Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Opening the Lines of Communication

As school begins again for many students and teachers, you might find yourself busy thinking about classroom set-up, organization, management, and lesson planning. There is a lot to juggle at the start of school, not to mention getting to know students and our fellow teachers, if we are new. But there is one element of the school community that we cannot forget about...the parents and families. Although the parents of our students are not with us all day long, they are still a vital part of the school community. Without active parents we would not be able to raise money for much needed supplies. We would not have volunteers to help us with projects, field trips, and other school activities. Our students would not have a support system to help them get through the various traumas that can happen during the school year.

Parents really and truly make a difference in the lives of our students. A supportive parent can make the difference between a failing student who doesn't care and a student who strives to do the best they can. Additionally, a supportive parent can really make a difference for teachers as well. Wouldn't you rather have parents on your side offering to do whatever they can to help support you? One way we can gain this support is by keeping parents and families informed of what is happening in the classroom.

Although we may not think about it, parents are very interested and concerned about what goes on in the school all day. After all, it is their child, their baby (no matter how old), that we have in our classroom. They want to know what their child/teen is doing and how they are progressing on a regular basis. Of course, all parents want to hear how fabulous their child is and how much you adore having this unique individual in your class. Who wouldn't? No matter what, parents are dying to know what happens in school. This is a curiosity we should encourage and support because it means we have caring parents who will make a difference in the life of our students. So what can we do at the beginning of the year to help make a smooth transition for both the parents and the students?

  1. Write a letter to send home to parents the first or second week of school. Although it is best to send it home on the very first day, there may be some schools who started early and are already into their third or fourth week of school. Better late than never, I say! In your letter, introduce yourself. Explain your schedule and offer information about your conference period when parents can contact you. Include information about your procedures and your management system. Let the parents know you will be sending home more information as the school year progresses, and make them feel welcome to call or email you with their questions. While this may feel as though you are opening yourself to more stress, many parents will not take you up on this offer. Most do not want to bother the teacher, especially at the beginning of the school year. You may have a few parents call or email you, but at least you will have opened the door of communication.

Tech Tip: When gathering parent information, the PTA and school will ask for parent email addresses. You should too. If you don't get it from the parents, check with the PTA directory chair and/or the attendance officer to get email addresses for each family.

Create a "Group" of parent email addresses. Be sure to put the child's name in the listing to help you identify each one. For example, you might list one family as: Perducci family (Cadence), or Torres family (Paul R.). This helps when the parent last name is not the same as the child's last name. Be sure to name your group something that will help both you and parents recognize it.

Send your initial parent letter home via email using these groups in the address bar. This way parents only see the group name of "2nd period English" or "Mrs. Letty's 5th Grade Class 09-10." No email addresses will be shared with other parents. Sending letters home via email helps you keep a "green" classroom.

Include links to your classroom website, parent blog, and class twitter account if you have one. Parents can easily click on the link to locate these online resources. Encourage parents to save these links in their Favorites folder so they can easily find them in the future.

  1. Send home a newsletter within the first six weeks of school. This newsletter should outline again, the daily schedule (for elementary), specific procedures you use in your classroom, and your discipline system. Let parents know how your system of rewards & consequences works so they do not feel kept in the dark. Many parents will help you reinforce that system at home if they are aware of what you are doing in the classroom. However, they cannot help if they do not know what you are doing. Let parents know about the expectations you have for students. The more you tell them about how your classroom works, the more they will be able to reinforce those ideas at home.

I also like to outline topics that I am teaching. I don't go into great detail, but let parents know what they can expect their child to be learning. For example, I might say, "This week in Science we are studying the 5 Senses. In Social Studies we are studying all about the Continents. In ELA we are doing reading inventories to identify reading abilities." This at least gives the parents some idea of what their child is learning. If you are teaching only one subject area, you may want to go into further detail about the topic and activities happening in class.

Create a template on the computer that you can use each week. Simply highlight the information that has changed and type in the new information for each newsletter.

My newsletter includes the following sections:

This Week -- tells what we are studying this week

Thank You -- gives volunteers a thank -you for helping out. I try to thank specific people.

Birthdays -- elementary teachers could include student birthdays

Wish List -- here is where I list supplies I need for upcoming projects

Due Dates -- here is where I list any projects, tests, etc. that are coming due

At Home -- here I outline a simple activity that parents can do at home to reinforce a reading or math strategy taught in class

It takes me fifteen minutes to revamp the newsletter each week, but goes a long way towards building a strong support system of parents. I set aside time to do the newsletter for the next week every Thursday afternoon. I can make copies on Friday, then I send home the newsletter on Monday. This gives the parents something fresh to look at each week that keeps them up-to-date. I know for a fact that I have fewer issues with upset parents when I keep them informed of what is happening in the classroom on a weekly or bi-weekly basis.

Tech Tip: Email is a great way to send out the newsletter as well. When you use Microsoft Word you can choose to "Send" rather than "Print" the document and it will use your email program to send it. This also allows you to include live links in your newsletter for parents to click and follow. If you are computer savvy, you can also find programs that allow you to include a poll or survey for parents as well. Word has many eye pleasing templates you can use to create a newsletter so that it is colorful and easy to read.

  1. Create a parent blog. Use it to write down a summary of what was accomplished in class. You can even choose a student each class period to write the blog post for the day. Then all you have to do is post it. Parents can see what happened in class in the words of the students. You can also use this blog to explain concepts of study or teaching strategies you are using that may be unfamiliar (and therefore up for questioning) to parents. A parent blog is a great way to explain commonly used terms and acronyms to parents as well. All this information gives parents an insight into what is happening at school and offers a feeling of peace and security in the form of knowledge.


  2. Create a classroom twitter account using your school email address or a free email account such as hotmail or gmail. Have students create a "tweet" of 140 characters or less (including spaces) that summarizes what was learned in class. Post these on the twitter account for parents to read. By providing live links in emails and newsletters, parents can easily view the twitter account and keep up with what is happening in class. You can also post announcements of upcoming tests, major project due dates, and other important dates and times.

Keep your classroom twitter account private by checking the "remove from public view" in the settings. Invite parents by giving them your twitter id. They can search for you and request to follow. You approve the request and then parents can see the posts. This keeps your classroom information and events private and secure.

Remember, parents who are informed are parents who will help reinforce what you are doing in the classroom. They will ask questions of their child – "So, where is that project you're supposed to be turning in tomorrow?" They will volunteer and help out with supplies for projects. They will work with their child on skills at home to help them improve. These few simple strategies to parents informed will work overtime to help you have a great school year and to help your students succeed!