Since few custodial parents take the time or make the effort to keep the other parent informed of a child's progress and school activities, noncustodial parents who want to know anything about their child's school progress, performance, and activities usually have to get that information directly from the school.
As a divorced parent (and especially as a non-custodial parent) it is important to have a good relationship with the teachers and staff at your child's school; when you do, they're more likely to communicate with you, share information with you, and, if the opportunity presents itself, endorse you as a suitable custodial parent. This is important, since the child's teachers may be contacted by evaluators as they attempt to determine who would be the most appropriate (read: custodial) parent for the child. Teachers and staff are sometimes called upon to testify in court as to a child's academic progress or behavior, as well as to the parent's involvement with the child's education. Because evaluators and judges place great weight on how involved a parent is, you will want the staff and teachers to remember you well and be able to say good things about you if they are ever contacted by an evaluator or required to testify.
Getting involved with some of the school programs is an excellent way to meet the staff and earn some measure of respect from them. Even if you get involved in just one of the school's programs, you'll find that associating with the school staff builds trust and familiarity. (The teachers and staff understand that your time is limited; they don't expect you to get involved in every school function or event.) The better they feel about you, though more likely it is that they would see you as a person they can relate to instead of just another parent.
Joining the PTA is always a good way to become meet and become familiar with the school staff. PTA dues are usually only a few dollars a year, well within range of even the most financially hard-pressed parents. The money goes to a good cause, and it shows the school that you're an involved parent. Just by showing up at the PTA meetings (there only a few over the course of a year) you'll be recognized by the teachers and school administration as a "PTA supporter", another nice thing that the school staff can say about you. Attending PTA meetings is one of the easiest and most effective ways to build familiarity with the school staff. (We know- PTA meetings sound boring, right? Sometimes they are, even we admit it, but we're not suggesting you go to every single one. Attend them as time permits.) Always attend parent-teacher conferences unless distance prevents you from doing so.
You might also offer to donate some of your time and expertise; depending upon what the school might happen to need, your skills could be quite useful to them. Maybe you could help out around the school office- even if it's just stuffing envelopes, the fact that you're offering to help will make a good impression on them. Helping out in the classroom once in a while is an excellent way to establish a rapport with your child's teacher- most of the time they will be genuinely grateful for the assistance, and it'll give them a chance to get to know you a little better. Also, many teachers would be glad to have you along for some extra help on field trips and class outings.
E-mail is a great way to stay in touch with the teacher if you don't live close by. The nice thing about using email is that you have a permanent record of what is said by the teacher. An occasional email is fine; just don't bombard the teacher with too much- they have plenty to do as it is. If it's legal where you live, you may want to consider recording your conversations with the school, especially if they're uncooperative with you.
You must also consider how closely you want to monitor your child's progress. It is quite within the law, in some states, for you to insist that everything that goes home with the child must also be sent to you, including completed homework assignments, tests, papers, and handouts. We caution you about insisting on this, however, because it places a heavy burden on the teacher and can cause resentment. If you intend to request something like this, you should establish a good rapport with the teacher first. Set up a time when you will come in each week and make the copies or pick them up. In practice, few teachers are willing to do this, and they will only do so when pressured, if at all.
Exercise courtesy when dealing with the school staff, teachers, and administration. A smile and calm, friendly attitude will nearly always get you farther than yelling and banging your fist on the counter will. Treat the staff politely and attempt to work with them fairly; you can always get tough later if they're uncooperative or hostile to you. Keep in mind that in most cases, the things you are requesting from the school are a matter of record and law, covered under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). If this is the case, the school may initially oppose you, but eventually they will be forced to cooperate with you. Not abiding by FERPA can cause a school to lose any federal funding it receives, and no school will deliberately lose its federal funding just so they can deny you access to your child's scholastic records.
For example, if the school is refusing to give you your child's report cards, it's quite possible that they are unaware of the laws regarding parents ">access to school records, and are simply acting out of ignorance. The office staff at a school is much like office staff anywhere- they'll cooperate with you as long as you can show them that what you are asking for is In The Rules. By politely showing them that FERPA gives you the right under the law to access your child's records, they'll be a lot more willing to cooperate than if you come in, waving a copy of FERPA around in the air and demanding to see your child's report cards "right now". Make sure they understand that you are interested in your child's progress at school because you are a concerned, involved, and loving parent. You are not 'spying' on your ex or trying to cause problems for the school or the teachers.
In case of friction or a dispute with the school's office staff, don't waste time and energy with them; you'll probably just make things worse. Instead, contact their superiors; start with the school Principal and make your request. If the Principal is uncooperative you may find it necessary to go to the District Administrator. Rarely will you have to have to go any higher up the chain of command than this, but but if it becomes necessary, don't hesitate. At some point you will reach someone who will understand the legitimacy and legality of your request, and who will, directly or indirectly, instruct the office staff to cooperate with you.
Occasionally you may encounter a teacher who is uncooperative, who withholds information from you, or refuses to discuss your child's needs or scholastic development with you. The teacher may inform you that they've talked to the other parent already, and ask (or tell) you to find out from the other parent what was discussed. If you persist in attempting to get information from this teacher, the teacher may even go so far as to say that you are "harassing" them.
This is unacceptable behavior from any educator. Should you find yourself dealing with this kind of situation, you should immediately put the school and the teacher on notice, as detailed below.
The first step is to meet with the Principal and have an 'informal' chat about the apparent 'attitude problem' that this teacher has. It's also a good idea to write out a formal complaint and insist that the Principal place it in the teacher's permanent file. After a few of those get stuck in there, chances are the teacher will be a bit more cooperative.
Stress that you'd 'prefer to keep things informal' and 'not have them escalate to more formal settings' (like a disciplinary review board, school board, etc). Say this the right way and the Principal will get the message.
Let them know that you will not accept answers like "I talked to Ms. XXX about this". You're entitled to have open communication with your child's teacher, and if they can't provide this then he or she needs to find another line of work.
If the teacher says anything like "I talked to Ms. XXX about this'", immediately stop and put them on the spot: "Really? So you're refusing to discuss the academic performance of one of your pupils with the pupil's own parent?" Then stop- let the teacher mull this over and respond, and give them all the time they need. :)
If are the teacher tries to say that you're harassing him or her, just stop right there and put them on the spot again: "Are you stating that my wanting to discuss my child's academic performance is 'harassing' you? I don't believe my attorney would agree. Perhaps the Education District attorney should meet with my attorney and the Principal so they can discuss this in detail."
Finally, here are a couple of easy ways to get your face known at your child's school:
These days, virtually all public schools require visitors to wear nametags. Don't use their cheap, disposable paper nametags, make up your own cool permanent one instead. And don't put your name on it (that's what everybody does), use your child's name and put "John's Dad" or "I'm John's Dad" on it. Make the "Dad" just a little bigger than the rest of the lettering. :) This forces the school staff to think of you as a father, not as a visitor or 'part-time parent'. The first few times I wore my "John's Dad" nametag around my son's school, the staff members kept coming up to me and asking "What's your name?". "I'm Bill Smith, John's father", I'd reply, pointing to my nametag. It was actually a good way to meet the teachers and staff. Pretty soon, they all knew my name, who I was, etc. etc. and they all felt comfortable with me.
People will remember the nametag. People who can't even remember my name will come up to me and say "Oh, aren't you John's dad?" When someone introduces me at school, they're likely to say "This is Bill, he's John's father..." Again, this reinforces the idea that you are somebody important in this child's life, not just a visitor.
If your child has a birthday during the school year, ask the teacher in advance if you can bring some birthday treats (like cupcakes and juice) for the class that day. Most teachers will agree to this. While you're there, don't forget to ask if you can help out with anything, and to give the teacher a business card or contact number. Let them know that you would welcome the opportunity to discuss any issues regarding your child, and that they can call you any time. And don't forget to wear your nametag. :)