With all the pressure that comes with being a first-year teacher, reaching out to parents early in the year can feel like your lowest priority. But building relationships with parents can set you and your students on a path to success, and it can save time in the longer run.
My biggest mistake was that I waited to make those calls. I was young and nervous. Once I did start calling, I quickly learned what a valuable resource parent and guardian support can be. And I was asked several times, “Why didn’t you call sooner?”
Calling does take time, though. If you call six homes and talk for 10 to 15 minutes, the time can add up. But making a phone call or two at the end of the day—or during lunch, or on the weekend—is well worth it. Harvard education researchers Matthew Kraft and Shaun Dougherty discovered numerous benefits of teachers phoning students’ homes: “Frequent teacher-family communication immediately increased student engagement.... On average, teacher-family communication increased the odds that students completed their homework by 40 percent, decreased instances in which teachers had to redirect students’ attention to the task at hand by 25 percent, and increased class participation rates by 15 percent.”
Calling Parents With Concerns and Issues
As I made more calls throughout the year, I got better at putting parents at ease. Often they were a little nervous at the start of the conversation, and I found I got better results by focusing on collaboration rather than confrontation. How you open is important, so consider these steps for calling a student’s home when you need to discuss a problem or concern.
1. Introduce yourself by your first name. Sometimes we teachers address each other as Mr., Ms., or Mrs., but I suggest we approach parents or guardians as peers. When we use our first name, it lightens any tension—and there is often tension on that first call—and works to establish right away that we are collaborating in supporting their child.
2. Begin the conversation with a positive. This looks something like, “I’m Jessica’s English teacher, and I’d like to start by saying I really appreciate her sense of humor. She gets us all laughing, and she is a reason period three is one of my favorite classes.” By doing this, you convey to the parent or guardian that you see all aspects of who the child is, not just his or her challenges.
3. Describe only actions—avoid labeling. After setting a positive tone, move on to the issue. Avoid saying things like, “Jonathan is disrespectful," and instead try, “Jonathan often talks when I am talking or when classmates are sharing out, and when I ask him to please just listen, he often continues talking.” Stay away from words like defiant, rude, hyperactive, etc. Describing a child’s actions is simply providing data; this establishes you not as judge but rather as an observer. Then share the consequences or steps you’ve already taken following the child’s actions.
4. Ask questions seeking support. Once you’ve described the child’s actions and the consequences, what happens next is crucial—asking parents or guardians for their support and advice. This creates the “we” connection you want and need with parents. For example, “What are some ideas you might have to help me support Jonathan and get him back on track?” or “What might be a suggestion for talking with him? What works best with him?”
Calling With Good News
Phone calls home need not be reserved for problems. Strongly consider calling the homes of students who have improved their efforts or class grade, been helpful to their classmates or to you, or contributed routinely to class discussions, for example. Students talk to each other about their teachers (like it or not), and a positive phone call home will not only give you props with kids but contribute to building trust, rapport, and community. And these calls are great morale boosters for you after you make the difficult calls.
Sending Texts and Emails
For positive comments and good news, text messages and emails are great. For concerns and problems, phone calls or meetings are the wisest routes. As we all know, texts and emails can be misconstrued. Talking with parents or guardians in real time avoids any of those digital message mishaps and, more importantly, allows you to immediately answer questions, clarify any concerns, and construct next steps together.
Invite Family Members Into Your Classroom
It wasn’t until my second year teaching that I was instructed by a veteran teacher to create opportunities for family members to visit, beyond back-to-school night and open houses. When I offered this invitation, I was surprised that family members of my students actually took me up on it.
We can invite students’ family members to come give talks, assist in the classroom, share an area of expertise, or even co-teach a lesson. We can extend our classroom community to include those folks who are educating their children in all kinds of ways at home. When we see parents and family members as collaborators in educating students, it can be transformational. (Here’s a Pinterest page of ideas for family volunteer forms.)
Just take one step at a time. Make those first calls home to get the collaboration ball rolling. When we build relationships with family members of our students and work to maintain those relationships throughout the school year, we find alliances for supporting students in ways we couldn’t imagine.