Communication is Key

Communicating with families has always been a valuable part of my practice. In previous years, this communication was primarily designed to build relationships and provide insight into student’s progress and our classroom. This year, I’m teaching a hybrid model where I synchronously teach half of my eighth grade students remotely and the other half in person. I also have a few students who are remote every day, as this is an option for all families. In this model, consistent and clear communication to families is essential in providing the information needed to support students on remote days and give families a window into how the hybrid model of school functions this year.

When I communicate with families, I make sure to include all parents, stepparents, and guardians on emails unless I have been directed otherwise. This allows everyone who has a stake in the child’s education an opportunity to be informed.

Starting Off Strong

Starting the year off with frequent, detailed communication helps parents and students get to know me and eases their mind about the many unknowns of a new school year. This is especially important this year with the changes in school protocols and the inability to meet with parents in person.

Before the first day of school I sent a group email to students and copied their parents welcoming them to my class, introducing myself and letting them know what to expect on their first day whether it would be remote or in person. I also sent an email to parents to provide logistical information, introduce myself, and begin with a positive and welcoming interaction. In this email I invite them to email me with info about their child. This information helped me speed up the process of getting to know students as I’m only seeing them in person every other day. I included a few questions such as the ones below to prompt their response.

What motivates your child?
Does your child enjoy reading? What is his/her favorite book or topic to read about?
My child’s strengths are…
In 8th grade, I hope my child will …
In a million words or less, please tell me ANYTHING you believe is important for me to know about your child.

Periodic Updates to All Families

In previous years, I sent periodic updates to families about curriculum every 7-14 school days as needed. I intentionally do not set up expectations of a specific frequency to ensure that I do not have to stretch to find something to send and I can ensure that all updates include valuable information. In this remote model, I have found that I need to send these emails every week to keep families informed. In these updates, I include what we have done in class since the last update, what is upcoming, reminders of long-term assignments, and suggestions for discussions that parents can have with their children about the content. If there is an upcoming test, I include study strategies and review questions. I also try to periodically include photos of the students in action. These updates provide the necessary information for supporting students academically and create opportunities to have thoughtful conversations about what they are learning in English. They also save me time because I receive far fewer individual emails from parents with questions because they have the information they need.

Personal Communication to Families and Students

Sending personal emails to families builds relationships, keeps them up to date on their child’s progress, and helps them to be involved.

After the first major assessment in my course, I sent a personal email to each family that let them know their child’s grade, one specific concept the child mastered, how they were successful, and a goal for the future. Due to time constraints, after subsequent assessments, I send emails to families of students who scored lower than a C, whose performance was outside of their character, and then choose an alternating small group of families to send to so all parents receive them periodically throughout the year.

I send positive emails to a few families each week. These emails may include social or academic success, funny stories, and other interactions that show the parent I know their child. Sometimes I include a quote from a written assignment and a quick explanation as to why it stood out to me. I make a list of all students and keep track of who I send emails to make sure all students receive around the same amount of positive emails.

When students are missing an assignment on a remote day, I send them an email and copy their parents. Most often, students have done the assignment and simply forgot to turn it in, and this reminder helps them remember to turn in the assignment and keeps their parents in the loop.

There are times when I need to deliver a difficult message to families about their child academically, behaviorally, or socially. The positive emails and consistent detailed updates help make delivering this message easier. When giving these types of messages I avoid general statements that can lead to assumptions and provide specific examples to illustrate what is going on with the child. I then propose solutions including what I plan to do, what I need from the student, and how families can help. I also reaffirm that I support their child and that I am working to help them progress.

The Magic of a Phone Call or Video Conference

When I want to convey emotion or deliver a particularly complex message, it is easier to do so over the phone or through a video conference. In a year that we are unable to have face-to-face conversations, it can be so helpful to simply hear each other’s voice and the emotion behind it. If a student has done something exceptional or made significant improvements, a five-minute phone call can convey my excitement for the child much more clearly than an email. Sharing good news with parents is energizing. If a student is struggling or made a particularly poor choice it is also easier to convey my compassion, understanding, and desire to help their child through a conversation instead of an email.

Kasey Short teaches English and social studies at Charlotte Country Day School, where she also serves as English Department chair and Spotlight Challenge coordinator.

Published in AMLE Newsletter, October 2020.