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Reach the Teach

© Victoria Alexandrova | Dreamstime.com

When it comes to getting in touch with my children’s teachers, I tend toward the low tech. I send in a handwritten note or wait for the tried-and-true parent-teacher conference.

I figure teachers don’t use e-mail that much. When would they have time? They don’t even have a computer at their desks.

But other parents tell me I’m wrong. Teachers are right on top of responding to parent e-mails.

Kelly Hernandez, a Baldwinsville mother, said when her husband shipped out to Afghanistan earlier this year, she thought it was important for her children’s teachers to know. Her eldest is in middle school, so that meant more than one teacher to contact.

Hernandez sent a personal note to each one, and the teachers sent e-mail messages back thanking her for the information or told her daughter to pass on their appreciation.

She just dropped an e-mail to her son’s second-grade teacher, who had asked for parent input via e-mail. That teacher also responded right away.

OK, I guess I should try it.

Standing on the sidelines at a recent soccer game, several moms discussed communicating with teachers. Shannon Austin, of Baldwinsville, says she doesn’t hesitate to use e-mail to reach her 8-year-old son’s teacher. Another mom nodded in agreement and said once she e-mailed a teacher and got a response within two hours. Still another mom said she likes to just pick up the phone and call.

Justine Vehrs, a reading-English teacher at Fulton’s G. Ray Bodley High School, says, “E-mail is a great way for parents to get in touch with me.” She has a computer on her desk and uses it for attendance at the start of each class. But she prefers to contact parents by telephone. “I just find it quicker and more effective to call and check in with some parents.”

Vehrs teaches 43 freshmen in two reading programs at the school. Her goal this year is “to communicate with parents and make a connection,” she says, and she calls five to 10 parents each week. Once students enter high school, parents don’t hear much from teachers unless there’s a problem, she notes. “I am going to try to make them positive phone calls.”

Since she’s teaching freshmen, Vehrs realizes she may see these students in class again as they proceed to graduation. She hopes to build positive relationships with the students and their parents.

Later this fall, Vehrs’ school will introduce MyGradeBook.com for students and parents to check on grades and assignments completed during the year. Several other Central New York schools are already using this program, which allows parents and children to log on to check grades and assignments posted by teachers.

“That’s certainly offering a new way for parent and teacher to connect and find out what’s going on,” Vehrs explains.

At my children’s former school, the teachers suggested parents send in a note or leave a message in the office with a good time for the teacher to telephone the parent with a question. That system worked well, too.

The sideline moms also discussed the various logs or homework journals some teachers use to let parents know what work is required each night. In my son’s log, there’s a space every day for a message from the parent, who also has to sign that the work was done. One mother said her son’s class has an assistant teacher who goes through all the homework folders each day and looks for parent notes to make sure they get a quick response.

The annual parent-teacher conference is always an interesting experience. Each year I wonder: Does the teacher see my child as I do? Do the teachers recognize how wonderful they are? Do the teachers see how stubborn or pouty they can be?

So far, the teachers seem to emphasize the good and take any pouting in stride. I also think my kids save the worst behavior for the home front, which is supposed to mean they feel safe and secure to express any negativity to their father and me. How nice.

I find it helpful to make a list of questions to ask the teacher during the conference because it’s easy to get distracted by other information. It also reminds me to interrupt before the time runs out if I want my question answered in person that day. Teachers usually seem to welcome the inquiries or insights my husband and I offer.

The National Education Association, an organization that supports teachers, offers specific ways to phrase questions to teachers when parents seek help with a problem involving their child. The NEA Web site (www.nea.org/parents/talkingtoteachers.html) includes advice for discussing bullying on the bus, a bad test grade and missing too much school due to illness. The Web site sponsored by Education World (www.education-world.com), a resource for teachers, also provides tips on what teachers would like parents to know and what parents would like teachers to know.

Joining in classroom activities can help parents get to know the teacher, and students, better, too. It’s great to put a face with a name when passing out cookies at a birthday celebration or helping make valentines in February. When teachers offer sign-up sheets for events throughout the year, it makes it easier to schedule time to be available in the class or for a field trip.

Maybe part of my hesitation in talking with teachers goes back to being a student. You know, the teacher is in charge, how can I talk to her? The irony: I’m a teacher, too.         

Eileen Gilligan is a professor of journalism at SUNY Oswego where she encourages students to ask lots of questions.

© Family Times: The Parenting Guide of Central New York