When Will You Phone Home?
Yes, you're enjoying the first week of school. Your classroom of new students is a strange combination of shyness, excitement, curiosity, and nervous energy. You're reviewing your rules and procedures, everything is going as planned, or at least you think it is. You know the students are at their best behavior because you are a novelty to them, but you also know that some might be watching you very closely and quietly planning how to test that limit. You look around your classroom, and you realize it's the cleanest it will ever be for the rest the year.
Life is good. It's a very special time of year.
Then, it happens. Maybe not this month, but it will happen. A student will do "something" that causes you to say in your authoritative voice, "I'm going to have to call your parents."
Some teachers wait for that "something" that is bad and deserves a stern consequence to make that first contact or phone call. Maybe, that "something" bad is a low grade or missing assignment. These teachers now have three things to do when they talk to a parent. They have to introduce themselves in a positive way. Then, segue into the rehearsed story about how their child did something negative in a way that's serious and convincing that it was their child's fault. Then, somehow end the conversation on a positive note. That's a tall order after teaching and talking all day!
Are there other options to waiting for making that first contact or phone call when something goes wrong?
That first contact of phone call is more than just communicating with parents. It's the first step in building that year long parent partnership.
Effective teachers understand that the craft of successful teaching involves forming relationships with students and their families. When I use to teach the candidate support courses for teachers pursuing National Board certification, we often discussed and analyzed the various ways we communicated with families.
The National Board highlights the criteria for successful family partnerships as:
"...implemented with skill and enthusiasm and are effective in engaging parents and other interested adults in communication that is highly interactive, fostering extensive two-way dialogue focused primarily on substantive teaching and learning issues and individual student progress."
As we looked through our contact logs, newsletters, emails, and other ways we communicated with parents, we had to analyze how our communications with parents were interactive and impacted student learning. Through this process of analysis, reflection, and improvement, the teachers became more conscientious and effective as they refined their system of building parent partnerships to focus on student learning.
As you begin your school year, here are the big questions:
1) How soon after the school year starts do you contact parents?
Do you call only after a student does something inappropriate to deserve that "I'm calling your parents consequence?" speech given with your serious voice. Or, do you catch a student "being good" and call parents to start the year with a positive comment in your happy and enthusiastic, perhaps even welcoming, voice?
When I was a special education teacher, I often met the parents of my future students at their child's Individual Education Program (IEP) meeting the year before they entered my classroom and I would meet them again during open house before school started. Special education teachers have this opportunity to begin building that relationship before the first day of school.
General education teachers can also build those relationships early. For example, high school social studies teacher Ken Bernstein phones home to the parents of his high school students before the second week of school. When will you phone home?
2) Are you focused on interactive communication about student learning?
What do you phone home about? How often do you interact with parents? Was the content of your discussion about procedural information about things like overdue library books or more money needed on the lunch card? Or, do you discuss ways to improve specific learning issues or challenges the student is having, and how the parent may assist or support you?
3) What do you do when you aren't able to contact parents?
Some families can be difficult to contact. Parents in diverse socio-cultural communities may work two or three jobs to make ends meet and are rarely available, while the highly educated parents in very affluent neighborhoods may have that one job that takes the time of three jobs. Some kids may not even have a home. What do you do then? Do you solicit the help of the counselor, parent liaison, or other potential resource in the school? Success with all parents may not be always possible, but every teacher knows deep inside if an honest attempt was made.
So, what do you do when there is no answer on the phone? Or, better yet, what do you do when there is no phone?
Consider these questions as you begin your new school year and build your classroom community.
An Investment Well Spent
Your investment in building a positive and collaborative relationship early during the beginning of school multiplies throughout the year. Begin with that positive and synergetic relationship, that positive energy carries you higher during the good times and supports you through the challenging times. Begin the year silently or negatively, that energy may also multiply, and you will work many times harder to either build or repair that relationship when the conditions are most challenging.
So, as we navigate our first weeks of school, enjoy this special time of year and start thinking about making that first contact or phone call.
When will you make the call?