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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

When I first started teaching and was overwhelmed by the demands and complexity of the job, my survival strategy was simply to take all the advice that came my way and implement it. So when my wise mentor suggested that after the first day of school I call all of my second grader's parents, I did so.

In spite of my exhaustion, I called each family and introduced myself. I asked a few questions about their child. I said that their kid had had a good first day. I said I looked forward to working together.

Throughout that year, and the years that followed, I continued this practice -- I had an intuitive feeling that it was key: The positive phone call home. After the first days, as soon as I'd identified the kids who might be challenging, I made it a goal to call home with positive news every week. I'd share this goal with my students, greeting them at the door with something like: "I'm so excited to see you this morning, Oscar! I am going to be watching you really closely today to find some good news to share with your mom this evening. I can't wait to call her and tell her what a good day you had!"

When I taught middle school, this strategy made the difference between an unmanageable group of kids and an easy group. You'd be surprised, perhaps, how desperately an eighth grade boy wants his mom (or dad or grandma or pastor) to get a positive call home. On the first day of school I'd give students a survey that included this question, "Who would you like me to call when I have good news to share about how you're doing in my class? You're welcome to list up to five people. And please let them know I might call -- even tonight or tomorrow!"

First I'd call parents of the kids who I knew would be challenging, those I suspected rarely got positive calls. When an adult answered the phone, I'd say, all in one long breath, "Hi Mrs. ____? I'm calling from ____ middle school with great news about your son, ____. Can I share this news?" If I didn't immediately blurt out the "great news" pieces, sometimes they'd hang up on me or I'd hear a long anxious silence.

Some of these kids were difficult, extremely difficult. However, I was always able to find something sincerely positive about what he or she had done. As the days followed, I kept calling -- "I just wanted to share that today when ____ came into my class he said 'good morning' to me and opened his notebook right away. I knew we'd have a good day!" Sometimes I'd stop in the middle of class and in front of all the students I'd call a parent. The kids loved that. They started begging for me to call their parent too. It was the first choice of reward for good behavior -- "just call my mama and tell her I did good today."

What shocked and saddened me were the parents who would say, "I don't think anyone has ever called me from school with anything positive about my child." I occasionally heard soft sobbing during these calls.

I'd first used this phone call thing as a strategy for managing behavior and building partnerships and it worked. However, after ten years of teaching I became a parent and my feelings shifted into some other universe. As a parent, I now can't think of anything more I want a teacher to do -- just recognize what my boy is doing well, when he's trying, when he's learning, when his behavior is shifting, and share those observations with me.

I know how many hours teachers work. And I also know that a phone call can take three minutes. If every teacher allocated 15 minutes a day to calling parents with good news, the impact could be tremendous. In the long list of priorities for teachers, communicating good news is usually not at the top. But try it -- just for a week -- try calling a few kid's parents (and maybe not just the challenging ones -- they all need and deserve these calls) and see what happens. The ripple effects for the kid, the class, and the teacher might be transformational.

Check out this fun sharable video about positive phone calls home.

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How to Get Parents Involved

Comments (42)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Community Manager at Edutopia
Staff

MaryK, that is such a wonderful, wonderful idea, and not just for new teachers--it can also help teachers avoid burning out.

rodhames's picture

This has really inspired me. I greet the kids at the door with an enthusiastic comment, eye contact, and a firm hand shake. I KNOW it makes a difference. I can't wait to start calling parents. I LOVE this idea. I just need to figure out how to make it work with 150+ kids I teach every 9 weeks. I am the Business Education Teacher at Crews. Thanks again for a great article.

Kathryn Roe's picture
Kathryn Roe
Professor of Education

Positive phone calls make an incredible difference. I've made those calls as an elementary teacher and as a middle school science teacher with 150 students. It is difficult with so many students. My solution was to make at least one positive call each nine weeks. With those students who had behavior difficulties, I called more often. When I became a principal, I made an effort to call the parents of the children who seemed to wind up in my office often -- if they knew I liked their child and noticed when s/he was making an effort, they were much more willing to work with us when the child strayed. Now I teach classroom management at the college level. I try to impress upon those aspiring teachers the importance of positive parent phone calls. It works!

Jennifer Gonzalez's picture
Jennifer Gonzalez
Blogger at Cult of Pedagogy
Blogger

This post really rings true for me. It always took a concerted effort for me to make these calls and send those postcards, but it always gave me a burst of good feeling when I did it, and it was one of those things that really increased job satisfaction for me. (And yes, it also had positive effects on student behavior!).

Two things I would add: (1) Specificity matters. Whenever possible, tell the parent something specific the student did. Specific praise always makes a bigger impact on students than general praise, mostly because it helps them know what to keep doing. (2) For teachers who have a huge number of students: Yes, of course it seems nearly impossible to get to all of them. So just get to some of them. Start with the ones for whom it will make the biggest difference. The ones whose behavior is pretty much always teetering on the edge of unacceptable. Then choose a few more who probably feel completely unnoticed, and notice them. Even if you only contact five families all year, it will make a big difference to those five families.

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Hannah Masters's picture

Wow, I love this idea. I spend my days helping parents connect with their child's digital world via uknowkids . Parenting and teaching is very different these days, I love the idea of Teachers and Parents connecting like this...positive news is always a great thing...well done. Thanks for sharing!

Brian's picture

I believe in the saying, "you can't tear down until you first learn how to build up." Edification and encouragement does go a long way. This does not mean we do not correct or inform parents when children are disruptive, but we do need to balance negative calls home with positive reinforcement.

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Keith Heggart's picture
Keith Heggart
High School Teacher from Sydney, Australia
Facilitator

Great advice Elena (and also so many of you in the comments section)! I couldn't agree more - a phone call home is so important. It can be tough with lots of classes, but I prioritise with the students that I think need to hear the good news the most. I also agree with you, Elena, that you need to get the message about it being good news out as soon as possible - it really changes the conversational tone.

Nancy D's picture

This article hit me so hard that I felt compelled to reply. My son, who is now a senior in high school, is a bright, funny, caring and giving young man who has struggled every single day in education. He maintains a 3.2 GPA and for him that is like a 4.0 and he has never had behavior issues. We have invested thousands of dollars in tutoring and education programs we felt would keep him at pace with his peers. He tries hard, but often times his grades do not show the effort. The last time he was recognized for doing something well was in the 3rd grade, so for 9 years not one teacher has contacted us to let us know any positive feedback we could give him.

We were in an IB elementary, middle and high school where the characteristics -- risk taking, inquirers, knowledgeable, communicators, principled, caring, balanced, reflective -- are paramount in the success of the child. we were heart broken that throughout grades 4-12 that not one teacher could select our child as a student of the month in ANY of these characteristics. Especially when we watch over and over again the same students being recognized for these categories. Even with the praise he got from home -- it was not the same.

We watched over the years his confidence level just dip, and dip and dip. It did not matter what we would tell him he has never felt good enough for our education system. It truly is a sad state of affairs.

I am confident if but ONE teacher had taken this approach my son's confidence would have been bolstered. It was evidenced when a coach of his took him under his wing and my son soared in that sport -- not because he necessarily knew how to play the sport, but because the coach had confidence in his ability to succeed. This coach passed away during my son's junior year, but every time he goes out on that mat, my son remembers the guidance, support and belief that coach gave him and as a result he felt he could do great things.

I can imagine those phone calls your parents receive are pure blessings. So much more for those who are also behavior challenges. Oftentimes parents only here the bad, and I for one believe there is good in all!

Thank you for sharing your positive approach to making the students and their families feel like they matter.

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Tara Lira's picture

Nancy, thanks for sharing your thoughts here. I was touched by your honesty regarding your son and what a difference simple reaches like a phone call can make to students with regard to motivation and empathy. As a parent, what aspects of your child's academic performance would you want updates about?

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