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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Sage Advice: What's the best way to stay connected to parents?

Sage Advice: What's the best way to stay connected to parents?

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Some of you may remember we had a column in the Edutopia magazine called Sage Advice. Now that we're going online-only, we wanted to reignite the spirit of Sage Advice here in the Edutopia community. Anyone can post a Sage Advice question. All you have to do is put the words "Sage Advice" in front of your question. And Sage Advice questions can be posted in any of the groups. And of course, anyone can answer a Sage Advice question. So without further ado, here's the first one... What's the best way to stay connected to parents?

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Phil's picture
Teacher and Ed-Tech Blogger at BrokenAirplane.com

If you are considering going the text message route, you might want to use a Gmail account to send them.


This way you can cut and paste a message like "Open House is at 7pm" instead of having to type it out individually on the phone and add each contact manually.

Additionally, this would not charge your phone for the text, and all of the responses would come from and go to your gmail account. This keeps your phone number private and free from tons of messages.

Folwell Dunbar's picture
Folwell Dunbar
School Leader at Young Audiences Charter School

I once planned a Family Math and Science Night with an elementary school in New Orleans. The faculty and I spent hours and hours organizing the event. We put together model lessons, created interactive games, displayed student work, and lined up several guest speakers. We were pumped up like show dogs! Unfortunately, we didn't take into consideration a number of potential obstacles. Lack of transportation and babysitting along with a conflicting event (a football game) doomed our endeavor. As a result, the night was a complete wash. Only a handful of parents came and we accomplished almost nothing. As is always the case in education though, we did learn from the experience.
As we all know, parental involvement is essential for meaningful and sustainable whole-school change. The challenge of course is getting it. How do we lure them in and how do we keep them onboard? One strategy many schools use is to hold major parent-teacher events. These might include open house, portfolio parties, tea with the teachers, family reading nights, PTO meetings, volunteer and career days, celebrations of learning, and project fairs. All of these can be incredibly worthwhile, yet they can also be costly and discouraging wastes of time. So, what can we do to insure a successful event? The following are just a few of the keys culled from experience:

1. Work Together! When it comes to designing a winning program, input from parents, teachers, administrators, students, and community partners is critical. Form a committee or action team that includes all or most of these players. Establish norms, designate a team leader, put together a mission statement and a timeline, delegate responsibilities, brainstorm and work toward consensus. Remember, strength in numbers comes with cooperation and commitment.
2. Poll the Parents! As any hunter would attest, you have to know your prey. Find out what parents need and want, where they live and what they do. Give them a survey and crunch the numbers. Figure out what the obstacles are and how best to maneuver around them. From agenda items and menu requests to preferential times and special needs, the more you know, the fewer the mistakes. To quote a principal, "knowledge is power."
3. Talk to the Teachers! Involvement is a two-way street. Ask the faculty (and the students) to share their hopes and fears, ideas, experiences, and concerns. Have them look at the test data and scour the school improvement plan. Process their contributions and prioritize accordingly. Make sure that the fruits of their labor are well worth all the blood, sweat, time, and tears.
4. Set Goals & Objectives! As with any good lesson, battle, or business plan, you have to start with the desired results. These goals and objectives should be SMART: Simple, Measurable, Achievable, Results driven, and Timely. After scrolling them through the writing process, publish them for the entire community to see. Let all stakeholders know what the destination is, and then show them how you plan to get there...
5. Put Together a Solid Program! Many schools spend an inordinate amount of time and energy filling seats and forget to produce a memorable and productive show. Getting parents there is only half the battle. It's what you do with them that matters most. A tight, thoughtful program that both empowers participants and supports teaching and learning is at the heart of any successful event. Make it meaningful and you'll truly make a difference...
6. Be Culturally Sensitive! Rubrics, technology integration, accountability, standardized testing...many parents are intimidated and/or confused by all of the educational gobbledygook. They end up not attending for fear of embarrassment or lack of understanding. From changing the name from "literacy carnival" to "pizza and book night," to providing translators for non-English speakers, accommodations for cultural differences must be included.
7. Avoid Competition! Many parent events are undermined by a simple ballgame or TV show. Poor over calendars and choose the path of least resistance. Coordinate with feeder schools, local organizations, and religious groups. Set the time, place, and date well in advance. Carve them in stone and stick to them like indelible graffiti.
8. Join Forces! The "If ya can't beat em, join em." adage definitely applies to parent-teacher events. Teaming up with the folks who run Bingo, meeting in the gym just before the big game, or holding court in the local church can all add to the overall draw. A little bit of trickery can go a long way...
9. Promote, Promote & Then Promote Some More! Use the AOL marketing model: put the word out often and everywhere. From fliers and announcements to the school web page and e-mail, make sure that everyone and their pets know what's going on. Beat the drum loudly and sound the alarm again and again!
10. Alert the Media! Definitely take advantage of the press. Find allies in radio, television, and periodicals. Use them to spread the word and, if attendance is poor, to shame those who missed out. Keep in mind that events like these are also great opportunities to promote the school and to recognize the faculty. Sometimes you can knock down two birds with just one press release...
11. Provide Transportation! Many of our parents would love to come; they just can't get there. Make arrangements for carpools, reserve busses and drivers from the district, solicit transportation donations from local businesses and charities. For those who still can't make it, video the program and share it with them on cable access or a later date...
12. Provide Babysitting! A screaming baby or a parent who doesn't come because they have one, either way the school loses. Recruit older students (Many high schools have community service requirements for graduation.) and allocate space for supervised care. Pacify and prosper.
13. Feed Them! In Field of Dreams, the mantra was "build it and they will come." With parent events, it's "feed them and they will learn." Spaghetti, pizza, cookies, and cake - a full tummy often leads to an open mind...
14. Entertain Them! A roomful of yawns and snores is a telltale sign that the parents won't return. After enticing them with bread, amuse them with plenty of circuses! Guest speakers, musical performances, humor, and games - do what you can to keep them smiling and awake.
15. Get Them Involved! "Hands-On" is like cartoons, it's not just for kids anymore. Get the parents moving, talking, interacting, singing, dancing, and doing. Set up stations, plan fun and educational games and activities, get them on the computer, provoke them to ask and answer provocative questions...Make it memorable and they're sure to return and retain.
16. Give Them Stuff! Door prizes, handouts, attendance incentives, books, and buttons - line their pockets with a good mix of both substance and filler. Note: In lieu of number six and to avoid feeding the spotted owl destroying trash bin, remember to make sure that all of the materials are culturally appropriate and worthwhile.
17. Include Kids! One of the best and most obvious ways to fill the infamous "cafetorium" is to put children on the stage (If nothing else, their parents have to come in order to pick them up.). Dramatic readings, multi media presentations, skits, projects, and puppet shows all show parents what their children are learning and, with your guidance after the applause, what they can do to support the learning process...
18. Document! Take pictures, shoot video, and save all the hard evidence. Make sure that you get credit for the effort and leave a paper trail straight to the SIP.
19. Get Feedback! With even the most Academy Award worthy programs, there's usually room for improvement. Find out from the parents, teachers, and kids what worked and what didn't. Ask them directly and give them a questionnaire. An ounce of reflection can prevent a ton of future mistakes...
20. Make Revisions! And then do it again BIGGER and better next time round!

School events, when successful, can both increase and improve parental involvement. They can also help us grow as a professional learning community. Plan ahead and make the most of the occasion!

Christopher Stroud's picture

As educators have legitimate privacy concerns when forced to use their personal phones to contact parents, I would advise them to create a Google Voice account. They can call parents from their home and/or mobile phone and the number won't be able to be seen by the parent (and student). You could set the number to go automatically to voicemail, too, if they kept calling you back.

Tammy Miller's picture

Is there a way to contact someone at Google to explain this Voice Account? Is there a texting method too? It seems more parents have cell phones than computers at my school.

Tammy Miller's picture

Phil, I can't get this to work. I have a MAC, could that be the problem? I would love to be able to use this method for parents. So many of our parents have cell phones but no computer. I do have a gmail account.

Phil's picture
Teacher and Ed-Tech Blogger at BrokenAirplane.com

Hi Tammy,
No it shouldn't matter as Gmail looks the same pretty much whatever computer (Mac or PC) or browser (Safari, Opera, Firefox, Chrome, IE).

I have created a detailed tutorial on my blog which takes you through each of the steps.

BrokenAirplane.com - Sending Text Messages Through Gmail which I hope helps you.

If it works for you or if you have additional comments or questions would you please leave a comment at the end of the tutorial so I can refine/assist you further?

Thanks and good luck!

Amy Erin Borovoy (aka VideoAmy)'s picture
Amy Erin Borovoy (aka VideoAmy)
Senior Manager of Video Programming, Production, & Curation at Edutopia

In addition to the video George mentions, we published a page full of links and resources from Edutopia on staying connected with parents.

Check it out!

Andrew's picture

My sister teaches Kindergarten in Charlotte and she always stresses how important it is to keep parents abreast of her students accomplishments AND short comings. Parental communication should never just be about the negative.

Maritza Garcia's picture
Maritza Garcia
Certified K-12, currently teaching HS Spanish in central CT

I agree.
Too many of my parents are still not tech savvy.
The telephone is still the best way right now.

[quote]Over the years as a lot of parents got connected to email, I found myself tempted to use that a lot as a quick way to communicate with parents. Still, email can be too quick, too easy, and incomplete--and tone is REALLY hard to read. I've found nothing beats picking up the phone and having a real conversation. I try to call home at least once a semester to each parent to say something good, too. It sets us up for better communication if there ever is a problem![/quote]

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