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Parent Communication: TO vs WITH

Communication TO is not the same as WITH. photo from http://bit.ly/pvuhJa

As our school moves to attempt to add another stream of communication to parents via SMS (text messaging), I have been asked – “how many ways do we need to communicate with parents?”  Should parents not just try harder to stay informed of their child’s education?

My responses are twofold:

  1. We need to differentiate our parent communication so we meet families where they are.  Each family has a varied level of involvement and engagement due to time availability, access to technology, and ability to exchange in dialogue.  Some families have the social-cultural capital (non-financial social assets like time, education, confidence, etc) to engage in ongoing face-to-face dialogue with the principal, teachers and staff at their child’s school; others prefer to use technology (email, blog comments, Facebook, etc) to communicate while some families are content (or due to family circumstances, it is the only option) to receive information from the school.
  2. We need to be clear of the difference between communicating TO families and communicating WITH families.  There is a purpose for both but we need to be very clear that TO and WITH serve different needs for our families.  Communicating TO families is a way of broadcasting information while communicating WITH families is a way of exchanging in dialogue.

So with the understanding that we need to meet families where they are and we need to use a number of different tools to communicate both TO and WITH families, what are some ways we can do this?

COMMUNICATING TO – GETTING THE INFORMATION OUT THERE

  • newsletters
  • reports
  • announcements, newspaper articles and ads
  • emails, SMS
  • Website
  • Twitter feed
  • Blogs
  • Facebook Page

COMMUNICATING WITH – CREATING DIALOGUE

The key with parent communication is clarity of PURPOSE.  We cannot say that we communicate WITH parents effectively if we are not visible in the public and our technology does not encourage feedback and dialogue.  Technology is not a replacement for face-to-face dialogue but can be used in a way to increase the likelihood of these meetings through developing confidence and better school-family relationships.

Schools have traditionally worked to improve communication TO parents and families. In today’s system this is not enough. We, as educational leaders, need to increase dialogue and communication WITH families by not only making ourselves more visible but also by embracing the available social media tools to meet parents and families where they are.

 

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Chris Wejr

Proud father of twin girls and a son. Currently working as the Principal of James Hill Elementary School (K-5) in Langley, BC, Canada. Passionate about strengths-based education and leadership, reconciliation, assessment, and human motivation.

42 Comments

  1. Hey Chris,

    Great points here. I agree that we need to shift to communicating WITH more. I wanted to underline your point about being more visible. This starts in the building – being in the classrooms and out on the yard (before and after school, as well as recess). Being more visible means that parents get to know who you are, but it also gives you shared experiences with the students, staff and parents. If something happens on the yard and you were there, that gets passed along to parents at home – “Two kids had an argument and Mr. Wejr was there to help them.” goes along way in helping parents feel confident that their kids are safe and cared for at school. This builds a bridge, much in the same way as letting parents know what you are thinking and learning about it via your blog. It is an essential step in communication. Even though you might not be communicating WITH a particular parent, your presence speaks volumes, if you will. Thanks for the great post,

    Shannon

    • Great points, Shannon. We cannot be leaders without being visible. Thanks for adding this!

  2. Chris it is terrific to see how well you understand your parent community and how best to communicate with them. Very similar to the difference between “dealing with” and “working with” parents.
    I really like your list of “to”s and “with”s. In the Face to Face meetings it often is worthwhile to include the student in the conversations and I really like the idea of student led parent teacher conferences.
    And to Shannon I agree with the visibility concept. Shaking hands at the beginning of school day puts a face to a name. It opens up the conversations to say “I care” about you and “I care” about your child and it instills a lot of confidence in you the Principal or teacher. Parents want to trust their child’s school to look after them and that is exactly what you are doing – build the level of trust.

    • Lorna – your tweets, links, and posts have been key to my learning around what it means to work and learn alongside parents. Thanks for all that you do for educators and parents!

  3. *Sigh* I sooooo wish the school my kids attend was interested in communicating with parents. It is not. The headmistress actually seems to work to cut parents out – she’s a total control freak and is only comfortable (my reading) when she has total control which she has with a school of primary children but which might be more at risk if she engaged with adults. So I am left as a parent trying to set up a PTA with some clout to try and get the T side of the equation conversing with the Parents. Any advice?

    • Fiona,
      I used to work with Chris at Kent School. During one PAC meeting I responded (more than once apparently) that I didn’t think the teachers would support the recommendation(s) being made by the parents. One of the parents (I thank her often) finally said to me, “You need to stop saying that!” and I did. Sometimes blunt and to-the-point is effective:) Let her know that you do not feel like you are being heard or included!!

      • Rox – the parents at Kent have taught me so much. Thank you for modeling the benefit of a trusting, quality relationship with parents.

    • Fiona, the irony of not listening to parents is that you will hear it later. We cannot continue to ignore the research and experience that tells that when parents are more involved with the school, students do and feel better.

      My strategy any time I try to engage in dialogue is to ask a powerful question. Present research on parent involvement and make gentle nudges. I have learned that arguing with people often alienates those that we are trying to change. Maybe there are some baby steps that can be done… it is difficult to say without knowing the school but a face to face meeting with the headmistress is definitely a place to start. A school blog with comments, monthly meetings with a parent group (PTA, PAC, etc) might be a start or a stretch depending on the situation. The key thing is trust – and it does not seem there is trust on either side… and without that there is no meaningful dialogue.

      If you ever have any questions, feel free to email/tweet me through my “About” page above.

  4. Working “with” parents can be daunting sometimes when one is accustomed to “dealing” with parents. Not everyone is comfortable with talking to parents. It is a growth thing that can be cultivated with a gentle hand and a willing mind. Not all parents are easy to talk to and many times teachers and principals get gun shy.
    Relationships are built on mutual trust and to get trust we need to give up power and support each other. First step is a hand shake and how is your day going?

    • It is truly amazing what a handshake, along with the knowledge of a parent’s name (and who their child is), can bring to a relationship.

  5. So important… we found over the years that setting up coffee (and donuts?) at regular times worked well for parents talking to principals/ teachers as well as other parents. It seemed more casual. The hardest part was getting the working parents there… and there are only so many hours in a day for parents and teachers to spend with their families. Maybe leaving a certain time open every day/week/month for such a time would make it easier. In today’s world, it seems to be more difficult for face-to-face conversations… but, again, so important.

    • There are schools that have done Moms and Muffins or Dads and Donuts… might be time to start more casual conversations once in a while. Thanks!

  6. Chris,

    Very timely article as I was just having a conversation tonight around enhancing parent school communication with a good friend. You make a good point in clarifying the “with” and “to”! The other thing I would like to see fleshed out a bit more is the difference between what the school wants to tell parents and what the parents want to know. Sometimes I think there is a disconnect there …. what are your thoughts? Do you actively engage parents in the discussion around what type of things they would like to see in these communications?

    **crosspost from connected principals

    • Penny, great to connect once again (Penny and I presented together at a Connected Principals session and I was busy taking notes as she spoke).

      Great question! We have discussed this a number of times and I think there is a wide range of ideas. Some say just send me small bits of info (ie. Tweets, SMS) while others want ALL the info (newsletters, blog posts, etc).

      Somebody told me one time that if I wanted anybody to read something, don’t make it longer than a page and I stick to that as much as I can. If I personally assess the effectiveness of my communication with parents, I would say that the smaller bits seem to reach a wider audience.

      The key for me is to make a number of different options available so we can differentiate our communication. For example, our school blog posts to our FB page which then posts to our Twitter feed. Parents can get SMS from our Twitter feed or through our FB page. In addition, I use email and paper newsletters.

      So I guess there is not a single tool that will do it all but there are ways that a single message can be shared in multiple ways.

      • Hi Chris,

        The one page rule is a good one … right now our newsletter is once a month and several pages … does not get read from front to back by most I’m sure. Interesting that you are using so many different tools to get the message out.

        My question earlier was about the message itself — the content. How do you ensure a balance between what you want parents to know and what parents find useful to know?

        • GREAT question! Since you asked the question I have spoken to a number of parents as well as posted a question on our Facebook Page. The feedback so far is
          1. We want to know how our child is doing in school – are they happy? What are they learning? How are they doing with their learning?
          2. We want to see some of the great hings happening in school.
          3. We want info on important dates and events.

          Some also said they enjoyed learning more about thoughts on issues in education but this was only shared by a few people. The majority stated what was mentioned above. I will continue the conversations… thanks for asking such an important question!

          Your question with regards to balance – I try to filter as much as I can so only the crucial info goes out or it is combined in a single message. We will be working as a staff to discuss how we can better keep parents informed on how their child is doing in school as that seems to be the big one.

  7. Chris–have you come across good suggestions on how to improve commumication with parents in high schools? I could communicate with 30 students’ parents via face-to-face, email, phone calls, but my challenge is how to communicate effectively with 100 or more. I do try though, calling at least 5 per week. I think this is an important question because high school is typically when walls are actually the highest and thickest between parents and the schools.

    Any ideas?

    • I think you are definitely on the right track. Having taught high school for a number of years, I found that a weekly email to each class created dialogue that was effective. If I could go back, I would do this in the form of a blog that would include the learning outcomes for the week along with activities and assignments. I think communication more than just grades is critical to helping parents to understand how their child is actually doing.

      So, do what you feel is effective and a good use of your time. A blog/site that includes your learning intentions and assignments that can be updated daily or weekly (a few minutes a day is all it takes)and then a blanket email directing parents to the site. Make sure your comments are enabled so you can get feedback and model transparency in your teaching. 5 phone calls is a good number and I think the key is to phone just because not due to a concern. Of course, all communication should encourage face-to-face dialogue which, at the high school level, is always a challenge.

      It is also my hope that the system will change so teachers have LESS students and can therefore create better relationship not only with the students but also the families. (see my post here:
      http://chriswejr.com/2011/07/27/key-factor-time-spent-with-students/
      Great question! Let me know if you have any further thoughts, examples, or questions.

      • Thanks, Chris. The class blog is definitely on my to-do list. What’s caused me some concern re: blogs / school sites is my concern around the message to the parent. Let me explain. At times, well-intentioned teachers, admininstrators etc create blogs that are, yes, a vital commmunication link with parents and students. The staff is trying to build bridges with parents, students, public. I have seen some extremely impressive blogs that clearly help schools communicate with parents etc, However, some blogs, too many than I’d like to see, may have missing links, lack of updates etc. These blogs may reflect poorly on the school, class etc. The blog, then, becomes a message to the parent / public that may not actually best reflect the happenings in the classroom, creating misunderstandings of the true teaching / learning in the classroom community.
        So, if a teacher / staff / principals really want to make class blogs, please, please, please remind them that it is a commitment and that it certainly is a “message”–especially in this social media age. A class blog, or any blog I’d argue, do require time and feedback before they’re ready for prime time, so to speak.

        What are your thoughts on this, Mr. Wejr: Better to have no blog than a poorly constructed one. Or is any attempt at communication–even if the links fail– better than nothing?

        @tjames91

        • PS Thanks for the link to the ” key factor time with students” post– very well said.

          Your site is certainly keeping discussions going…

          @tjames91

        • Wow… you are asking some great questions. A blog, like any site, that is poorly constructed and poorly used can do more harm than good. If the role of the blog is for communication, it better be used or parents will see this as an example of lack of follow through. A blog does not have to be a lot of work – it can be just a few minutes per day. It all depends upon the purpose. Define the purpose first, create it… then follow through so parents can see the power of it.

  8. Why aren’t more administrators like you Chris?? Thank you! Keep talking about this, it’s SO important!

  9. Chris, if I can add a few things. It’s good to keep in mind that different media have different strengths and weaknesses, so the phone is different from face to face and SMS is different from email, and so on. Also, while social media may appear to be one where dialogue should occur, in fact, most people don’t use it that way.

    I have more on how the medium alters communication between school and home in my new book, Building Bridges Between Home And School: The Educator’s/Teacher’s Guide To Dealing With Emotional And Upset Parent

    • Yes… for sure. The goal of technology is not to replace face to face (or phone) conversations… it is to enhance them. The key to remember with social media is that although the deeper dialogue often do not occur there, the opportunity is there… and, as I have heard from parents at our school, parents appreciate that. Thanks for adding these points for clarification.

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