Tick. Tick. Tick. The analog clock always seemed so loud whenever I had to make a caregiver call during my first few years of teaching. I was in a rural school district in Maine—where I had just moved—and my students’ families were not wild about the “not-from-here” 22-year-old who was teaching their kids. The first month was difficult, as I had taken on a seasoned teacher’s class three days before school began. I spent hours agonizing over how and what to say when I had to talk to families. Then my first unofficial mentor arrived. Nancy hadn’t been teaching long because this was her second career. However, she helped me build my confidence around speaking to caregivers and was my sounding board when I tried to figure out the right things to say during those early years.
Learning about Family Communication from Veteran Teachers
After my husband finished his master's, we left Maine for Delaware. I jumped right into teaching in one of the city schools and had a challenging class of students. I was constantly communicating with caregivers as my students tested me to see if I would continue as their teacher. I was fortunate that my students' parents, principal, and teachers on my team were supportive. As I taught, I paid close attention to what veteran teachers said and did during caregiver interactions. Watching them communicate shaped how I now hold parent–teacher conferences, communicate with families, and track my communication.
In my eight-year career, I’ve taught in four different districts in two states—three states if you count undergraduate placements and student teaching. One of the most valuable things I’ve gleaned from these moves is how to communicate with different families. At each new school, one of the first things I do is find that veteran teacher and learn from them. Communicating effectively with families is like learning a second language, especially when you’re new to the community.
Here are some tips I’ve picked up on my educational journey.
1. Get to Know Your Families from the Start
Use a back-to-school night to get to know parents. Find out all about your families and how they like to communicate by creating a fun activity sheet for students and parents to complete together. If your school doesn’t do a back-to-school night or families don’t attend, plan to contact them in the first two weeks of school. Early communication will set a positive tone for the entire school year.
2. Plan Communication into Your Weekly Schedule
At the beginning of the school year, I use part of my planning time to create a communication schedule. I plan one day to focus completely on communication with families. I also create email and online templates for positive communication or behavioral incidents. Templates speed up difficult communication, especially when you must communicate in writing.
3. Make Seven Positive Communications per Week
Seven positive communications were required at one of my previous schools, but it’s something I’ve continued. I make a template of student names and space for dates at the top. Each week on Friday, I pick seven students for a positive communication email or message and send it. I do this the entire year, and they make a big difference at conferences and behavior meetings.
4. Seek Help from Your Team
Have a behavior phone call you are dreading? Find out if anyone else worked with this student during this difficult time. If so, ask them to join you on the phone call. It’s helpful to have two adults sharing what happened, especially if the student took a break outside your classroom. A second voice and listening ear can help you reach a solution sooner.
5. Track All Communication
Tracking communication is everyone’s least favorite tip, but it’s important because it protects you! Use a spreadsheet, print a template, or buy a pretty journal. Do whatever you have to track all communication. Every time you speak or write to a family, record names, dates and times, methods of communication, and a short synopsis of what was said.
6. Be Consistent
When choosing how to communicate with families, choose a method and time frame you can meet. For example, if answering emails in 24 hours is not a reasonable expectation, pick a more realistic time frame, like 48 hours, that works for you. Families will appreciate time frame policies because it sets expectations up front. It also establishes a firm boundary that respects your time.
These approaches to family communication helped me tremendously. I hope they help you.
Want more on effective family communication? Listen to this episode of our Extraordinary Educators™ podcast.