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It's about that time, parents: Back to backpacks, lunch boxes, homework... maybe even back to your sanity. But as you tuck in shirts and comb down cowlicks in anticipation of meeting new teachers, remember: you have an impression of your own to make. This year, will you be the parent that teachers love? You'll have to do more than give them Starbucks gift cards at the end of the year.
“The most important thing parents can do to get off on the right foot with a teacher is to show up on the first day of school with an attitude of optimism and trust," Jessica Lahey, a teacher and the author of "The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed," told TODAY Parents. "Let that teacher know that you view him or her as partner." Lahey said that teachers can feel when parents are on their team, and they "are more likely to invest their time, energy, and good will into members of their own team.”
Every teacher interviewed for this story echoed Lahey's sentiment about the importance of partnership, but what does being a good partner to your child's teacher mean in practical terms?
1. Respect teachers as human beings and as professionals.
"I really love parents that appreciate we are human and that we genuinely care and want what is best for their child's academic success," said Sara Conway, a first grade teacher from Winter Springs, Florida. "Give us the benefit of the doubt when your kid comes home with some unjust story or gets in trouble for something. Hear us out."
"Do not disparage the teacher in front of your child, because the children will hear you and think it's okay," said Marjorie Soffer, an elementary school teacher of 21 years in Boynton Beach, Florida. "Don't say things like, 'This project is stupid,' or 'What is the point of all this homework?' Ninety-nine percent of the time I don't want to assign the homework or the project, but the district says I have to do certain things."
2. Do your homework.
Teachers love parents who check their children's backpacks or folders every day, sign the forms, read the flyers about spirit days and book fairs and field trips, and return them on time. "Do not leave it up to your child to show you everything," said Soffer. "We do not like hunting down permission slips past the due date or waiting to hear back on a time-sensitive issue," Conway said.
Parents of older children might go to the kids with questions before they involve the teachers. "I love parents who check the online gradebook and talk to their students about the grades before contacting me," said Katie Sluiter, a mother of three and an 8th grade English teacher at Wyoming Junior High School in Wyoming, Michigan.
3. Make yourself available for parent-teacher conferences... and then show up on time.
"I realize most parents work — so do I, duh! — but pretty much every boss will let a parent be a tiny bit late to work for a parent-teacher conference," noted Soffer. "Also, if you are going to be late or need to cancel, please give me the courtesy of a phone call or email."
4. Get real about your child.
"In the nine years I taught elementary school, I met and connected with so many wonderful parents — because they were real with me, and I was real with them," said Stephanie Brown, now a PhD candidate at Florida State University in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies. "They were real about the strengths and challenges of their children, and they were up front and honest about the scenarios their kids were faced with at home that could potentially affect the way I would understand their child and help them learn."
Brown said this honesty made a huge difference in her ability to start each year off on the same page as the parents of her students. "There was a mutual respect between us as adults who were simply trying to do what was best for kids, the best we knew how. I firmly believe the kids knew that too," she said.
5. Volunteer in whatever way you can.
"I understand that parents have jobs, other kids, and a lot of responsibilities outside of the classroom," said Samantha Thornton, a first grade teacher in Apopka, Florida. "They can volunteer to help cut tracers, grade spelling or math tests, or volunteer to send in items for parties, field day, or field trips. There are many ways parents can get involved without having to day the day off from work."
6. Show some love.
Teachers appreciate gifts and tokens of gratitude, but they don't have to be elaborate or expensive. Though Soffer said she always appreciates a gift card to Dunkin' Donuts, she enjoys notes from the students even more. "A handwritten note thanking me for what I do every day means more to me than any gift you could give. I save every card I have gotten for 21 years, especially if a child wrote it," she said.
"Unexpected little notes, thank you cards, even a surprise coffee for no reason is really appreciated," said Conway. "We spend the majority of our day with your kid, and a sincere thank you and to say that you appreciate all the work and time we spend in our classroom and outside planning and trying to make things fun and meaningful for your child to learn goes a long way."
And remember that just as students and parents are nervous and excited about the new year, so are the teachers. Kim DeAngelo, an elementary school teacher from Columbus, Ohio, said, "Yes, we teachers even have trouble sleeping the night before too!"