“How do you feel about calling parents?” I asked a colleague at lunch yesterday.
“I hate it,” she said succinctly.
Calling parents is just hard. Generally, by the time they get to the point of calling, teachers are at the “I’ve had it” stage. And calling a parent and saying, “Your child ruined my day,” while it may be true, is unlikely to draw a friendly—or productive— response.
Why do we call parents? Why do administrators ask us to “make positive phone calls,” “keep parents in the loop,” or “get the parent on the phone before the student gets home”? These calls, even though they are tough, are key to relationship building—and to creating a positive classroom environment.
Does Calling Parents Do Any Good?
As a beginning teacher, if I told an administrator I was having trouble with a student, I was invariably asked, “Did you call the parent?” I would think, “No, but what good would that do anyway?” But calling the parents can often be one of the most powerful and useful tools in your management tool kit. For example, finding out that the parent understands your struggle with their child, and supports you, can give you a new calmness and focus that will lead to solving the problem.
A teacher needs to take a step away from the situation. Compassion is key. Doubtless, no parents planned to have children with discipline or learning problems. Parents, too, may be experiencing confusion, frustration, and dismay about the student’s behavior. There is often a misalignment between parent and teacher: The teacher does not completely understand the student’s schema: their background, their understandings, their cultural underpinnings. And the parent often doesn’t understand the school culture: its expectations, its procedures, the things we have to do at school so that everyone can learn.
However, calling the parent does offer significant possible benefits:
- The parent may offer the teacher (and student) a new perspective.
- The parent may be able to give the student incentives or disincentives to change their behavior.
- The parent may be able to give the teacher hints about the student’s personality and history.
- The combination of parental and teacher concern may ramp up the student’s willingness to redirect their behaviors.
- Finally, the fact that you might call the parent can often give your words more weight with your student.
What Are The Steps to A Successful Parent Phone Call?
The teacher often is thinking about their needs in the situation and wants to impose their will on the student and parent. But the parent’s and student’s interests often coincide with your own.
The key is to flip the script on parent phone calls and look at the problem from the student’s and then the parent’s perspective. How is the student experiencing the problem situation? How will the parent feel about their student’s performance?
Knowing what to say during a phone call, and considering the parent’s perspective, can make the call go from a fearsome chore to a validation of your observations and work. Follow these steps to improve the parent phone call experience.
1. Take notes about what is concerning you. Have this information in front of you when you call, including notes about specific incidents. “He’s out of control” isn’t very helpful, while “She ran away from her teacher, the paraprofessional, and the assistant principal and was caught by the nurse at the back door” is clear.
2. Start the call by saying something good you’ve observed about the student. Emphasize that you want the child to succeed.
3. Tell the parent the general problem and what you’ve been doing about it. Recount what happened in the last 24 hours (yes, do not put it off longer than that) that has prompted your call.
4. Ask the parent if they’ve seen this type of problem at home, and if so, ask what works for them in dealing with this situation.
5. Listen supportively to their response until they are done speaking. Share potential solutions.
6. Conclude the call with a reiteration of what you will do next to support the student. If there are possible negative consequences in the offing (e.g., in regard to lower grades), go over how to prevent them. Ask the parent to support their student at home, perhaps in a way the two of you have now agreed on.
If you follow these steps, you will begin to understand your student’s situation. You will be able to offer thoughtful comments to the student gleaned from parent insight, and you might be able to give information from school observations that will help the parent at home.
A Personal Note
When I started teaching, I had significant classroom management difficulties. My principal told me to call. “You need to develop strong relationships with the parents of these second graders,” he said. “They will support you. They will give you information you need. Listen, and let them and the kids know that you are on their side.”
I didn’t have many other options. I called. Often. One day I called six different children’s parents. And in the morning after those calls, the parents had talked to my “high fliers,” and the atmosphere in the classroom changed. Ultimately I turned the classroom around that year, and the parent relationships were a big part of it. It was a great feeling.
That’s why the principal keeps telling you to call the parents. She wants you to experience that feeling too. Don’t put it off. Phone the parents, and hopefully you too can start developing those strong relationships with students and, yes, even with their parents… which is part of what makes teaching fun.