Closing the gap between school and home :)

In an ever-busy and increasingly demanding classroom, it can be very difficult to forge strong home-school links. Too often, communication with parents is limited to reporting the ‘bad news’. Sometimes ensuring a strong social line from the school to the home is difficult because you don’t quite know the approach or tone to take.

This year I’ve found the opportunity to communicate with parents using ClassDojo to be integral in maintaining strong links to the home. From a practical point of view, the parent can check in on their child’s progress so they feel like more of an active participant than a passive bystander in their child’s daily school life. But moreover, I’ve found the simple messages of ‘Remember it’s Swimming tomorrow’ or ‘Don’t forget to bring your coat for the Sponsored Walk!’ to be a subtle but incredibly useful way to utilise the potential of ClassDojo. The parent gets an alert, they don’t need to say anything back. They’re happy to have the reminder!

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Are you being transparent with your students’ parents?

It’s report card time. As teachers, we want to try to phrase things positively in reports. That’s someone’s child after all and no one responds well to pure criticism. However, sometimes you have to broach difficult topics in a report and the sugar coating can get in the way of communication.

My top tip from my first teaching mentor: parents usually only get mad if the bad news is a shock. I have noticed that parents react less negatively to a report, if they already were aware of the issue. So, if you need to get in contact with parents about a behavioral or organizational issue, do it before a parent-teacher conference or report cycle.

I had been writing reports for several years when I got into a conversation with a friend who home-educates her three children. I ran my best phrases past her to see if she could pick up what I was putting down. No. She could not. It was an eye-opener.

“Samantha is very enthusiastic but this can mean she does not give other children a chance to contribute.”

What I mean: “Samantha needs to raise her hand and stop shouting out.”

What a parent might hear: ”Samantha is a great orator and the other children love listening to her.”

Consider: “Samantha is very enthusiastic. She needs to remember to raise her hand in classroom discussions.”

“Joey does not always come prepared to lessons.”

What I mean: “Joey almost NEVER comes prepared to lessons.”

What a parent might hear: “Joey sometimes forgets his notebook from time to time.”

Consider “As we have already discussed over the phone, Joey very rarely brings his notebook and pen to lessons.”

“Jessica sometimes does not think about the consequences of her actions.”

What I think I mean: “Jessica is a total nightmare.”

What a parent might hear “Jessica is an adorable little scamp!”

Consider “Jessica gets into situations that distract her and others from the lesson (for example: …). I know she wants to do the right thing and I am supporting her by….”

Another tip, look for ways of automating the process that do not involve Mr Control C and Ms Control V. I’d much rather spend my time writing quality phrases that tell each child exactly how they are achieving and exactly how they can improve, instead of grinding away at typing out similar but not identical phrases for each child. For example, schoolreportwriter.com has a lovely system, where you upload a bank of comments and can choose the appropriate ones for each student. You can even switch adjectives and phrases around for a more tailored report.

Just remember to tell it to them straight, however you write it.

 

Never give up on parent engagement — find a way to get them involved!

Although it has been unintentional, I realize that my actions have led to families feeling disengaged from the school environment. This statement may cause some to be shocked, angry, or defensive — however, I believe it to be the truth (at least with regards to what I have experienced during my time as an educator).

Beginning as early as pre-school we start inviting families to come to school-based “meetings” to discuss behavior and academics. Instead of this experience being about working together for the student, I have noticed that these meetings often feel more like a lecture for the parent, as the school team members have typically met and dialogued before this meeting and appear very confident and clear on what it is they are about to tell this parent. If a student is considered “a behavior issue” or “low performing”, these meetings will likely take place with greater frequency, longer duration, more intensity, include more unknown acronyms, and quite possibly leave the parent feeling worse than they did pre-meeting. Unfortunately what began as a well-intentioned series of meetings from the school-team and a hopeful family needing assistance, over time, can result in a tired, frustrated and disengaged family.

It is now time for the student to enter high school, where he or she possibly requires a higher level of social, emotional, and academic support than his or her same-aged peers.  The English teacher has concerns, attempts to call home, and the school team is shocked and can’t understand how those parents can be so unavailable to come in to a meeting with the school team?! I know that I have had those thoughts and even said those words more than once.

It is no longer acceptable for educators to say:

“The parents won’t come to a meeting.”  

“I called three times, they clearly don’t care about supporting their child’s educational needs.”

“I would try and call, but it doesn’t matter. They won’t come anyway, and even if they do, nothing will change.” 

I have realized that it is essential that as professionals, we stay at the table with our families and never stop trying to engage. It needs to be an unconditional process.

School, family, and community partnerships are critical to students’ academic, social, and emotional outcomes. These partnerships need to be nurtured. When we start working with a family, we don’t know what their own educational experiences have been. They could have been very negative, causing them to be hesitant to partner with educational entities. We also may not know their past experiences with their own children in school up to this point. If there is any information that we do have regarding this family, it is likely that it has been passed down by other school professionals, causing us to make assumptions without ever having personally listened to the parent’s story.

All parents want to see their students be socially competent, academically successful, and able to positively contribute to our society. If you see resistance from families in the engagement process with school entities, try and give them the benefit of the doubt that they ultimately do want what is best for their child. We have to actively work to engage our families and nurture strong partnerships for the benefit of our youth. This partnership is critical. Stay at the table and continue to engage.

Ideas to consider:

  • Offer school materials in multiple languages to meet the demographic of your student/family population.
  • Send home positive communication regularly — don’t wait for something bad to happen to chat with parents
  • Offer to meet a family at a neutral site (i.e. coffee shop or library) to talk with them about school matters. This approach can take away negative feelings associated with the school, and may ultimately get them into the school building at a later point in time.
  • Never stop trying to meet with a parent/family. Consider having meetings at times the family chooses, rather than the school team.
  • Start a parent/family/community resource center. Allow there to be a safe place for these key stakeholders to come to school and receive information.
  • Offer meetings quarterly for parents/families to learn about important school items/topics. Think of multiple opportunities/ways to invite parents/families to these events. Consider having dinner and childcare available to make it more likely that they can attend.
  • Have a parent/family member on leadership teams throughout the building/district. Their voice is critical to our work.

Would love to hear your ideas for keeping parents engaged!

Set your year up for success: start communicating NOW!

Communication starts with expectations. If you start the year with a strong, clear message about you, your classroom, and your expectations you can be on track for an incredible school year. Here are four suggestions that can get your year off to a great start.

1. Set up your mobile messaging group
ClassDojo Messenger is a web browser and mobile messaging service that will bridge the gap between home and school. ClassDojo Messenger allows you to not only send whole class broadcasts to parents, but also privately and securely message parents about individual students.

2. Record a video introduction
Introduce yourself to everyone via video. The goal should be to instill confidence and communicate your professionalism (as well as your 21st century skills.) If you have certain school supplies, communicate those as well with examples to show. If you want students to come to class prepared, even show them how to assemble their binder. Set expectations about the year. Not everyone will come to open house but many will watch your video.

Create a link to your video after you’ve uploaded it to YouTube or SchoolTube by using a link shortener like bit.ly or goo.gl. Use this link in your emails or letters home. You can also see how many people went to that link, which will help you decide if it is worth the time next year.

3. Create your email list of parents (and students)
While you may not have every email of every parent, if you can have some, prepare to send a message to your group. Use a service like Boomerang to schedule these messages now. For example, you can send a reminder the day you start preplanning that you’re at school and excited. You can go ahead and write that email now and schedule it to be sent on a certain day. Imagine the power of an email that says,
“It is 8:00 am on the first day of school for me this year and the first thing I thought about is my new students!”

4. Send a letter home to your students
Include information on signing up for ClassDojo Messenger, a link to your video, and mention the email list to your parents in a letter that you mail home. Mention any school supplies or other important procedures such as how to schedule a conference.

Set expectations for how you’ll communicate. If this is the only letter sent home for the year, emphasize how you will communicate: bookbags, email, text messages? Let parents know what to expect.

Whether you use these specific suggestions or adapt your own, you should have a plan. The first time families hear from you should be a positive experience where you demonstrate your professionalism, set expectations, and communicate clearly. This can set a positive tone for the whole year. Good luck and start well!

Communicating with parents from day 1!

During my first year of teaching, I made the mistake of making a phone call home to discuss the negative behavior of a student in my classroom. This was within the first few weeks of school, and I received a jarring response, yet one that I learned a lot from. This student was refusing to do work, constantly disrupting the class, and often using disrespectful language to other students and to me. It came to a head one day, and I made a phone call after school to his mom. The conversation went something like this:

Me: “Hi, this is Ms. Christine, your child’s teacher.”

Mom: “Oh hi, is everything ok?”

Me: “Well, actually I was calling to talk about your child.”

…I went to on to summarize recent behaviors.

Mom: “Well honestly, this is the first time I am even talking to you this year. I don’t know you, and my son is also probably trying to get to know you. I don’t like that our first contact is about something negative. I would have loved to first learn about how you teach, how you run your classroom, and what your expectations are, that way I could use the same language with my son and he would know that you and I are on the same team.”

The conversation went on, and I completely understood and respected what she was saying. I didn’t reach out to families at the start of the year. I had planned to hold off until Back-to-School night, which was after the first month. That first month is so crucial to building on the rest of the year, and in hindsight, I should have made a positive contact with each family earlier.

After my conversation with that parent, I made sure to check in with each family, and have an initial get-to-know-you conversation. Throughout the year, I referred to students’ families as being on a team with me, where their child is our quarterback. We all need to work together to support the student. Making that initial initial phone call, talking in person, or chatting over ClassDojo Messenger, has made a huge difference in my classroom support system.

Time to drop email and start instant messaging with parents!

An integral piece of my success each year is developing strong communication with parents. There are various methods in which I attempt to keep my students’ parents informed. Parents can visit my classroom page on my school’s website to find out what topics are being covered, what tests are coming up, and what events our classroom might be participating in during any given week. I update my page weekly or even daily if required.

At the beginning of the school year, I emphasize that emails are the quickest form of communication for me. Although I would love to return their phone calls, it can be almost impossible due to the fact that the nearest phone is in the teachers’ lounge. I ensure parents that I can respond to their questions and concerns much quicker by email. However, a shift has occurred in my communication strategy. A new and exciting tool has opened up an even better line of communication: ClassDojo Messenger.

ClassDojo Messenger has become one of the best ways to get instant information to parents and receive instant feedback as well. Although my first time sending messages were due to student misbehavior, I was thrilled with the results as responses began pouring in from the parents of those few students who were involved. I informed the parents of the incident at 8:30am and by 9:15am I had either a response or an indication that my message was read.

Since then I have found a number of ways to use ClassDojo Messenger to assist my communication with parents. I’ve also noticed that the parents are using it more often as well. With the app notifying me that I have a message, I am able to answer those immediate questions at anytime. I wouldn’t normally see those questions on my email until the morning. If it were a question about homework or an event happening the next day, my response would have been too late.

So far, I’ve used ClassDojo Messenger to:

  • Remind parents of end of year procedures.
  • Provide a Field Trip checklist of things the students need.
  • Congratulate a student (via the parent) on his or her test grade.
  • Thank the parents for a great year and wish them a relaxing and safe summer.
  • Provide a little positive reinforcement for one or two challenges among my students.

I am surely looking forward to expanding the use of ClassDojo Messenger this school year. I also plan to check in on my students during the summer and send some loving messages to my former students. I’m excited to open a greater dialogue with parents through ClassDojo Messenger and see all the benefits associated with increased parent communication.

Communicating with parents in the digital world

Gone are the days when you only had access to parents via one-way monthly newsletters or twice-a-year parent teacher conferences. Thanks to technology you can easily keep in touch with your students’ parents all year-round.

Here are some tips to get your communicating with parents in the digital world:

Keep a Class Blog

Rather than sending home a monthly or weekly newsletter to parents that might never make it out of the bottom of your students’ backpacks, try starting a class blog. Set a schedule for posting and share that schedule with parents. Allow moderated comments on the posts to get parents involved with the classroom.

Have your students do most of the blogging. Assign one student a week to be the class chronicler. Have that student take photos, record interviews with other students, and summarize what the class learned. Weebly is an easy platform for students of all ages to use.

Get your class blog linked to your school’s homepage to show all the exciting work your class is doing!

Use a Messaging Service

Sending individual texts or emails to parents is time consuming and not very private. Let a messaging service, such as ClassDojo Messaging, do all the work for you. Once students and parents opt into the system, it allows you to easily send text message blasts to update all parents at once, or you can privately message them to keep them up-to-date on their child’s progress. You don’t see their phone numbers and they don’t see yours. This is a great option for families who may not have home Internet but do have smartphones.

Set Up a Class Social Media Account

If parents don’t want to have their phones buzzing all the time, consider starting a class Twitter account or Facebook page. You can use the page to share updates, photos, and links to student work. If your students are under 13, be sure to set the account to private. To view the page, all parents will need to have Twitter or Facebook accounts (many of them probably already do). Before setting up any class social media accounts, review your school’s Privacy Policy and check with administrators.

Make Parents Feel Welcome

Let parents know that your classroom is a welcome space for them. Consider inviting parents to your classroom on days when students are giving presentations or sharing projects. Working parents can use Skype or Google Hangouts to visit virtually.

Make the most out of communicating with parents!

I’m not sure about other teachers, but I found talking to parents particularly intimidating when I first started teaching. Having no children of my own and being in my early 20s, I was unsure of myself and it showed. Here are some tips to get the most out of communicating with parents:

1. Make contact before official events such as parent teacher conferences or report cycles. Get in touch to let parents know about your class, your expectations with regards to homework, and show them their child is in good hands.

2. Do not bombard parents with information. People these days get a lot of emails and text messages. Keep it short and to the point. Rule of thumb: The older the students are, the less the parents really want to read about what they did in class.

3. Praise students to parents. Send pithy emails or postcards about how great their child was. I sent a few off at the start of the year with what turned out to be a difficult class of 15 year olds. The most difficult of the students actually carried that postcard around with him for months. You can usually find something that a student has done well.

4. Don’t try to soften the blow with teaching euphemisms if you need to convey difficult or hard-to-hear information. I ran some of my best jargon past a friend of mine and she had zero idea that I was even giving bad news. If you need to say, “Your child is ruining every lesson with their poor behavior,” only sugar-coat this information lightly. Consider, “Johnny’s poor choices often mean he does not make any progress and makes learning harder for other members in the class.”

5. Don’t be a ‘yes’ man. If a parent is wrong, it is okay to let them know. Obviously you would not talk to them like they were a child. However, an adult-to-adult professional conversation should not always end with you agreeing to whatever the parent says. I watched in awe as my old boss talked down a parent who was insisting that his son should not have been suspended for a disciplinary issue because ‘everyone else was doing it’. She was masterful. She was gentle and polite but she was firm and gave no ground. And in the end, the parent agreed with my boss.

 

3, 2, 1, Contact!

Keeping the lines of communication open between teachers and parents is the key to unlocking a wealth of support and favor that will most certainly increase student success. However, the relationship between teachers and parents is often a tenuous one. How and when should teachers contact parents in regards to student behavior issues?

As a precursor to contacting parents, be sure that you have a set of clear expectations for students posted in your classroom. This gives students a visual reminder of the rules with no question about what is expected. You might also want to send a copy of those rules home at the beginning of the school year for parents to read and discuss with their children. Start on the first day of school! This lays the groundwork for you and your students’ parents to be on the same page.

Next, make parents your partners! Start the year off on a positive note by contacting each parent within the first week or two to praise their child. You may want to try ClassDojo Messaging for this! This will help you build a positive rapport with parents, which they want! Traditionally, parents only receive communication about their children when there is a problem. Parents don’t like negative surprises. Turn the tables and pleasantly surprise them! Build a positive classroom environment and culture of respect by bragging about students to those who love them most. The amount of support and cooperation you will receive following these acts will be astounding!

In the case of a student who is repeatedly making poor choices, he or she should consistently receive the consequences listed in your behavior plan. A grace or warning period is traditionally granted before consequences are given. Every school setting has a different protocol, so it is important to be stay on the same page as other teachers.

Behavior that is consistently impeding the student’s learning and disrupting the learning environment is unacceptable and must be addressed. Behavior that is deliberately aggressive and malicious toward other students cannot be tolerated. Parent communication about the student’s behavior choices is often effective when trying to curb or curtail the behavior. If the unwanted student behavior continues, repeated parent communication or a referral to administration has proven to be effective.

If you’ve already shared positive feedback with parents previously, sharing negative student behavior becomes more impactful and more deeply understood by parents. Start by expressing gently your concerns over the poor choices being made by the student and provide concrete details. This puts you in the role of the supportive teacher who only wants success for the student.

Choosing the best means of communication to a parent is often situational. Phone calls seem to be the time-tested favorite method of contacting parents. Many parents use technology daily and prefer emails. However, some parents do not have a consistently working phone number, or Internet access, so written correspondence would be the most appropriate. Many educators use student agendas or planners as a communication tool with parents. Some teachers even allow parents access to their personal cell phone numbers so that they may communicate by text messaging.

The use of ClassDojo as a means for parent communication is also very effective, if parents have any internet access at home. In fact, if you use ClassDojo as a behavior management tool in your classroom, parents can create an account that allows them to view their child’s behavior progress and receive messages from teachers. ClassDojo’s Messaging feature is extremely effective, convenient, and free. Parents love ClassDojo because they receive instant feedback during the work day, and are more involved in their child’s school life.

There is no handbook on parent communication. However, if parent communication is frequent and positive, it will play a large role in the success of their child in your classroom. Your proactive behavior in the realm of parent communication sets the stage for supportive attitudes and smoother communication throughout the school year.

It’s never been easier engaging parents, but why aren’t we doing it?

When I first started teaching, I would only reach out to parents when their children were not doing what was expected of them — whether that was academically or behaviorally. I realized much later that I was overly concentrating on “troubled” or struggling students, and unintentionally paid less attention to students performing adequately or exceedingly well.

I eventually decided to send students home with positive notes of encouragement, commending them on their great work and behaviors. One student came in the next school day to tell me he was punished when he told his parents he had a note from his teacher. His parent apparently jumped to the conclusion that something bad happened, as they had never received a positive letter from a teacher before.

Parents want to be kept in the loop, and we as educators should be finding more effective ways to partner with them. The best relationships between teachers and parents that I’ve seen are ones formed on regular communications. In mentoring other teachers, I recommend they find out the best way each parent would like to be communicated with before school starts.  In addition to that, I suggest teachers try to send home positive messages more often than “needs work” or developmental ones. It helps build the basis for a solid relationship, so that parents and teachers can work together and help students succeed.

I also recommend teachers use a communication tool that makes the most sense for their classroom environment and dynamic. Some parents prefer handwritten notes, others email, and a number of teachers are trying out the new ClassDojo Messaging tool. No matter your method – I always recommend enabling two-way conversations, encouraging parents to respond and better understand how they can help inside the home. In creating this environment of more frequent communications, teachers always seem to find their students perform at a higher level with more enthusiasm — and that’s an outcome everyone aims for.