Ten years from now, you’ll love it when people assume you’re young. You’ll smile when a bartender asks you for ID, and if a student’s mother says you look like a college student, it will take everything in your power not to hug her. Not this year, though. As a young, beginning teacher, comments about your age seem like thinly veiled doubts about whether you know what you’re doing. You’ve spent months dodging questions from kids about how long you’ve been teaching. The last thing you want is for a parent to describe you as adorable, or call you “sweetie” during a conference. Inspiring confidence in parents who are older than you are can be tough, especially while you’re still developing confidence in yourself. Here are a few tricks that might help.
Refer to objective data.
You may feel that your school overdoes it on the data-collection requirements, but this can work to your advantage during parent conferences. If parents try to blame their children’s behavior or progress on your lack of experience, it helps to have last year’s test scores to back you up.
Keep clear office hours.
Unless your contract or school policy states otherwise, you have no obligation to share your personal email or cell phone number with parents. If you are sharing this information, be clear on which hours you are available to talk – and stick to them. It isn’t a sign of dedication to return emails on Saturday nights, or answer 11PM phone calls about why Alex got a C on his spelling test. It’s a sign you haven’t learned to set boundaries between work and home.
Stand your ground.
You want to be responsive to concerns from students’ families, but not so responsive parents feel they can push you into changing grades or reversing discipline decisions. Showing confidence in your systems early in the year will make it easier to say no to unreasonable requests later.
Make realistic promises.
Parents often end conversations by saying, “Please call any time there is a problem.” They mean to show support, but this places the ball in your court, and lets parents think if they don’t hear from you everything is fine. Instead of agreeing to a level of contact you can’t keep up with, explain the rules and homework schedule you expect students to follow, or refer parents to your class website or the school’s online grade book. Help them monitor progress without constant contact from you.
Work with your school’s existing framework for parent contact before building your own.
Your school undoubtedly has guidelines for parent contact already. Make the most of these opportunities before creating elaborate systems that contradict what parents are used to, or taking ambitious steps like making home visits. If you are the youngest teacher parents have met and also the only teacher who shows up at their houses, the gesture is likely to come off as a lack of experience rather than a sign of commitment.
Call home with confidence.
Some people will tell you to feed parents a “compliment sandwich,” starting and ending negative phone calls with positive comments. This is potentially good advice: you want to mention, for example, that a child who isn’t doing well has potential. In other cases it makes you sound unsure of yourself. If a child is failing, or acting horribly, don’t let the parent leave with the impression that things are okay.
Don’t overdo it.
Calling parents once in a while makes an impression. Calling all the time can come off as not being able to control your class without their help.
Enjoy being young.
Being a younger teacher has its advantages. Memories of high school crushes or struggling with long division may still be fresh in your mind. It’s also nice to focus on students without the responsibility of going home to your own kids. Kids look up to people their parents’ ages, but many of them idolize older brothers, sisters or cousins as well. Focus on your strengths as a teacher, not the occasional condescending comment about how young you are.
Trust me, Sweetie. You’ll understand when you’re older.