I’ve been doing a ton of thinking lately about the communications that parents receive from their children’s schools and classroom teachers.
Now my perspective could be skewed because I’ve spent the majority of my career working with groups of 100+ students in middle schools, but it seems like most school communications — grade reports, weekly phone messages, email and/or blog updates, newsletters describing upcoming functions — are impersonal, designed to deliver one message to a large group of readers. And most of the direct contact that parents DO receive about their children is negative — phone calls, emails, or notes written in agendas about missing homework, poor grades, or behavior problems.
Stew in that for a second. And then ask yourself one simple question: When was the last time that you wrote a positive note or made a positive phone call or sent a positive email to the parents of a student that you work with?
My answer to that question was embarrassing. Outside of the kind words that I share in front of parents at quarterly honors assemblies, I rarely initiate a positive interaction with parents. My rationale has always been practical: I’m completely buried by the day-to-day demands of meeting the needs of 100+ students. My planning periods are filled with preparing for lessons, going to meetings, filling out required paperwork, and responding to the never-ending pile of email in my inbox. Reaching out to share positive words with parents gets pushed aside as I try to keep up with the “more pressing needs” of my professional life.
What’s even worse is that I’ve come to realize that the positive interactions that I DO have with parents about the kids in my classroom are almost always interactions with the parents of students who already get a TON of positive reinforcement from schools. I’m more likely to celebrate kids who are making great grades or turning in great assignments or asking great questions than I am to celebrate the squirrely kid in my classroom who can’t sit down, who struggles with assignments, or who is a distracted chatterbox.
I haven’t been able to shake the shame that comes from realizing just how harmful my unwillingness to carve out time to reach out to parents with kind words about their kids really is.
Isn’t it possible that there are parents I’ve served over the past twenty years of teaching who feel hopeless or angry or skeptical simply because the only time that I ever contacted them directly was when their child was struggling academically or behaviorally? Worse yet, isn’t it possible that there are parents who have completely given up on schools and teachers — and maybe even their sons and daughters — after YEARS of hearing nothing but the negatives about their kids?
So I made a simple commitment this week: I’m writing handwritten letters to the parents of two students every single day between now and the end of the year.
Some days, the notes I write will be based on specific things that I’ve seen a kid do in my classroom. Maybe I’ll celebrate a question that they ask, a pattern that they find, or a remarkable task that they turn in. Other days, the notes I write will be based on the character traits that are worth admiring but often overlooked in the kids in my classroom. Maybe I’ll celebrate their willingness to be polite and respectful in all situations, the kindness that they constantly show to their peers, or the persistence they show in difficult circumstances. My hope is that by the end of the year, I will have written to the family of every kid on my learning team.
I’ve only been writing for a week, but I’ve already learned a few important lessons:
Writing doesn’t take me long at all: I’ve chosen to write my notes during my lunch period — which is 23 minutes long. I’ve had no trouble writing two notes AND eating lunch AND shooting the breeze with my colleagues for a few minutes during that period. That means “finding the time” isn’t an excuse for me any longer.
My kids dig the letters that I’m writing: I’ve also chosen to leave the letters that I write unsealed and to tell the students whose parents that I write to that they are welcome to read what I’ve written before bringing their note home. Almost every kid has done just that — pulling out their notes as soon as I hand them out and reading them immediately. That matters, y’all: Kids crave praise from the important people around them. Especially those who struggle academically or behaviorally as compared to their peers.
I had to explain the purpose of my letters to my students so they wouldn’t panic: The first day that I handed letters to students, both kids said, “Did I do something wrong?” Talk about a stinging critique of my communication patterns, right? Letters home from Mr. Ferrriter = Someone’s in trouble. So I took a few minutes in class to let my kids know that I was sorry for not taking more time to send positive notes home. Now, my kids are almost always surprised when I hand them an envelope, but surprised in a good way instead of nervous about what’s inside.
Writing letters has made ME feel good, too: My original goal for writing to parents was to make THEM feel good about their children. That’s an easy win, right? Every parent likes to know that others see special things in their kids. What I didn’t realize was just how good writing to the parents of my students would make ME feel. The few minutes that I spend identifying and articulating the things that I value the most about the students in my classes — including those who struggle academically and behaviorally — serve as a daily reminder that EVERY kid sitting in EVERY class really is wonderful in their own way.
There’s nothing remarkable here, y’all. In fact, it’s hard to believe that I’m JUST coming to the conclusion that I really SHOULD make more time to say positive things to parents about their kids. My guess is that EVERY teacher knows that saying positive things matters.
But sometimes, we let important habits slip by the wayside because we are convinced that we are too busy. My challenge to you is to prioritize positive interactions with parents during your daily schedule. Not only will it make your parents feel better about you, your school, and their children — it will make YOU feel better, too.
Acts of kindness warm the hearts of everyone.
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