Making First Contact

Image of students passing notes in classWe have all been there before—that dreaded phone call to the parents when you have to talk about a bad grade or unacceptable behavior in class. You know what is going to happen: the parents will at first be surprised, then if they are “normal” parents they will start to express disbelief that what you are reporting really happened or begin to defend or excuse their child’s grade or behavior.

How can we, as teachers, increase the likelihood that when we do have to contact parents with bad news, they will be more accepting and helpful?

A USEFUL TIP

When I was teaching Spanish at Allen High School in Texas, I had a good friend who was an unofficial mentor to me. He showed me how he prepared a foundation of communication prior to delivering any bad news. During teacher meetings in the late summer right before school began, we all received lists of the students who were going to be in our classes for the fall. Jim immediately created a file for each of the students in his class. In that file he kept a variety of things, but what he did initially was to create a parent contact sheet.

On this parent contact sheet, he had three columns—the first column was the date, the second column was whether he talked to a parent (and if he did, their name) or left a message, and the third column was a short synopsis of the conversation, including the topic, what he said, and how the parent responded. He was particularly careful to list any “agreements” that he and the parents reached over the phone. This can be easily done in an Excel spread sheet and saved on Dropbox so you have access to the information at work or at home. (We will discuss parental contacts in another post.)

A POSITIVE EFFECT

The beauty of Jim’s idea was he made “First Contact” with the parents before he ever had the student in class. He used the opportunity to introduce himself, share his preferred method of communication (he always gave them his e-mail address), and give an overview of what students will study in class and his expectations for behavior. He ended with an encouragement that he was confident that it was going to be a great year and that, with their help, “John” was going to have a wonderful experience and learn a lot. 

Sure, there were some cynical parent responses, but overall he received many thanks from parents who were grateful their first communication from a teacher wasn’t negative and something that would require them to confront their child.

After Jim shared this tip with me, I started doing the same thing. I noticed from the beginning that student behavior was better and many students actually mentioned to me they knew their parents and I had already “been talking.”  One young lady bemoaned the fact her mom said she (the mom) and I were friends and that I would be informing on her on a regular basis. Of course, I didn’t “inform” on her…but the fact she thought I might was encouraged her to be on her best behavior.

Having a positive first conversation with parents won’t solve everything, but it can go a long way toward building a team approach to managing student performance and behavior.

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