By Rachel Fuhrman
In today’s world, it is easy to ignore unwanted calls and avoid engaging with someone or something you aren’t in the mood for. Unfortunately for me, my students’ families saw me as one of those unwanted calls. During my first year of teaching, I could not figure out how to get my students families on the phone and struggled to understand why they were hesitant to talk to me. However, I quickly began to realize that I would probably ignore someone too if each time I answered, there was a new problem/complaint/incident involving my child at school that I had to address. Many families are accustomed to only hearing from a teacher when something has gone wrong.
While it isn’t necessarily conducive to improving student outcomes, the apathetic attitude that many families presented was understandable. Regardless, I was not planning on giving up on building a strong structure of two-way communication between myself and my students’ families. Such communication has been shown to improve student outcomes as parents become more aware of their students’ actions and teachers garner crucial information about students’ needs (Patrikakou, 2008). Over the past three years I have shifted from being an unwanted phone call, to becoming not only a consistent point of contact for my families, but a trusted confidant and advocate for families’ needs. I attribute this shift to my implementation of positive communication through phone calls, text messages, and emails.
Opening these lines of communication begins at the start of the school year. One of my first actions once I have my class roster, is to reach out to each family proactively and introduce myself, find out their preferred mode of communication-call, text, email- and determine who the best contact is for each of my students. Not only does this establish the line of communication early on, but it provides my families with a positive interaction that is not related to any student behavior and is purely for the purpose of establishing a connection. The current rise of varied family styles today makes it crucial for me as a teacher to establish an open line of communication with all parties involved in the lives of my students, not just parents (Pew Research Center, 2015).
In my own experience, the familial unit behind students has included brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, grandparents, and cousins and it would be wrong to ignore the efforts put forth by these parties when engaging in communication. Although a parent may be my first point of contact, I always ask who else I should be in contact with to ensure that I am involving everyone who wants to be involved. Finally, I also ask my students who they want me to share their successes with. This is often a someone other than a parent, often a grandparent or older sibling, and provides me with greater insight into my students’ lives and upbringing. This information furthers my ability to grow the united front of adults working to ensure the best outcomes for each child.
Once this initial contact has been established, I shift my focus to positive communication. I outline a schedule for myself that requires a minimum of three positive phone calls per week per class that I teach. I often focus on a student’s growth during a given time period, an exemplary action I saw a student take, or an academic achievement. When I first began engaging in such positive communication, my calls were often sent to voicemail. However, as families came to realize that I was not calling to share something negative, as is often the case with a call from the school, they began to express their gratitude for the updates and grew more and more open to engage in conversations with me. Through these positive conversations, I am able to explicitly express how proud I am of each student, communicate my continued high expectations, and thank parents for the work they put it on their end. I can then leverage these relationships with families if an issue arises in the future.
While I would like to envision a world in which I only ever had positive things to communicate with parents, I recognize that it is not the reality. With many of my students, there comes a time where I do need to let families know about a less than pleasant situation- a lack of participation, a low grade, a behavioral incident. While families may have grown defensive or dismissive with teachers in the past, these same families are grateful for my communication and are eager to discussion resolutions. I attribute their attitude shift to the positive foundation I have established; Families recognize that I have their children’s best interest in mind and that I have seen and communicated their strengths as openly as their areas for growth. These trusting relationships between me and my families allows us to work together to find resolutions that ensure the continued academic and emotional growth of all students.
Rachel is currently a sixth-grade math teacher in New Orleans, LA. She recently earned her Master of Science in Education Studies from the Johns Hopkins University School of Education. She is passionate about improving educational equity and strives to serve traditionally underserved communities. Additionally, she plans to pursue a Ph.D. in Urban Education in the future in order to further identify avenues through which to support all students in achieving at the highest levels.