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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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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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lyndseym's picture

How do you feel this would work when teaching high school?
I'd like to try this at home, but I feel like it might be out of place for the upper grade levels. I do like to make contact with parents as close to the start of the year as possible, that way if you do encounter problems down the road, that isn't the first time they've met you.
Would you still do this with Grades 9-12?
Has anyone else done it with this grade level and had success?
Many thanks!

Kathryn Roe's picture
Kathryn Roe
Professor of Education, William Penn University

My son was a "challenging student." I begged his high school teachers to telephone me with both good and bad news. They never did. Never. I know it would have made a huge difference in how I viewed those teachers!

As a former middle school teacher and principal, I can say that I did indeed make positive phone calls home. As a teacher, I set a goal for myself of calling every student's home at least once a month. It made an incredible difference. When I was a principal, I had many more students to deal with. Instead of calling all parents, I called the parents of the "challenging students." I'd watch them and find something endearing to share about them. Parents told me that they'd never heard anything good about their kids before, and when I had to call about a problem, they were far more willing to listen to me about it. I wrote about it here:

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program

I did! It made all the difference, really. I made sure I started with the kids who had IEPs and 504s, then I went did the kids that my colleagues identified as potential trouble spots. I found it made a HUGE difference in my ability to both engage the parents as collaborators and in understanding how the student's needs were supported (or exacerbated) by other factors at home. I was pleasantly surprised in 99.9% of the cases. Now, as a mom of a rising 9th grader, I can't even begin to articulate how much I want his teachers to communicate with us.

Claven Elace's picture

I do think it's more nice if both positive and negative information about the student will be telephoned by the teachers to the parents at home. so that parents will be aware of what their child is doing at school. if they do good or not.

Will M.'s picture
Will M.
Traveling the world to learn about education

This is indeed very powerful. When I made a point to call home to celebrate progress being made by a student with generally bad reputation I found that over half the time the parent would start to cry on the other line. They had become so used to negative comments that a single call began to change their idea of what their child was capable of in school.

hejames1008's picture
A former educator who will always remain interested in the field and have an opinion.

Because I was uncomfortable using the phone, I leveraged my writing skills and sent positive emails. I have always been a better writer than speaker. Granted, I taught nearly 10 years ago, when email wasn't at ubiquitous as it is now. However, the last school district in which I taught was of a high enough income bracket that nearly every household had access to email. Regardless of the medium used, positivity goes a long way, especially in relation to students you suspect may not always receive the most positive feedback. Great post!

Will M.'s picture
Will M.
Traveling the world to learn about education

I've made a habit of making positive phone calls home, especially for students who have negative reputations. It's astounding how often the parent will break into tears on the other end of the line. When parents spend a decade or more only hearing negative things about their children it can take a toll on their expectations for their children. A few positive phone calls can turn that around.

Deborah Asher, Ed.S.'s picture
Deborah Asher, Ed.S.
Equity Advocate, Consultant, High School Principal, District Administrator, Teacher

The impact of the positive phone call on your relationship with parent AND student can not be overestimated. I have actually had parents cry with happiness, students hug me with big smiles (the next day), and it only took 2 minutes of my time. BTW this was with high school students!!

Kathryn Roe's picture
Kathryn Roe
Professor of Education, William Penn University

I teach a course in classroom management and try hard to impress upon the students (pre-service educators) how powerful positive phone calls are. They are often skeptical and nervous about talking to parents on the phone. Yet a phone makes much more impact than email or a note. (Voicemail is the teacher's friend! It takes just a moment and works like a charm.) We even practice how to make these phone calls in class. Positive phone calls are like putting money in the bank -- the caregivers know the teacher likes the student and are much more likely to hear what the teacher has to say if, in the future, s/he has to make a problem-solving phone call. We educators need to recognize that we can make parents our allies -- all it takes is that positive phone call.

OWLS Global's picture
OWLS Global
OWLS Global - Services for Schools

I loved this post, Elena. And it has been a delight reading the comments as well. If enough of us develop this habit (to expand upon your own words) the ripple effects for the kids, our classes, and our teachers and our schools might be transformational.
Thanks for sharing this as we launch into another September.

Will M.'s picture
Will M.
Traveling the world to learn about education

I've made a habit of making positive phone calls home, especially for students who have negative reputations. It's astounding how often the parent will break into tears on the other end of the line. When parents spend a decade or more only hearing negative things about their children it can take a toll on their expectations for their children. A few positive phone calls can turn that around.

Mel P.'s picture

I could not agree more. As a teacher of fifteen years, one of the the most powerful tools for gaining parent trust is a phone call. I too, have been told, "No one has ever called with kind comments about my child." It is heart breaking. I encourage new teachers to call every child's home once during the first two weeks of school with quick, positive snapshots of the child's day. Along with that, keep an old-fashioned paper and pencil log of date called and conversation summary (even bullet points) that will be an organizational tool and a reminder of past conversations, so the teacher can take the lead in developing an open, trusting relationship with parents that is so crucial to the child's success.

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.

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.

MaryK's picture
Parent of 2 in Arlington, VA; former HS teacher; education consultant

I loved this post, both as a former teacher and now as a parent. I'd suggest one addition, though-- what about the "positive phone call to school?" I have been sending emails or notes to my son's teachers with positive comments about things he's shared with me, interests he's developed at school, and contributions that his teachers are making to a positive school culture (for instance, the art teachers who work so hard to hang so much beautiful artwork in the school hallways). Teachers now seek me out when I walk into the building in the morning to thank me for recognizing their efforts.

It feels good for everybody, and it reminds me of my own experience as a first-year teacher, getting a really thoughtful note from a parent, and bursting into tears because I had felt so isolated in the classroom and finally *someone* was letting me know I had done well.

It goes both ways!

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

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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