Keeping parents informed is a yearlong responsibility, but one that has huge potential to make a positive difference in a child's educational experience. Parents don't need to be sitting in the classroom to help their child, but they do need to know what you expect from their children. Connecting with them through positive communication helps them reinforce the right academic habits and classroom behavior that will help students succeed.
Telephone calls, email, class Web sites, newsletters, and handwritten notes are all effective ways to maintain communication with parents.
Telephone calls are the next best thing to face-to-face conferences. Experienced teachers offer their telephoning tips:
- Make a practice of calling one parent a week to relay good news. Keep track of these "sunshine" calls to make sure each family receives at least two during the school year.
- Telephone etiquette demands that we address the person we are calling by name. Many students have different last names from their parents. Make sure you know the name before you call.
- Keep track of all calls made - good news or bad. Note the date, nature of the call, parents' responses, and outcomes. (A paper trail is very important for teachers today)
- Your first call to a parent should be a positive one. One idea is to make welcoming call just before the new school year begins. Many kindergarten and first grade teachers find that welcoming calls not only help establish good rapport with parents, they ease young students' anxieties about going to school.
- Call or email those parents who don't respond to a written invitation for group or individual conferences. A call lets them know you're interested, and it could encourage those who are hesitant.
Recently, technology has enhanced the telephone's effectiveness as a bridge between home and school. In some schools, each teacher has an answering machine or voice mail. They record a brief daily message about learning activities, homework, and what parents can do to extend or support classroom learning. Then parents can call anytime from anywhere to receive the information.
The Written Word (Electronic or Handwritten)
For school-to-home communication, email has vast potential. Electronic notes are fast becoming an important link between teachers and parents. If you have email access at school, take advantage of this powerful tool.
Other forms of writing are effective, too. Newsletters, monthly calendars, informal letters or notes, and interim reports are all ways teachers write to parents. In fact, writing is the most frequent form of communication between home and school.
There are two types of written messages sent home: messages for the whole class and messages about individual students. Most common among the whole-class messages are the newsletter and the open letter to parents. Most common among the individual messages are the personal notes to parents and weekly or monthly progress reports.
Surveys of parents consistently prove that they read school newsletters and consider them a useful source of information. Parents indicate that classroom newsletters are even more helpful.
Following are some ideas of what to include in classroom newsletters:
- Announcement of upcoming events
- Invitations to class activities or open house
- Lists of items parents could collect or save for class projects
- Thank you notes to families who help out
- Descriptions of study units and suggestions of ways to supplement units at home
- Library schedule
- Reprints of articles you think are important
- Explanations of grading policies, standardized testing, and other means for assessing and evaluating performance
- Explanations of behavior standards and consequences of misbehavior
- Highlights of community resources such as a museum exhibit, play, concert, or television show
- Children's writing and artwork
- News about classroom pets, trips, celebrations
The format can be as simple as a typed letter or it can be a professional-looking newsletter with headlines and columns. (Most word-processing software has the capabilities for producing multi-column documents and other newsletter features.) Whatever format you decide on, keep it clean and uncluttered. Headlines help readers locate topics easily, and simple graphics help to summarize main points and grab attention. No matter what format you decide upon, use the same one for each newsletter so that it is instantly recognizable for parents.
Other points to consider when developing your newsletter, include:
Length: Keep newsletters brief and to the point. One or two pages (back-to-back to conserve paper) are sufficient for a weekly newsletter. More than that and it becomes too expensive and time consuming.
Tone: The newsletter projects an image of you and your class. What attitude do you want to convey? Serious? Whimsical? Proud and full of school spirit? You can convey tone through the words you use and the newsletter's format. Avoid jargon, and always proofread.
Frequency: How often you send home a newsletter depends upon your purpose. If you are suggesting supplemental activities, a weekly newsletter is probably your best bet. If you are showcasing student work and highlighting achievements or contributions, a less frequent newsletter will suffice. A weekly update can be more informal, and is less cumbersome and timelier. Also, many teachers report that parents find it easier to get in the habit of reading a weekly newsletter. However frequently you send a newsletter, send it on the same day each week or month so parents will learn to expect it and look for it. And, don't forget to date it.
Open Letter to Parent
Teachers who don't regularly produce newsletters-and even many that do-find that a general letter to all parents can be useful. For example, start the school year with an open letter to parents. This letter can cover nitty-gritty details, such as homework policies and student supplies that you wouldn't want to include in a personal welcoming call to each family. Send other letters throughout the year to make special announcements, explain a new policy, ask for volunteers, and so on.
Starting with positive first contacts helps you to gain parents' trust and confidence before you have to enlist their help if a problem should develop.
Share good news about individual children with their parents. These warm touches on paper go a long way in cultivating good relationships with both parents and students. Has a child accomplished an academic goal? Helped you or someone else? Finished her or his homework on time? Tutored a younger child? Led a group? Let parents in on the good news. Good-news notes allow you to recognize and reward the efforts of individual students. For example:
Dear Mr. and Mrs. Jones,
I thought you would be pleased to know how well Amanda is progressing in reading. Her work improves every day, and her cheerful attitude brightens the whole classroom.
Two words of caution: Keep track of the good-news notes you send out so every student occasionally receives one (Some teachers routinely write several a week.) And never distribute the notes en masse. They are not special if everyone gets one.
Unfortunately, not all your personal notes will be good news. Perhaps you've noticed that a child seems sick, or constantly tired. Perhaps a shy student seems to be withdrawing more every day. You need to tell parents. But, if you have already contacted them on a positive note, chances are they'll be more responsive now to problems. Always let them know you share the problem.
No matter what the nature of your personal note, always invite a response. Urge parents to call you, schedule an appointment, or write back. If they don't, call them. Show them that you care.