The Power of Positive Communication
Setting a goal of positive contact with every student’s family helped a middle school teacher deepen relationships and boost her own morale.
The demands of teaching can feel overwhelming at times, and it can become easy to lose sight of the most important reason we teach: the students. Each student is special and deserves to be appreciated for his or her unique traits. By developing a system to send positive notes home on a regular basis, I have found that I keep my students’ successes in the front of my mind, and rough days are quickly put into perspective—for the students, their families, and me.
Most teachers are required to contact home when a student performs poorly in the classroom—academically, behaviorally, or both. My own teaching has positively grown through my intentionally contacting families when students perform well.
At the beginning of each school year, in addition to setting up a new grade book, I set up a chart listing every student alphabetically by last name. In the columns, I list the dates when I make contact with families, the method (email, carpool line, in-person meeting, or phone call), and the reason for contact. Throughout the year, whenever I need to contact a family, I make sure to enter it into the chart, with the goal of contacting each family with a positive note home at least once.
At the beginning of the year, I contact families who are new to the school within the first two weeks. In my experience, these families have some anxiety about their child being in a new environment, and they feel relieved when they hear that the year is going well from an adult’s perspective. It also helps for them to have a contact at the school in case of questions in the future.
As the year progresses, I set new goals. Last year, my goal was to contact half of my students’ families with a positive note by Thanksgiving. This year, I’m moving the goal to contact everyone with a positive note home before the end of January.
My practices in positive contact began my second year of teaching when sending home messages of concern began to weigh on my own spirit of optimism. I realized that if I sent a positive email each time I sent an email of concern, I could refocus my energy into recognizing the students who made the day a delight.
Now, years after that realization, I try to send positive emails before the concerns arise so that each family has a positive story to tell about their child’s school experience.
Some of the most obvious contacts are the easiest. When a student does exceptionally well on a difficult assessment like an essay or a pop quiz, I contact his or her family. But assessments are not the only opportunity to send home praise. Contact can be about a student excelling in soft skills: mediating a disagreement in group work, pairing up with a lonely student during class, or showing empathy to a classmate having a rough day. Their behavior need not be exceptional; I have sent notes about students habitually coming into the classroom and following procedures, reliably completing homework, and tackling difficult tasks with a positive attitude.
To make sure that no student has contact only for negative reasons, I color-code the fonts of the chart. Later, when I open the chart, I can quickly scan for colors and see if I have a positive note for a follow-up, typically two or three weeks after the original contact for poor performance. I take that time to observe students and note any positive moments I can in order to contact home again with a positive growth note.
Seeing Each Student
By setting an intentional goal to email home with a positive, personal anecdote, I make sure that no student is invisible in my classroom. As I scroll through my list each week, I can see which students’ families haven’t been contacted yet, and I am able to home in on those relationships and develop them intentionally. Too often, students who receive the most attention are those who are relationship-seeking with negative behaviors such as acting out or underperforming on assessments. The rest of the families might not hear from the school the entire year, despite their students’ great attitude and work ethic. Intentional tracking allows me to recognize those students for the habits they bring as well.
In the course of intentionally noticing and praising the attitudes and behaviors of my students, I’ve been able to build positive community between the school and home. Not only do parents appreciate receiving a glimpse into their adolescent’s daily life (especially when conversation might be short at home), but they appreciate their child being seen and recognized by an adult. Knowing that someone at the school is looking beyond the standards, grading, and checklists to see each child as an individual goes a long way in building rapport and credibility between the two most important parties in education: home and school.