - their comments are often very useful!

Managing expectations

It's important that pupils and parents know what to expect from you, especially if that pupil or a sibling has already had lessons with another teacher. If a parent expects one thing, and you don't 'deliver', this can lead to frustration and disappointment. Here are three expectations you should make clear from the very start:

1. Set the tone. Decide how formal or informal the lesson will be. Speak to the child in the way you wish to be spoken to. You might prefer to be upbeat and fun, or your style might be more calming, or more formal… or your own unique blend!

2. Define practice expectations. Tell the pupil and parent how often you'd like them to practice, for how long. Explain what you want them to accomplish by the next time they see you and how they should do this. Monitor this and use positive reinforcement. When a child shows any sign of good effort, reward them! If a parent is helpful, don’t take it for granted - say, “thank you”!

Whatever you focus on, is what you'll get more of.

3. Be responsible for maintaining a relaxed open dialogue with parents. After each lesson, communicate with the parent. It needn't be a big deal. A simple 'well done', or 'please practise A major scale' might be enough. If verbal communication isn’t possible, a little note in an exercise book would suffice, supported by an occasional email or phone call. Then occasionally, if there's a need to say more, you've built that rapport and trust so neither you or the parent will be on their guard.

Remember that the parent is doing the best they can!

Sometimes parents want to help but don't know how... They sometimes get it wrong. They're only human... I can’t help thinking that really, we must all forgive each other much more often!

A little compassion goes a long, long, LONG way…