I am looking forward to my first teaching job, but I’m concerned about how parents will react to my being a “newbie” in the science department. Will this be an issue? What can I do to start off the year on a positive note? My nightmare is that all of the parents will request their children be assigned to a more experienced teacher.
—Michael, Richmond, Virginia
First of all, don’t ever apologize for being a first-year teacher. Everyone has to start somewhere, and the fact that you’re concerned means you’re not taking a casual approach to your preparations. Even experienced teachers have nightmares!
I suspect most parents will be very supportive of your efforts. You do have some strong points: you may have new ideas in science instruction and assessment from your college or university teacher training program, you’re probably tech-savvy, and you should be up-to-date on recent science topics in your subject area. It sounds like you’ll be in a secondary situation, so your energy and enthusiasm should connect with students. You don’t have a lot of bad habits to unlearn, either.
Be aware that other adults may play important roles in your students’ lives: guardians, step-parents, grandparents or other relatives, foster parents, and other caregivers. When you use the word “parent” you should consider all of these possibilities.
Communicating with parents early and often is key to developing a positive working relationship. Along with the safety contract you send home at the start of the year, include a course overview and introduce yourself. Focus on your training, background, and other related experiences you had in your field (internships, research projects, volunteer work, or extracurricular activities) that you’ll draw on to relate science to student interests and career goals.
Also let parents know how to contact you through your school email address and phone number (don’t share your personal phone number unless you really want people calling or texting you at all hours!). Be realistic and upfront with parents: “I am teaching from 8:00 until 3:00. I will be glad to return your calls and respond to emails before or after these times.” And then do so promptly.
Take the initiative and contact parents with good news about their child through a postcard, email, or phone call. Share information about an activity the student is doing in class or a project he or she is working on. Some teachers forward photos of the student engaged in a classroom activity (I’d be cautious about having other students identifiable in the photo because of privacy issues). This may sound like a lot of work, but if you do several each day, it becomes part of your routine. You’ll eventually find that you have several templates for this communication that can be customized for each student. Parents appreciate hearing good news! And you’ve opened the door for additional communications.
A class website or blog can also be used to communicate with parents.
Save copies of any written communications you have with parents and document any phone or face-to-face conversations. These notes will be helpful if you do run into a situation with a challenging parent. If you feel that a parent meeting will be confrontational, you can ask your principal, mentor, or another colleague to be present.
Present yourself as a professional in your actions, your appearance, and the way you speak. Find a teacher in your school who has successful relationships with parents and use him or her as a role model.
My recurring nightmare about teaching was showing up on the first day totally unprepared—in a different school with no lesson plans, no materials, no schedule, and no classroom. Fortunately, this dream never came true, but I worked hard to be over–prepared just in case!
For more on working with parents, check out a previous blog on Science and Families. For more on challenges issues facing beginning science teachers, take a look at the NSTA Press book Rise and Shine: A Practical Guide for the Beginning Science Teachers.