Step out of your teacher shoes for a moment and imagine yourself as the parent of a child you teach. You're at home, and the phone rings. You pick it up and a voice says, "Hello. This is Ms. Norris, Emily's teacher." If you're like many parents, two words spring immediately to mind: "Uh oh."
For many parents, a phone call home from a teacher means trouble: Our son is doing something he shouldn't; our daughter hasn't done something she should. The result? When a teacher gets in touch, parents' anxiety levels and defensive barriers may automatically go up, reducing their potential to participate as partners in their children's education.
But it doesn't have to be that way. We can regularly contact students' families when nothing's wrong, just to share what their child is doing well and what's going on in the classroom. In our hectic school days, finding the time to reach out like this can seem daunting, but it's the core of effective communication and building positive relationships.
Reasons for Staying in Touch
Consider these benefits of communicating regularly with students' families:
Families need information to be partners in their child's education. To be able to best support their children's learning, adults at home need to know what their child is studying and what else is going on in the classroom. Brief, regular communication gives them a window into their child's daily school life.
Frequent contact fosters positive school-home relationships. Sporadic communications focused on problems do little if anything to foster positive school–home relationships. If, on the other hand, we communicate small bits of good news all year long, families feel encouraged and supported, and they're more apt to encourage and support us, as well.
Collaborative problem-solving requires trust. Frequent positive communication helps families trust that you believe in their child's ability to learn and to be a productive member of a classroom community. With that trust in place, it's much easier to work collaboratively on difficult issues that might come up during the year.
Ways to Keep in Touch
What are some ways to make "things are good" connections with families, and how can we find the time to do this for each of our students throughout the year? Now is the time to start thinking about how you might establish routines for more regular, positive contact with school families next year. Here are just a few ideas:
Positive news phone calls Consider picking up the phone when you notice something positive in a child, even if it's small—for example, the child says something helpful, works hard on a project, or makes progress on a skill. Atsuko Imanishi, who teaches music in Winchester, New Hampshire, often calls parents simply to say, "I noticed your child kept the beat for a long time today" or "Your child really enjoyed singing today."
In Minneapolis, K–1 teacher Jeremy Nellis sets up phone calls at specific, scheduled times. At the beginning of the year, he asks parents to name a day of the week that's convenient for them to take a brief early morning or evening call from him. He then calls them every other week on the chosen day to report something positive about their child, update them on the class's learning and upcoming events, and invite their questions. "It's created a very open form of communication with families," he says.
If you decide to phone parents, remember that whether you call every few weeks or every few months, spontaneously or according to a schedule, what matters most is the positive nature of the contact.
Periodic postcards Postcards can work much the same way as phone calls. At the start of school, buy or make enough postcards for the year, depending on how often you plan to send them out. Students can write their addresses on the cards. Then, when you have something positive to share with a family, jot your news on a postcard and drop it in the mail.
Occasional emails In general, serious or confidential matters are best discussed in person, by phone, or in a paper-and-envelope letter. But email can be a quick and easy way to communicate brief notes about day-to-day classroom life. A few things to consider:
Weekly or biweekly newsletter Traditional paper newsletters about classroom happenings remain an effective way to keep in positive touch with families. Annette Tirado, mother of a fourth grader, puts it this way: "I work full-time, so I often miss school meetings and events. That newsletter is important to me!"
Keep newsletters brief, and stay focused on the children's current learning. The "Ask me about … " format works well for many teachers. (See example to left.) You can get ideas for this during closing circle. Gather the students and ask what they remember about that day's learning. Record their reflections and choose some to share in the newsletter. Phrasing these as things to ask about helps adults at home start conversations about what children are learning at school.
Daily or weekly "exit pass" Like an "Ask me about …" newsletter, an "exit pass" helps parents stay in-formed about classroom life while having productive conversations with their children. Sometime each day or week, each student fills out a half sheet of paper, containing a choice of conversation prompts, such as "Today I was proud that I ____.". The child chooses one prompt to complete and takes the sheet home to share.
Weekly work folders Each Thursday, students take home schoolwork they've been gathering in a folder. A bright slip of paper inside the folder includes space for you to write a note and space for adults at home to comment as well. "Hayden has been using friendly words when asking to borrow something from a classmate," you might write, or "Cristal worked hard on her chapter book this week."
After reviewing the papers inside the folder with their child, parents write a comment, if they wish, and sign the slip. "I can see that John is really taking his time to write neatly on all of this work," one might write. Or they might respond with a question, such as "Can you suggest some fun ways to practice multiplication with Jesse at home?"
On Friday, the child brings the folder back to school. You read the comments and keep the slips as part of the documentation of the child's progress throughout the year.
Pluses and a Wish In this variation of weekly work folders, you include with each child's folder a "Pluses and Wish" form, on which the child offers a quick reflection on the week's work by writing two "pluses" (things he or she did well) and one wish (an area to improve on). You also write two pluses and one wish about the child's work. After family members look through the folder with the child, they add their two pluses and one wish.
When the folder comes back to school, you read the added pluses and wish and keep the slips as documentation of the child's progress.
There are many other ways to communicate with families. You can develop an approach that works for you and your classroom community. Experiment, and keep these goals in mind: to let parents know what their child is learning in school, to set a positive tone for home-school communication, and to build a trusting relationship with students' families.
This adapted excerpt from Parents & Teachers Working Together was previously published as "Point of Contact" in Volume 102, Number 2 of the Virginia Journal of Education.
Tips for Keeping in Touch
• Make it a habit to spend some time each day watching and listening to your students. Jot down your observations, and you'll be able to draw from your notes when communicating with parents.
• Start small! If communicating about every child every week feels overwhelming, plan to observe and comment on just a few students at a time. You'll cover the whole class before long.
• Acknowledge to yourself that it can be harder to find complimentary things to say about some children than others. However, highlighting positives about those "harder" children is worth the effort, especially if their parents, and the children themselves, are used to hearing mostly about problems.
• Remember that a child doesn't need to be perfect at something for you to have positive news to share with a family. "Robbie is continuing to work on using friendly words when he disagrees with a classmate," you might say, or "Takako is showing progress in doing independent research."
• Make communicating a two-way street: No matter how or how often you contact parents, always invite them to get back to you with comments, questions, and observations about their child's school learning.
Keeping in Touch with Families All Year Long, Carol Davis and Alice Yang, Responsive Classroom Newsletter (April 2009), copyright 2009, Northeast Foundation for Children, Inc.