How can parents tell if their child's teacher is doing a good job? Sometimes parents' ideas are misinformed. Ed World's "Principal Files" team members offer their perspective. Included: Look at the work students bring home and "the hard sell."
Principal Pat Green recognizes that "every parent -- regardless of his/her social, economic, or educational background -- sends their very best child to school each year." But some of those children come to school with lots of baggage. "Some haven't developed solid reading, writing, or math habits yet," said Green. "Some aren't very motivated to perform in school. Others are great kids from homes where a significant adult has helped nurture them and prepare them to be good learners."
Regardless of the homes from which students come, Green added, every one of them usually has at least one person who cares.
"Even when our students do not have a parent who is engaged in their lives or focused on their success in school, many of them have a significant adult, maybe two or more," she said. "That's why we try to focus on families rather than just parents when it comes to helping adults know that we are doing a good job teaching their children."
But just how do those parents or other caring adults know for sure that a teacher is doing a good job? That's the question Education World posed to our "Principal Files" principals.
A complete list of the "principal" contributors to this article can be found at the end of this article.
"When I look at some of the teachers I consider my best teachers, they all connect with kids as individuals," added Green. "They understand that they first teach students, and then they teach the subjects those students need to master. You can't teach students without first knowing who they are, what makes them tick. It's easy to teach a subject, but it's hard to be a teacher of students who are also learning about the subject.
"Excellent teachers know each student's strengths and limitations and they build upon both. Their students know that they care about them as people and about their success in the future."
Those qualities are not just the qualities of super teachers, Green added. "They're the qualities I find in 95 percent of the teachers with whom I work every day. A good part of the rest of my time is spent encouraging the other 5 percent to reach that same level of engagement."
Open house nights and other back-to-school events offer parents an opportunity to meet their kids' teachers. At those events, the pressure is on. Teachers want to make good impressions; and parents' first impressions are often those that stick. Indeed, the ability to communicate and to make a good first impression is among the skills principals look for when they hire new teachers.
"Parents will be impressed if you have a good grasp of what you are teaching and a lot of specific information about their child," said principal Chris Rose. "If parents sense you really don't know their kid, then they figure you don't know much of anything else you're telling them."
Principal Margaret Morales agreed. "Parents will surely know when teachers are doing a good job by the information they share about the academic, social, and emotional development of the child," she told Education World. "Teachers who are doing a good job keep accurate and up-to-date anecdotal records on every child and share that information with parents. They show where growth is evident and where more growth needs to take place."
"All in all," Chris Rose added, "it is amazing how often parents' opinions of teachers match my own. And I have a lot more information on which to base my judgments."
"How parents feel after first meeting a teacher means an awful lot," agreed principal Les Potter, but, he said, in truth parents are more influenced by soft impressions -- including other parents' opinions -- than by reality. "Parents have a tremendous influence on other parents, but they don't generally know if a teacher is really doing a good job or not. Instead, teachers get rated by parents on the basis of their childrens' comments about teachers being fun, caring, and interesting.
"I don't believe most parents put stock in test scores, grades, and other measures. Did my kid like the teacher? means more than test scores. It's more of a popularity contest.
"I have had parents request a teacher even though that teacher left our school two years before. Those parents never checked; they just heard good things about that teacher and made up reasons why she would fit their child's learning style.
"Often, parents who are involved in the parent-teacher association or booster club feel they have an inside edge in placing their child in the best teacher's classes. But since becoming an administrator in 1977 I have rarely, if ever, had a parent ask my opinion of whether or not a teacher was good."
Of course, every caregiver must recognize that first impressions can be wrong. Even the best teachers have off days now and then, said principal Martha Wingate. "The most popular teachers are the ones who acknowledge their good and bad days, and use their bad days as opportunities to demonstrate to their students how to work through things," she said. "And they acknowledge that every student may have an off day as well."
Pat Green encourages parents to get first-hand information about how good their children's teachers are. "Go see for yourself what is happening in your child's class," she tells them. "Don't rely on your neighbor's perceptions or your own memory of what Mrs. Jones was like when you had her as your sixth-grade teacher."
Principal Tim Messick agrees that parents' first impressions are not always accurate ones. "As parents, we are often looking for the Jack or Jill of all for our children," he said. "I see it as part of my job to help parents understand those things that are really key to their child's success in school. I make a point of selling many of the great things that are happening throughout our program. I believe it is important to tell parents rather than to simply rely on their observations or what they hear from others.
"I want to tell my parents so they have the facts, and so they can speak with one another based on information I pass along."
Messick also encourages his teachers to use their sales skills. "Sell yourself!" he urges them. "A lot of exciting and dynamic teaching and learning is taking place inside our classroom walls, but no one is around to see it or to experience what is going on. You are a professional, so share your passion. Invite administrators and colleagues and parents to partner with you throughout the year. Tell your story!"
That theme of communicating clearly and often with parents was sounded by almost every member of the Principal Files team. Without a doubt, communication with parents is the key ingredient in good teaching and in ensuring parent interest and involvement. "The best teachers are proactive in communicating with parents," said principal Deborah Harbin. "To win parents over, you have to let them know what you're doing, what your class is working on, and how their children are doing. The communication might be in the form of a class newsletter. It might take the form of a phone call home.
"The best teachers never surprise parents. Parents always know how their child is doing in class. That means that teachers grade papers in a timely fashion, ask for signatures on schoolwork with low grades, and follow up quickly on concerns."
"I find more parents are concerned with how you treat their children than how well you cover the assigned curriculum," added Chris Rose. "Teachers need to make time to talk to parents. We are all busy, and we sometimes begrudge the time it takes to have good parent communication -- especially for that teacher who has five classes of 30 students -- but we must remember that to the parents, their one child is the most important one in that class."
"A teacher who has a good relationship with students is likely to be a regular parent informant," agreed principal Nina Newlin. "That information might arrive by telephone, email, or snail mail, but the genuine concern and caring of the teacher will be obvious. The caring teacher will have positive things to say about classroom events and the students she teaches, even if she has to call about a behavior infraction or an academic concern."
"The best teachers I've seen write regular notes or emails, or make telephone calls, to keep parents informed about what is going on at school -- whether it is good, bad, or somewhere in between," confirmed principal Margaret Morales.
"Teachers contact parents by phone if there is a problem -- or if there is good news to report," said principal Martha Wingate. "They know that the faster they connect with parents, the more likely those parents are to respond positively -- as part of the team, not as adversaries."
One of the things that all teachers do at Wingate's school is to sit down with parents early in the year to share students annual test results. "Teachers, parents, and students meet together to discuss individual goals and how to reach them," she said. "We also provide workshops for parents so they'll know what we're talking about."
"One of the easiest ways for parents to know if their child's teacher is effective or not is to ask their child," suggested principal Lee Yeager. "Many students have a good sense of what makes a good teacher. They are often the most astute evaluators.
"The child might tell their parent that Mrs. Jones takes the time to explain things to me; she does fun activities with us in class; she makes the other students behave so that we can all learn and work; or she is always happy. Those are just a few examples of statements students might make about teachers that would let a parent know their child's teacher is doing a good job."
"In order for the parents to think well of a teacher, it sure helps if the kids think well of her," agreed Chris Rose. "They might complain that the teacher is a hard taskmaster, but the parents can see through that one. But if the kids say the teacher is mean, shows favorites, or won't listen to their side of the story, then the first impression the parents have will be negative."
Principal Nina Newlin offers parents some questions they might ask to discern how good their teacher is. "A parent might ask the child how his teacher feels about students in the class; if the teacher likes the kids, your child will know it -- even if that teacher occasionally gets angry with them.
"To learn how a teacher manages her classroom, a parent might ask questions such as What does Mrs. Black do when someone talks back to her? or How does Mr. Brown handle students who aren't paying attention? The child's answers should indicate the teacher's firm, fair response. The teacher will not put down or embarrass students in front of their peers.
"Kids will be surprisingly honest about what goes on in the classroom, and parents can get a clear picture of the type of teacher their child has by asking those questions."
Pat Green's advice to parents is to "Engage your child in a discussion that goes beyond What did you do in school today?" Most kids will answer that question with a single word: Nothing. But parents can probe deeper. Even if school wasn't particularly positive for the parents, they shouldn't let their old memory tapes shade their view of their child's school experience."
To ensure that students will be successful in school, "parents need to look for indicators of school bonding," said principal Mary Smith. "Talk of friends, enthusiasm about school, and a sense of belonging to a class and the school are indicators of that."
They also need to look for signs of academic engagement, added Smith. By looking at the work their child brings home from school, they can often see indicators that he or she "is becoming an independent learner and assuming age-appropriate responsibility for personal success."
Nina Newlin also encourages parents to look at the assignments their children are getting. "Do those assignments just ask for rote memory answers, or is higher-order thinking called for?" she said, suggesting, "There should be a balance of both of those kinds of questions."
Parents can tell a lot about a teacher's curriculum by looking at the work their children bring home, said Tim Messick. "If teachers present a curriculum that has real-life connections and actively engages kids, and if those kids can articulate at the end of the day some of the exciting learning they have experienced, parents will be very happy."
Some of the teachers in Messick's school even set aside a few minutes at the end of each day for students to reflect on what they've learned. "That reflection period can take the form of a teacher-led discussion, or it can be a time when students actually write about what they've learned that day," said Messick. Setting aside a time for students to broadcast or "community-share" their thoughts about what they've learned before they head out at the end of the day can set them up with ready-made responses at home when the dinner-table conversation turns to What did you learn in school today?
"Parents should also expect to see assignments marked and returned promptly," said Chris Rose. "If it is obvious that only the students are doing the work, it creates a very negative impression. If that's the case -- if the parents don't think the teacher is doing his job -- maybe they're right."
Many principals feel that putting out the welcome mat is essential to making sure parents have a clear view of their schools and the teachers in them. "It is well known that when teachers and parents work together, children learn more," said Pat Green.
Green encourages parents at her school to "visit the school, watch your child in action in the classroom, see with your own eyes what the teachers do every day to help your child succeed, become a partner with the school."
She also encourages parents to volunteer to help at school. "They'd be amazed at how many things there are for volunteers to do at school, even during the evening and on weekends!" she added.
Chris Rose feels the same way. Of course, he told Education World, "If your room looks inviting, it will make an impression. If it looks like a prison visiting-room, forget it."
"Many parents want to be involved, but they don't know how to be," said principal Mary Smith. "Good teachers take the responsibility for letting them know how."
For sure, the criteria that parents use to judge teachers effectiveness can be wide ranging, said principal Layne Hunt. "Those criteria can range from how the teacher makes the student feel by simply saying hello everyday to the rigorous nature of the work the teacher assigns," he said. "Of course, there are objective measures too -- such as test scores, student grades, and the percent of students who go on to higher-level courses."
No matter what measure is used, the implications can be significant for the teacher, added Hunt. "A quality instructor can be deemed a not-so-successful teacher if enough parents promote their perception of her negative attitude; and a poor instructor can be deemed by students to be an outstanding teacher if she really motivates them to want to learn even if her level of content knowledge is limited. That is why the task of teaching is both an art and a science."
Chris Rose remembers what one teacher told him in an interview when he asked her about her approach to classroom management. "She said her theory was that she would treat her students the way she would like to have her children treated," explained Rose. "I have to agree; if teachers treat parents the way they would like to be treated, they will have gone a long way to ensuring their support and respect."
"The ultimate way a parent will know if a teacher is doing a great job," added Deborah Harbin, "is if that child is happy about coming to school."
Principal Tim Messick put that in a little more personal perspective: "Although it is over-simplified, I have shared this philosophy with new members of my staff: If teachers are happy, children will be happy. If children are happy, parents will be happy. If parents are happy, the principal will be happy."
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