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What Message Are We Sending In Our First Contact With Parents?

cc licensed ( BY NC ND ) flickr photo by Peter Gerdes: http://flickr.com/photos/petergerdes/2905280530/

cc licensed ( BY NC ND ) flickr photo by Peter Gerdes: http://flickr.com/photos/petergerdes/2905280530/

As we start a new school year, one of the key aspects to consider is our relationships with the parents and families of our students.

In the past year, not only have I had reflective conversations with parents and educators about moving to a focus on communication WITH parents (rather than communication TO parents), but I have also discussed preschool and kindergarten beginnings with close friends as well as people in my family.  I have heard personal stories of parents being told by the school that their child is “not ready for school” or is “a constant problem”.  I have also heard of wonderful school:family relationships being built from the first moment they meet – teachers that have made that effort to focus on the positives, empathize, and truly listen to families as they share stories about their child.  The experiences of those that have been there and those that are nervous about getting there all say the same thing: the first contact that is made from teachers and the school to the families is crucial to developing a positive relationship.

These conversations lead me to reflect on the question, “What message are we sending in our first contact with parents?”

Are we:

  • sending a list of forms to be signed and rules to be followed?
  • calling to tell them about a negative incident with their child?
  • meeting them to do a formal assessment on their child (ie. kindergarten or preschool assessment)?
  • meeting to discuss the deficits their child has?
  • telling families how to parent?

OR

Are we:

  • sharing who we are and opening up a conversation about us and their child?
  • calling to share something positive or just talk about the child?
  • meeting them to just get to know the child and the family?
  • calling to share some noticed strengths and interests of the child?
  • developing a relationship in which there is open communication between the school and the family?
  • determining the best way to meet parents where they are for communication?
  • listening to families about their thoughts and feedback?
  • working to build trust?

I realize that in elementary school classrooms, in which students often have only one teacher, it is much easier to develop relationships with families.  This does not mean, however, that because I am a principal or a high school teacher and have more students that I do not try to develop positive relationships with our families at the start of the year. Each contact we make with our families is an opportunity to foster an important relationship.

For me, I will continue to learn from families and staff at Kent on how important this first contact is in forming relationships.  I will work hard to be visible and present with students and families and initiate positive dialogue around our students.  Many of our families come to school nervously “giving their baby” to us… and sometimes, for a variety of reasons, there is a lack of trust. We must work hard to build this trust through listening and engaging in positive, open conversations with our families.

I recall a parent whom I had a very positive relationship with say to me, “I remember the first time you walked up to me… I got nervous and thought – what did my kid do?”  She went on to state that when she went to school, it was NEVER a good thing when the principal called or approached.  Other parents chimed in saying how nervous they get when they see the school’s number on the call display.  This feedback from parents shows how we have to work to overcome the perception that a contact with the school is a result of a problem; we must have a balanced authentic communication of celebrations, sharing of information, and concerns.  This balanced communication all starts with the effort to create a positive first contact with parents.

As my friend Heidi Hass Gable reminds us, “although educators have often taught and worked with parents, students, and curricula for a number of years… we have to remember, that parents are new each year.  This year is often the first time they will have gone through this grade or subject.”  She encourages educators to be patient, empathetic and understanding to parents (she understands this can be challenging and also encourages parents to do the same for school staff).  So if we approach parents as new to us this year, what will be their first impression of our class/school? How will they feel after our first contact?

Although ongoing communication WITH parents/families helps the school, the students, and the families… it is also important that at this time of year, we work hard to lay the foundation and make that first communication with families a positive one. It is also a great opportunity to share our story of who we are as teachers and to find out who our students are as children. Let’s share our stories and listen to the stories of our families.  Let’s work together as parents and educators to make that first meeting or phone call a positive, effective one.

As this is an area that many of us continue to work on, if you have ideas to share, I would love to learn from you – please take a moment comment and share.

Related Posts:

Power of Positivity: The Friday 5 Positive Phone Calls

Building Trust With Parents

Parent Communication: TO vs WITH

Thank you to my wonderful sister, my friends, and staff for sharing their experiences with me and helping me grow as an educator and parent.

 

 

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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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Pondering Meetings: Who is at the Table?

Originally posted at Connected Principals blog.

While reading Carol Dweck’s “Mindset“, I came across this great quote from Lou Gerstner:

“Hierarchy means very little to me. Let’s put together in meetings the people who can help solve a problem, regardless of position.”

By Richard Rutter http://bit.ly/jRWxgJ

By Richard Rutter http://bit.ly/jRWxgJ

Dweck also adds that from the view of the “…growth mindset, it is not only the select few that have something to offer.”

How many meetings do we have per year that do not include the voices those that have something to offer? Students? Parents? Support staff? Teaching staff?

How many decisions are made without those who the decisions have the greatest impact (ie. How many decisions are made about teaching that involve those that do not teach)?

It is time we move away from the traditional structure of admin meetings and staff meetings to a model of learning conversations that include those who choose to be there and those that want to see action (similar to the movement toward EdCamp model for professional development). What if, instead of a certain number of staff/admin meetings per year, we lessened those and added meetings that were open to engaged parents, students, community members and the dialogue focused on a specific area of interest?

Can we move away from the hierarchical structure to one that welcomes the voices of those that choose to be there – those that are engaged and want to see solutions – and away from the structure that includes only those with certain positions?

I would love to hear from any people that have changed the traditional structures of meetings in their school/district to a model that works to flatten the hierarchy and include more voices of those that “can help solve a problem, regardless of position”.