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New survey highlights parent-teacher problems
Teamwork Needed

Children are much more likely to succeed in school if their parents are actively involved in their education, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The center reports that children in both two-parent and single-parent families are more likely to earn high grades and less likely to repeat a grade or be suspended or expelled if parents take an active role.

A study released in June 2005 by MetLife Inc., however, indicates that new teachers often find the relationship with parents problematic at best.

Teachers vs. parents
The MetLife insurance company has conducted an annual, nationwide poll called the Survey of the American Teacher since 1984. The most recent survey, for the 2004-05 school year, focused on the relationships between new teachers (those with no more than five years experience) and other teachers, administrators, students and parents.

The teachers surveyed by MetLife recognized the importance of their relations with parents. About eight out of 10 strongly agreed that teachers must be able to work well with students' parents to be effective in their jobs.

Yet, to many, this goal seemed out of reach. New teachers identified communicating with and involving parents as the greatest challenge they face, and 20 percent described their relations with parents as somewhat or very unsatisfying. This was the highest degree of dissatisfaction reported for any teacher relationship.

One in five new teachers also reported that relationships with parents are their most significant source of on-the-job stress.

And in today's legal climate, adversarial relationships can have serious implications.

"Right now, teachers are running scared," said Cheramie Moore, a sixth-grade teacher at Wessendorff Middle School in Rosenberg, Texas. "We have many parents who come looking for a lawsuit. Teachers are very vulnerable."

Such attitudes can contribute to the persistent shortage of qualified teachers, according to the poll. Survey respondents who said they were likely to leave teaching were nearly twice as likely as other teachers to report unsatisfactory relations with parents (32 percent vs. 17 percent).

Preparing for parents
About a quarter of the new teachers cited in the MetLife survey felt that they are not prepared to engage with parents successfully, indicating they may not have received sufficient preparation on such contacts during their training.

"The pre-service education of teaching staff usually devotes maybe one class, if at all, to this whole business we call family involvement," said Frances Guzmán, an education associate with the Intercultural Development Research Association, a San Antonio nonprofit educational training and research group. "Usually, [it's] not even a class--it may be just a particular session in one of their classes."

And classroom training isn't enough, experts said.

"It's about on-the-job training," said Donna New Haschke, president of the Texas State Teachers Association. "You learn more as you talk to parents and as you progress in your own career. But I don't think anybody should expect that it's just natural to be able to talk to parents readily and successfully. It takes time."

Dr. Larry Abraham, chairman of the University of Texas at Austin (UT) College of Education's Department of Curriculum and Instruction, agreed.

"It's a matter of sitting down with [parents] and listening to what they have to say and helping them to see what the school and the teacher feel is really best for the kids," said Abraham.

Abraham said the best way to prepare teachers to work with parents is to have them experience the daily realities of the classroom.

"That's one of the reasons we send students who are preparing to be teachers into schools for many months, for years, to get as much exposure to what really goes on in schools," Abraham said.

Creating smooth parent-teacher relations can be particularly challenging in schools that serve large numbers of low-income and minority students.

The MetLife survey found that new teachers working in low-income areas are far more likely to describe parental relations as their biggest challenge (40 percent vs. 24 percent for teachers in schools with fewer low-income students).

And many low-income families are minority members as well. By contrast, the Census Bureau reports that in 2000, the nation's elementary and secondary teaching work force was 86.4 percent white.

To break down language or cultural barriers, Abraham said that UT teacher candidates sometimes provide tutoring and English as a Second Language classes for parents.

Lending parents a hand
Parents may be unwilling or unable to participate in their children's schooling.

"The traditional model has said, 'I care so much about my kids that I'm going to go to the school whenever anything happens,'" said Guzmán. "That's all well and good, but if I'm working three jobs, or if the school is only holding meetings during the day, that's not a good match right away."

Volunteers lend a hand in some communities.

"A lot of our kids come from single-parent homes, so as far as a lack of parental involvement, that's where we fit in," said Melissa Vela-Williamson, recruitment and public relations coordinator for Big Brothers Big Sisters of South Texas. "We kind of participate in the family unit.

"In our school-based program, a volunteer big brother or big sister meets their little brother or little sister at school once a week for about an hour, and during that time they're able to work on homework, or visit the library, play on the computer, use equipment in the gym--it's really up to them how they spend their time together," said Vela-Williamson. "But it has been proven that these relations have helped these children academically and emotionally."

Haschke said a partnership between parents and teachers is key.

"It's so critical to the children to know that their parents and their teachers care about them and that they're going to be working in tandem to make sure they get a good education," she said.

Bruce Wright