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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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Debbie's picture
Debbie
middle school technology teacher

We started something new at our middle school...positive behavior referrals. Instead of sending a referral to the principal when someone misbehaves, we now have the option to send a referral for positive behavior. The principal meets up with each student to share it with them so they get recognition from the teacher and principal. This is then mailed home to parents. We have heard students talk about hanging these proudly on the refrigerator.

I did the positive phone call home when I was student teaching. I was so disappointed to find out some parents didn't share with their kids that I had called and had something great to say about them!

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

I love, love, love this.

Everyone wants to be appreciated for who they are and what they have to offer, including kids--maybe them most of all.

Lisa Wojcik's picture
Lisa Wojcik
SFUSD Environmental Science Center

[quote]I love, love, love this.

Everyone wants to be appreciated for who they are and what they have to offer, including kids--maybe them most of all.[/quote]

Sue Long's picture

Fantastic! As the retired principal of an at-risk school, our teachers were encouraged to send home Good News postcards. Not only was it great for the kids and parents, but whether you want to believe it or not, our mail carriers check out the postcards and spread the word in the neighborhood that a Good News card had arrived. The pats on the back from the neighbors helped all of us spread the glow.
The postcards went with me each day to our staff meeting and when we were sharing the positives from the day before, the cards were handed out to the teachers -- and any other staff member who had observed something he wanted to share.

Haidi Appel's picture
Haidi Appel
Principal at Mitzi Bond Elementary

The same magic is worked with a postcard. I write every student at least one personal postcard each school year. I ask all of my teachers to write a minimum of two postcards each week to students. The positive feedback is amazing!

Cyndi Scheib's picture
Cyndi Scheib
Art teacher Middle and High School from western suburbs of Chicago.

I make what I've called "Elevator Calls." Early in the school year I let parents know that they may one day receive a call from me where I will share some good news about their student and then I tell them I'm hanging up the phone. By hanging up and preventing them from going into a discussion with me, usually the first person that parent shares the good news with is their child, giving them a great way to connect about a positive. I can't remember a time when the student didn't come back the next day and shared the sense of personal and parental pride that was experienced.

NWDan's picture
NWDan
High School Physics Teacher

Sounds great, but I have well over 200 students and only a prep period every other day which is not enough time to do even the bare minimum to be ready to reach my classes. The individual phone call is not practical for me and other teachers working under similar conditions.

Ms. Derriere Williams's picture

I am currently doing my observations with a teacher who has taught 1st grade for 9 years but was a social worker for 20 years, she makes it her duty to make a phone call home at least once a week about classroom behavior. If the student is misbehaving more often than usual she calls home the very same night as the incident. Positive phone calls are a good way to keep the lines of communications with parents open, the parent will always know the progress that is being made.

MaryK's picture
MaryK
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!

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.

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