Quick Tip Tuesday: Communicating with families

July 7th, 2009

It’s the phone call no teacher likes to make: telling a parent that their child is not doing well in class or is having behavioral issues. The authors of TeamWork: Setting a Standard for Collaborative Teaching, Grades 5-9, found a way to make parents their allies in getting the best out of their students. In this week’s Quick Tip, they share their strategies for making that uncomfortable phone call more productive.

Whether we communicate with our students’ families in person, via the telephone, or in writing, we spread the message that their children are special to us. Whenever we contact parents or guardians, we follow the same format:
1. Say something positive (you may have to dig deep).
2. State what happened and how the student’s behavior is keeping him (and, potentially, his peers) from learning.
3. Say something positive (you may have to dig deeper).

For example, instead of saying, “Johnny talks all the time during class. He never takes notes, and if he doesn’t get it under control he’ll fail the unit,” we might take a different approach. “Good afternoon, Mrs. Doe. I’m just calling to let you know how Johnny has been doing in class. He is one of our most outgoing students, really friendly to everyone in the class. Recently he has been forgetting to take his notes and practice the sample problems. I know how much you and your husband want Johnny to succeed, so I’m sure you’ll be encouraging him at home to work to his full potential in the classroom, and he can still be just as sociable at recess.”

Another approach we use is to make the introductory and closing remarks and let the student tell her mom or dad what she’s been up to. This idea occurred to us after we had many phone conversations with parents who didn’t believe our account of their children’s misbehaviors. We thought (correctly, as it turned out) that if the students heard the disappointment or anger in their parents’ voices, they might be more motivated to immediately correct their behavior.

One such conversation went as follows: “Hello, Mr. Davis, this is Kathryn Edmonds, Lance’s teacher, calling from Dutchtown Middle School. Today in math class we are learning several probability concepts, which are not only going to be on Lance’s nine-weeks exam but also on the statewide assessment in three weeks. This is usually a tough unit for students, and I know how well you expect Lance to perform. Lance is here with me now, and I’m going to let him talk to you and share how he’s been using his time in math class this morning.”
“Dad, this is Lance. I haven’t been doing my work this morning, and now my teacher is upset. (PAUSE) No, sir, I didn’t write any of the notes. (PAUSE) Nope, I didn’t do the activity either. (PAUSE) Well, uh, I was sleeping at first; then when she woke me up, I didn’t know what we were doing, so I started tearin’ up paper and throwin’ it on the floor. (LONG PAUSE) He wants to talk to you again, Mrs. Edmonds.”
“Hey, Mr. Davis, it’s Kathryn again.”
“Mrs. Edmonds, I am so sorry you had to call me to get Lance to finally focus in class. I would like a copy of the notes and the activity, and Lance will complete everything tonight, twice if it’s not perfect the first time!”
“Yes, sir, I hate that I had to call you, too, but I know you only want the best for your son.”
“Yes, ma’am, thank you, and please know this will not happen again. But if he starts to slip, please don’t hesitate to call me anytime.”
“Thank you, Mr. Davis. Have a good rest of the day.”

Lance took notes and completed all of his activities for a solid eight weeks (a major achievement for a special education student with an individualized education plan [IEP] that included a behavior plan).

Our multifaceted team effort to build bonds between school and home has made an astounding difference in our interactions with students’ families. Establishing and maintaining strong, positive relationships with parents and guardians is a conscious part of our work, never an afterthought. They are vital partners in education, and we no longer take them for granted.

The degree to which our relationships have changed became clear in the summer of 2006, as we were preparing our presentation for the Disney American Teacher Awards. During our deliberations, we realized that we needed a video clip of Markeith. We called his home to request the opportunity to film him during the next week. Markeith’s mom responded, “You need Markeith? Yes, Mrs. Mayeaux, we will take him to you right now.”

Ten minutes later, Markeith’s brother dropped him off at Monique’s house, and we completed the videotaping. Only when Markeith was about to leave did we learn the entire story. Markeith had been on his way to a doctor’s appointment when we called. His mother quickly rescheduled the appointment and rerouted him to Monique’s house because “his teachers needed him.”

That kind of parental support is invaluable to a teaching team. It is worth the time and effort to cultivate such relationships because they enrich us personally and professionally. Our relationships with students’ families are based on mutual concern for the most important people in the parents’ lives—their children. We have found that our students’ families go out of their way to support our decisions because they know how much we care for their children.

Entry Filed under: Quick Tip Tuesday

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