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Written Communication: An Educator's Calling Card

Voice of ExperienceA teacher's writing ability is more important than ever. Our written notes to parents are no longer limited to quarterly report card comments. We communicate with parents via e-mail, classroom Web pages, and newsletters -- to name just a few of the vehicles we use. Indeed, our written communications speak volumes about our competence as teachers, contends educator Max Fischer in this week's Voice of Experience essay. What do your written communications with parents say about you? Included: Five tips for improved written communications.


Max W. Fischer

Perhaps you have seen these alleged teacher report card comments from a humorous Internet Web site:

"Your child is depriving a village somewhere of an idiot."

"When your daughter's IQ reaches 50, she should sell."

"The student has a 'full six-pack,' but lacks the plastic thingy to hold it all together."

The aforementioned quotes supposedly came from the teacher comments section of student report cards. According to the Web site, the authors of those remarks and others listed were reprimanded by their respective school boards. If that information is indeed true, teacher comments of that ilk would be devastating to any student and probably would completely rupture any hope of a constructive home-school relationship. The extremism of those remarks serves as a backdrop to the vital, but fragile, art of written communication by teachers

More Voices of Experience!

Have you seen these Voice of Experience essays from previous weeks?

* Teaching Religion in Public Schools: Removing the Angst

* In Search of National Board Certification -- One Teacher's Perspective

* What I've Learned About Cultivating Parent Involvement

* Lessons Learned from Howard Gardner and the TV Remote Control

* Weighted Grading Can Work

* Teachers As Writers: Have You Been Thinking About Publishing Your Best Lessons?

At one point in time, especially at the elementary level, what the teacher penned in the comment section of the report card was center stage for displaying his or her writing ability. With the proliferation of e-mail and computerized report card comments, the emphasis on written communication has shifted. A teacher's writing abilities are more important now than ever before:

  • More direct and efficient than playing phone tag, teacher e-mail contact is becoming increasingly popular with many parents, and it is already a staple for communication among colleagues and administrators in many districts.
  • School or teacher-sponsored Web sites provide additional opportunities for high-tech written communication.
  • Coursework to update licensure requirements, newsletters for parents, individual letters of praise to students, and inquiries into community resources about programs for field trips attest to the importance traditional paper communiqus.
  • Finally, let's not forget that a teacher's most routine correspondence is with students in the form of written instructions for a variety of tasks.

Writing has the potential to grease the wheels of a teacher's working relationship with students, parents, professional colleagues, and the community at large. If not lubed properly, however, friction is certain to develop.

MAYBE NOT THE PULITZER

Although no one expects teachers to be Pulitzer Prize-winning writers, competent application of writing mechanics, including syntax and spelling, is requisite. Like it or not, written communication -- much like its oral counterpart -- has the power to project an image and set a tone in a teacher's relationships. That image can be professional or incompetent; conciliatory or inflammatory; cooperative or antagonistic. Sometimes, by the words teachers use in their written communications, or the manner in which they write their messages, teachers unwittingly shoot themselves in the foot.

Regardless of whether you teach first grade, middle school art, or high school physics, proficient writing skills can, at the very least, bolster your credibility. More importantly, they can promote your objectives within the class by developing integral relationships outside of class.

LESSONS I HAVE LEARNED

With a competent style secured, it is important that your intended message be direct and to the point. Be respectful of your audience's time; most often, a linguistic snapshot is more appreciated that a wordy mural.

There are times, however, when brevity must be sacrificed in the interests of sufficient detail. A mother's e-mail inquiry expressing concern about her middle school daughter's safety at school certainly deserves a more thoughtful and measured response than a routine procedural question about a school project.

Over the years, I've learned a few things (some, the hard way) about a teacher's writing:

  1. Neatness counts. How many times have we stressed that to our pupils? It took over a decade of teaching, some pointed parent remarks, and the introduction of the word processor to wean me from my wretched handwriting, which closely resembles a physician's script. Anything, from insufficient amounts of toner in the copier to hastily crammed letters into envelopes, can create an unflattering image of you or improperly model expected form for students.
  2. Know your audience. Regarding general mailings, such as newsletters, some parents want loads of detail while others give any such literature only a cursory glance before tossing it away. Some parents get lost in any teacher jargon or advanced vocabulary in a mailing, while others use the same mailing to judge the caliber of your professionalism. If you teach in a district where your clientele is a heterogeneous socio-economic mix, you might offer an expanded newsletter with one additional sheet that highlights the most critical information in larger font, for example,
    OPEN HOUSE --TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 11, 7:00P.M.

    or

    PLEASE NOTE OUR HOMEWORK HOTLINE VOICEMAIL PHONE 444-4444.
    In that manner, those parents prone to not reading an entire newsletter would acquire the most vital information (especially if the highlighted notice is the first sheet of the packet).
  3. Be sensitive to the situation. As in the safety issue noted above, when a parent e-mails me and wants an update about his or her child's progress, usually there has been a previously established concern. In those cases, I give parents a thorough accounting of the student's performance, adding any anecdotal items that may be germane to the student's improvement or inability to progress. Conversely, for those parents checking in on a child who has done well in the past and continues to excel, a one or two sentence response affirming that is all that's needed.
  4. Proofread your mechanics. Again, isn't this what we, as teachers, preach to our charges? Every teacher has asked the question, "Did you check your work?" You, your spouse, a colleague, or the computer's spell/grammar checker are viable tools to help you make sure you don't embarrass yourself. Occasional errors happen to all of us. however, chronic abuse of the English language in a teacher's written work can open up a Pandora's Box of issues from parental complaints to poor performance evaluations.
  5. Proofread your content through the eyes of the intended audience. Does your message convey a collaborative tenor or a confrontational one? I know I began to appreciate this idea after my children began school and I became the recipient of teachers' letters. Consider the following statements regarding a procedural issue at the end of a field trip:

    "Parents, be at the school by 4:00 to pick up your children."

    "We would appreciate it if children were picked up at school no later than 4:00."
As a parent, which statement might ruffle your feathers? By avoiding superlatives or demanding statements, an educator frames a more supportive tone in the letter. Furthermore, if a teacher needs to be assertive in expressing a position to a parent or colleague, it shouldn't be couched in abrasive language.

Most teachers have limited need of business cards. However, in more ways than you might think, our writing ability acts as our calling card. What is yours saying?

A teacher for nearly three decades, Max Fischer currently teaches seventh graders the marvels of ancient history. A National Board certified teacher in the area of early adolescence social studies/history, Max has authored nine resource books for teachers in the fields of social studies, health, and math. You can read a previously published article about Fischer: Simulations Engage Students in Active Learning.


Article by Max W. Fischer
Education World®
Copyright © 2005 Education World

Originally published 04/04/2003
Updated 0

3/07/2005



 

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