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Most Direct Route to Parents Is an E-Line

Voice of ExperienceEducator Max Fischer has been doing a little independent research on the effectiveness of phone calls, written progress reports, and e-mail in raising student achievement. Which communication method do you think he and his teaching teammates found to be most effective? Included: Advice about using e-mail to communicate with students' parents.

Max W. Fischer

Fall parent conferences at my 7-8 grade middle school were completed, and a number parents had asked to be kept in the loop regarding learning issues that concerned their children.

  • Several parents asked to be called in a few weeks; they wanted a telephone update before mid-term reports were released.
  • A couple of parents wanted to pursue the option of a "Friday Report" -- an end-of-the-week form some students take around to each of their teachers; the teachers take a moment to give parents a brief review of the week's progress.
  • Some parents wanted the same weekly update sent to them via e-mail.

The team of teachers I'm part of was more than happy to accommodate those parents' requests. We take a variety of tacks within our classrooms to accommodate our students' assorted learning styles, and we were prepared to respond to their parents needs in similar ways.


When we attempted to call parents in the first group above, however, we realized that, as is quite common, parent work schedules did not coincide with school hours.

Some of the homes we called had answering machines, but my team wondered how secure a medium the answering machine would be. If the student arrived home before the parents, for example, how tempting would it be to erase a message that might reflect negatively on them?

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In many cases, teachers needed to fulfill their end of the bargain by making evening phone calls. After-hours calls were fine with us; we were professionally obligated to carry out the parents' wishes to remain informed. Often, however, several evening attempts were required before the parents were reached.

The "Friday Report" group was counseled that the system would work only as well as parents held their child accountable for making sure the form was given to each teacher and brought home by the student.

For students who are particularly challenged in the areas of self-discipline and responsibility, we often promote the "carrot and stick" approach. Parents should offer some positive reinforcement to their child for bringing home the form and another reward for evidence on that form of significant improvement. Conversely, a loss of electricity -- no television, computer games, or video games -- would be a worthy consequence for students who were not reliable couriers.

Unfortunately, our experience over the past decade has been that only about 20 percent of students consistently take home their Friday Reports. Most start out with one or two weeks of follow-through before the regimen falls apart. As home life gets stressed and complicated, parents often forget about asking to see the form. It doesn't take much slack for a 13-year-old to start to work the system to his advantage.


On the other hand, the e-mail group received reliable, complete accounts from each teacher on the team every Friday. Some teachers provided more information than others, but the essentials of the student's productivity and accomplishments that week -- including information about homework completion, test and project scores, major upcoming assignments, and classroom behavior -- were related with consistent clarity. The e-mail communication was straightforward and direct -- and without a "middleman" who might have a divergent agenda to the home/school partnership!

Generally speaking, my team's experience has been that students whose parents are involved with us via regular e-mail communication are likely to perform at a higher level than students from the other two groups.


E-mail as a vehicle for parent communication does have some potential flaws. Using e-mail requires teachers to be a little more thoughtful than they might be when speaking directly with parents. When typing messages, cute comments not intended to offend can sometimes come across as flippant or unprofessional. We have learned that it is often best to "stick to the script" -- to provide the precise information the parent desires without superfluous commentary.

Furthermore, our profession dictates that we model proper writing mechanics and spelling in all parent communications. To some teachers' disadvantage, e-mail can be an electronic fishbowl that magnifies their writing weaknesses.

At our annual parent orientation, which is held during the first week of school, we heavily promote the virtues of e-mail communication. We urge parents to include their e-mail addresses next to their names on our registration sheets. We provide continual prompts throughout the year, and we always add our own e-mail addresses to our team newsletters.

This invitation to communicate with us has led to an increasing volume of e-mail. With that change in the way we do things, we must never forget that e-mail communication is a two-way street. It's not uncommon to receive an unexpected cyber inquiry from a parent -- anything from a father informing us of an impromptu trip requiring the child's absence from school to a mother needing to confirm specific directions on a project. If e-mail is to work as a communications vehicle, we must be willing to invest the time it takes to respond directly, discretely, and with courtesy.

Naturally, not every household has access to e-mail, and some who do have it strictly guard the accessibility to their e-mail addresses. For a significant segment of my students' parents, however, e-mail has proven to be the expressway to a consistent interchange between home and school -- and a boon to student success.

A teacher for nearly three decades, Max Fischer currently teaches seventh graders the marvels of ancient and medieval 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 Fischer
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