1.3 Communicating with parents at the beginning of the year
My first communiqué to parents was a disaster. It was too long, too late and unintentionally insensitive. The worst part of it was a line that said all students were required to have certain supplies in class by the third day of school. Even reading it now, it seems innocuous enough. However, when day three arrived, and I began to note who had come prepared in my grade book, I also noted a marked change in the students’ behavior. Some shifted in their seats. Others muttered under their breath. And one handed me a note from his mother. “Mrs. Smith,” it began, “Like most people in this town, I work in the local mill. We get paid at the end of the month, and my child will have his supplies after that.”
I have always believed that you must build relationships with students in order to teach them effectively. At that moment, I learned that you must also build relationships with their families. My students needed supplies. I needed the support of their parents to make sure those supplies were put to good use at home as well as in the classroom. And I had just gotten off on the wrong foot.
Getting off on the right foot
I have since altered my approach to communicating with parents.
- I ask colleagues what I need to know about the community before I meet my first students,
- I make sure I have a supply list available at open houses and orientations before school begins,
- I collect used notebooks and dividers from students at the end of each year (when they are cleaning out their lockets and heading for the garbage), and
- I let parents know that while those used supplies last, they are available free of charge to any student who stops by my room outside of class time to ask.
Making sure parents are informed
In addition to the greeting and supply list they receive before the school year begins, I distribute a syllabus on day one that contains:
- course description and goals
- rules, policies and procedures
- notes on classroom culture
- description of the grading system
- list of promises to students
- a place for parents/guardians to respond
The response section should include a place for parents/guardians to indicate understanding of the information and a space for them to provide information of their own. They may note a phone number you should have or list facts about their child’s learning style or medical needs. (Make sure that this response section is on a portion of the syllabus you can detach for your own record keeping while allowing the student to keep the syllabus!)
Finally, I attach a welcome letter to each syllabus, explaining who I am and how much I am looking forward to getting to know them. (I’ve drafted a sample welcome letter and syllabus, which you can use as a template.)
Making personal contact
In addition, I recommend that teachers attempt to call every parent during the first two days of school. This is no small task. Many of the phone numbers you will receive from the school (and from some students) are incorrect. Furthermore, when you have 90–120 students at a time (not uncommon for secondary school teachers), just attempting to reach all of their homes can take seven or more hours. In other words, you won’t get much else done during the afternoons on those two days! Still, I believe the rewards make the time and effort worthwhile.
Calling during the “honeymoon” phase of the year (which ranges from no time at all to three or four days and refers to a time when most students are still quietly gaining a sense of their environment), means you can connect in a conversation that is purely positive. James’ mother may hear, for the first time ever, that he has been a model student in class so far. James receives the positive attention and may decide that he likes it and is willing to work to earn more of it. The best-case scenario is that you have just saved yourself countless hours of wondering what you could have done to get James more invested. The worst case scenario is that James still doesn’t invest, but you already know how to reach his mother, and you have proved to her that you are not out to get her son.
Finally, remember to note all interactions in your parent/guardian contact log.
And remember that you know your classroom, but these parents and guardians know your students. Working together, you can make sure that those students succeed.