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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.

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How to Get Parents Involved

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Ms. Roy's picture
Ms. Roy
Fourth grade teacher from Marblehead, Massachusetts

I have had the same experience. From early on in my teaching career, I would call parents with good news. As a result, I had few discipline issues. Now, with the advent of email, I find parents very receptive to positive notes home via that method. I send home weekly "positive emails home" to four or five students each week. Not only does this boost a child's self-confidence, it develops a wonderful rapport with parents.

Mary Bigelow's picture

My high school had "Good News" postcards near the teacher's mailboxes (before the era of e-mail). We could take as many as we wanted to send positive comments home, and the secretary would stamp and address them. A parent called me once to say that the postcard was the highlight of her son's week--he had been trimmed from a traveling soccer team and was feeling worthless (as teenagers often do). The note of congratulations for a project made him feel better, and it stayed on the kitchen refrigerator for a long time. It took me only a few minutes to send this feedback, a small investment of my time (actually, I wrote many of them while I was on bus duty).

Jimmy Pai's picture

I contact parents a lot. A lot more than my colleagues, but I have never thought it was annoying or too much to do. I let them know about what their kids are currently learning, what's coming up, how they are doing individually... but I don't do enough positive phone calls! This was a great reminder, and I will take it to heart.

Thanks!

Robert's picture

I am an educational researcher, but my wife teaches in a middle school. She has over 200 students, 9 individual classes of students, and a "shortened" prep so she can perform hallway duty. Most days she doesn't see lunch or the bathroom. I think the idea of calling parents is great, but I think it's an idea that is totally detached from the reality of many, many teachers' daily lives. Until we have managed to change the system so that qualified professionals aren't just expected to tread water, I think it's wrong to suggest that teachers do even more.

BambiWeavil's picture

Thank you for posting this! I'm a firm believer that it's important that schools understand that from the time they open the door to the moment they leave, what they do matters, and each person in the building has the opportunity to make a positive impact to families and students. It can't be said enough and I think your examples said it beautifully. Thanks again!

Yoonsun Choe's picture
Yoonsun Choe
Middle School Career Technology

I receive more prompt responses from parents when I text them, so I do not use e-mail if I want to hear from parents right away.
I like the idea of using phone call home as part of the reward system.
It does look, sound like more work, but I believe it is a solid investment we have to make. When kids behave in school, there will be less workload for teachers outside the classroom.

Ms. Kat's picture
Ms. Kat
Middle School - Social Studies, AZ

I just read this post a couple days ago and it was a good reminder to send home positive notes and make some calls home. I ended up calling about 10 parents yesterday and sent home 15 positive notes with students I've 'caught' doing what they are supposed to be doing. One of the students, who is known to have some behavioral issues, was beaming the rest of the day and his participation in class blew me away. I needed a moment to remind me why I teach and seeing how proud he was the rest of the day made it all worth it.

Tom Steenhuysen's picture
Tom Steenhuysen
Parent of 4 bright children.

My daughter entered high school and about two weeks l received a phone call from one of her favorite teachers. He introduced himself as the history teacher and life coach and let me know what a class-act of a daughter she is with a great sense of humor.

The power of positive feedback this created is incredible! Not only did my chest puff up with pride, but when my daughter came home I shared with her the news that "I had a call from your teacher..." Absolutely wonderful!

showell6's picture
showell6
8th grade physical science teacher from Fulton County GA

All it takes is the time to sit and call. Once you have proved to the students that you will take the time to share your thoughts about their performance in your classroom with their parents "the news is out!" Now, they will all begin to strive/work for that positive phone call home or even another one!

Mom2Kids's picture

I am posting as a parent to encourage you teachers to not just think of giving the positive feedback to the kids you find challenging because it helps get them on your side and helps motivate them. You may think the "easy" kids don't need your encouragement or don't care about the feedback, but they do. I just received my first ever positive phone call home for my 11th grade son. I was floored. He was floored. He felt appreciated and noticed. I also find it interesting that this call came from his Honors World History teacher. He is taking 4 AP classes this year and decided to step back and only take the Honors level of World History to make his workload more manageable. It is the first time he has ever not been in the "highest level" of whatever class. My guess is that this teacher is being proactive about motivating his students because maybe not all of them are highly motivated. But isn't it interesting that in all the years of being in classes of highly motivated kids, and doing well, we've never once had a teacher call home to say, "Your son is doing a great job in class and I appreciate his contributions." My guess is it doesn't occur to AP teachers because they figure the kids don't care. They do. The parents do. So by all means motivate the underachievers; but don't take the self motivated kids for granted ... they still value your opinion.

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