6 Questions to Tackle When Communicating with Families

Jon Konen
District Superintendent

Who are the greatest teacher partners in education….PARENTS! Some educators may not agree, but the exemplary teachers understand that we are only with students for roughly 1,000 hours each school year. Parents or guardians are with students the other 7,500 hours a year. That is roughly 7.5 times more with their children then with school personnel. That is a fascinating piece of data!

We must form relationships with parents and support them not only academically, but with other services, too. This is becoming more controversial as schools are transforming from primarily an academic setting for a child, to an education and health center for a family and the larger community. Many communities have started a transformation by placing mental health professionals, dental care, social services, food pantries, and even medical care on their school campuses. The concept of school and education is changing. Slow as this transition may be, educators are increasingly supporting families with basic needs. Exemplary schools, and the teachers within these schools, understand that education cannot occur until we meet a student's basic needs!

However, this article will focus mainly on the communication of academics between a parent or guardian and a teacher. In the Charlotte Danielson Framework, empowering students and creating agency is a primary characteristic in an educator's success. Here are six questions to tackle in the transition from being a proficient teacher to one that is exemplary.

1 - Why Is Parent and Guardian Communication Important to a Teacher?

Administrators find that the less a teacher communicates with their students and families, the more phone calls and problems persist. In fact, we would venture to say that 95% (or higher) of all problems in schools occur due to a lack clear and concise communication. Small problems end up being significant when developing teachers refuse or do not even recognize they can handle situations at the lowest level of communication…a conversation.

As stated previously, parents are responsible for students 7.5 times more than educators during a normal school day. Knowing this stunning statistic, we must team with them to make sure the six or seven hours we do have them in our school is meaningful and productive. We all know students whose home life may not be the best and learning tends to be a secondary concept in their lives. Exemplary teachers understand this; they step in, dig deeper, and support families with as many resources as they can. They are constantly weighing the balance between empowering parents and enabling them. These can be extremely difficult conversations, but we must have them. A fabulous school-wide philosophy (not a program, but a philosophy), High Trust and Trust Psychology states there are three main reasons we support students:

  • For a Student's Health
  • For a Student's Education
  • For a Student's Safety

We can lead all our parent conversations back to these three facets for effective communication. For example, when a student gets in trouble for walking in front of car in the parking lot when exiting school, we can state to the parent, "For safety, we want Jimmy to walk around the parking lot." Similarly, a student who has missing homework we can ask a parent, "For Jimmy's academic success, we need your support in helping him at night with multiplication facts." A last example a teacher can state to parents, "For Jimmy's health, he needs to bathe and use deodorant so other students do not continue to make fun of his smell."

Again, a teacher may see an academic need in a specific area, like math. The first grade student, Jimmy Smith, is still trying to accomplish the 1:1 correspondence between objects and the numeral system. Each time the student starts counting, the student loses their place, "1, 2, 5…." The teacher has been working with the student in the regular math block, pulling them one-on-one for added support, and even has another math teacher pulling them for 30-minutes of intervention a day. The teacher decides they are not seeing enough progress with the first grade student. The teacher has a sense of urgency and decides to get more parent support at home. Here is a possible conversation with Jimmy's parents,

"Hello, Mr. Smith. This is Jimmy's teacher, Mrs. Konen. I am calling for two things. One, I love your child and know he is a kind student to his peers and to adults. Second, I am calling for help with Jimmy's math. Last time we talked, you learned about the extra support he has been receiving from me and another math teacher in a pullout situation. I have some ideas for support at home. If you could team with us on activities that we do here at school by doing them at home, we can continue to build Jimmy's confidence and increase his math skills. Here are some games and activities that you can play with him at home every night. Can you team with us?"

Exemplary teachers begin communication even before the school year starts. They are learning about students that will be in their classrooms or grade level the next year. In fact, many teachers start communicating with the most difficult students when they are young. They learn their names, find out what they personally like, and may even invite them into their classrooms to learn about that grade level. These teachers use buddy classrooms to make connections across the school. The advantage these teachers create is the formation of strong relationships with these students. Then parent communication is much easier when you are already know the student coming into your classroom. Exemplary teachers also learn about the students before they step in the classrooms. They review their academic records, read discipline reports, and search for any parent or guardian communications. Many of these teachers send out postcards or letters in the summer before the first day of school. This introduces parents to the teacher, excites the student for the first day of school, and helps forge relationships before even meeting these families. This can be powerful.

The communication continues all throughout the year. The teacher is building a metaphorical bank account for the students and the parents. The master teachers understand that making a deposit, or positive communication (does not have to be positive compliments, just positive communication), needs to be done before a withdrawal can occur (asking parents to do something or fix a student behavior). Exemplary principals model this communication with parents and use the same philosophy. The first questions these effective communicating principals ask teachers are similar to the following,

  • Do the parents know about this situation?
  • When was the last time you talked with them?
  • How have they supported you so far with the student?
  • What was the last communication about and how was the tone?
  • How have you supported the student in the classroom so far?
  • How have you supported the parents at home so far?
  • Are there school staff working with the student and have you communicated with them?
  • Is this the first time you have seen this problem, issue, or situation?
  • Have you noticed any patterns or trends with the data, conversations, or behaviors?

At times, an administrator will need to be part of conversations with parents. By being able to try interventions first, communicating with the student, and talking with other staff members a teacher can answer the above questions in detail. Administrators have a much better time supporting and backing up a teacher who has put effort into communication and can answer most of the questions listed above. Trust between an administrator and principal is strengthened when both sides take time to understand the different perspectives and problem solve the situation together.

2 - What Are Some Common Expectations, Guidelines, and Routines Teachers Can Set for Themselves When Communicating with Parents and Guardians?

Effective administrators set minimum standards or expectations for communication between teachers and parents or guardians. Exemplary teachers go further than the administrator's minimum expectations. They understand that the more communication parents receive the better picture they have of their student's progress, as well as building a strong supportive education environment. These teachers encourage parent participation, and even have strategies to get them engaged at higher levels than ever before. An administrator may be lucky to see some parents once a year. Exemplary teachers can get these parents to participate, even stay engaged, in their child's education a routine basis throughout the school year. That is the power of the teacher!

Some common guidelines that teachers can set for themselves illustrates their overall effectiveness (in High Trust Psychology it is called, "living your code"). They know when to increase the urgency of a situation, as well as solving most, if not all, problems at the lowest level possible. Here are some common expectations:

  • Answer all parent or guardian communication in less than 24 hours (unless sick or other unforeseen circumstances).
  • Be careful with email. Email, even with emoji's, does not illustrate tone and body language, which is the most powerful component of effective communication.
  • Be careful with email. When a teacher has to answer a parent or guardian in longer than a paragraph or a couple of sentences, call them or set up a time to meet. Long email responses are misconstrued easily.
  • All parents should know of a student's progress long before an official report goes home.
  • If a student earns an "F" grade (a "D" for some schools), the parent should know about it long before an official report goes home.
  • Missing work should not accumulate without parents or guardian knowing about it. A good rule of thumb is "3" missing assignments and a phone call, note, or meeting is completed.
  • With a heated parent, invite the administrator to part of the conversation (with prior notice of course).
  • Empowering students to communicate and advocate for themselves with their parents should be routinely practiced and modeled.
  • When safety is a concern, a phone call should be made always.
  • Communicating with difficult parents is not optional, it is an expectation that we continue to try. If hostile or irrational, all communication should be set up through the principal or administrator.
  • Be cognizant of positive communication outside of school. Remain and retain the teacher-student and teacher-parent partnership. Be careful of students and parents that can misconstrue communication.
  • Be cognizant of social media friendships. Being friends with parents on social media lets them into your life and theirs. Move forward with caution and avoid setting yourself up for negative, inappropriate, or adverse interactions with parents and students.
  • Do not "Friend" your students on social media.
  • Educators are public officials and what we post on social media can determine our job status. We live a higher "standard" than our parents or other community members on social media. We are under scrutiny constantly. What you do behind closed doors should not show up on social media to be judged by the masses. In many states, such as Montana, the number one reason for teachers losing their licensure is inappropriate communication online.
  • Establish a positive relationship with every parent. Make sure every conversation has a positive comment about their student.

A good rule of thumb is to give the administrator a "heads up" when there is a problem that may become a bigger issue. Inevitably, that issue will come to them eventually. By doing this, it provides your perspective as a teacher even before the parent calls. Effective administrators can then take that information and problem solve with the teacher even before communicating with the parent or guardian. Then, when the administrator has a visit with parent or guardian, they can "go to solution" much faster. In the High Trust Philosophy it states, "The faster you can ‘go to solution,' the more healthy the relationship."

Exemplary teachers create routines for communication. They use social media, web 2.0 tools, notes home, phone calls, meetings, and even home visits to support students. For example, upon a student's third unexcused absence they are alerting the parent, talking with attendance staff, and having conversations with the principal. Another example, a fourth grade class has an upcoming field trip. A week prior to the field trip, a Remind text goes out to all parents letting them know to look for a permission slip in the upcoming Weekly Wednesday Folder (All district communication, corrected work, and classroom communication goes home…parents know Wednesday is a big night for school-home communication in this district). Another Remind text goes out the following morning before school starts asking to make sure parents sign the permission slip, as well as having the parent support the student in getting it back to school. These two Remind texts take a total of 30 seconds, but they save the teacher much more time in getting them back. A last example, a parent calls about missing work for a student. The teacher during the next recess or break has the student call the parents back. The student lets his or her parents know about all the missing work, and that it is all in their backpack. An exemplary teacher transfers ownership to the students, modeling how to advocate for themselves. This also illustrates that the responsibility is shared between the teacher and the student. It also puts much of the responsibility where it needs to be, the student! There are a multitude of communication routines that teachers can set. The ability to stay organized and maintain these self-created routines with fidelity illustrates the exemplary teacher.

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Teachers are experimenting with several different communication tools and strategies. In fact, there has been an explosion of Web 2.0 tools that teachers are using. Parents and guardians can sign up for these services in order to track their student's progress. As social media and these 2.0 tools are becoming easier to use, and more parent friendly, we must not lessen our phone calls and face-to-face meetings.

Unfortunately, many teachers use email or social media to talk with parents because it is less confrontational. These teachers do not have to deal with parent emotions, body language, or direct questioning in person. Effective teachers do not shy away from these conversations; in fact, they encourage as many face to face meetings as possible with difficult parents. They understand that many parents misconstrue emails or social media communication. These web based communication strategies do not show how much a teacher cares through their tone of voice, body language, and in-the-moment word choice.

Exemplary teachers understand that the most popular communication tool is face-to-face communication, with phone calls a distant second!

The following are popular tertiary communication tools and strategies that exemplary teachers use to communicate with families (some repeated from the article, 12 Apps for Smarter Parent/Teacher Communication):

  • Email
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Class Dojo
  • Seesaw
  • Edmodo
  • One Call
  • School Circle
  • Ringya
  • Schoolology
  • Google +
  • TeacherKit
  • WordPress
  • GroupMe
  • Skype

4 - How Can a Teacher "Ride for the Brand?" When Communicating with Parents or Guardians?

During the time of the "Wild West," cowhands, a cowboy hired to manage and take care of cattle, were hired by large cattle companies. Cattle were worth a lot of money and stealing them from other cattle companies occurred routinely. In order to put a stop to this thievery, cattle companies started putting a brand, a hot iron burned into the cow's hide leaving a special mark. Anyone caught with a cow that did not have their brand, was prosecuted either by a circuit rider judge or vigilante justice. These cowhands were not paid a lot of money and cattle thievery became a booming business. Reliable cowhands were hard to find. When a cattle company found such a person, they treated them well. In return, a cowhand put their lives on the line to manage the cows and keep them safe and secure. They had pride in their work and they "rode for the brand." This means that took pride in the cattle company they worked for, and they worked hard to keep their precious commodity safe!

If you transfer this scenario to the school system, "riding for the brand," it means a teacher is loyal to the school district that hired them. They keep the commodity safe and secure, children. They take care of the commodity by making sure the student's health, education, and safety are priorities. Taking this a step further, teachers need to communicate with pride and in a positive nature to the parents and guardians of the students. Put downs, throwing other teachers or staff members under proverbial "bus," only hurts the overall school as a whole. Though it is difficult to take ownership for all of the school districts supposed problems, choosing the correct words is up to all employees within the school.

When a parent or guardian comes into school upset about the actions of another teacher, that teacher needs to choose their words wisely. When a negative situation occurs, a teacher needs to think about what they can control, and what they cannot. It is vital to use precise language in order to be effective and positive. This can be difficult for inexperienced and developing teachers. Some simple strategies to use with parents during heated or difficult situations can come in handy,

  • Use de-escalation techniques and language
  • Listen and validate the parent's concerns (this does not mean to agree with the parent, but to verify and validate their concern that they are being listened to, and not just heard)
  • Repeat and summarize what the parent was saying to you as you were listening
  • Describe situation from your perspective using as many supporting details as possible
  • Compromise with parent - find common ground
  • Create an action plan - make a to-do list of who is going to do what and set goals
  • Follow up communication - continue to follow up with parent after the plan has been implemented; you may need to revise the plan or continue it depending if the goals and action plan are being met in a timely fashion.

Having pride in the place where you work starts with you. One principal's mantra, from a National Blue Ribbon School, stated, "Make this place a place where you want to work and learn. It starts with you."

5 - How Can a Teacher "Brand" Their Classroom Culture?

A concept that has been around for years in the business world, but now has a label in education is called, "branding." Branding refers to the classroom culture you create with your students. It is unique to your classroom. All schools have a culture, whether they want to build on this culture or not. Classrooms are a microcosm of the larger school system. A principal or administrator creates a culture for their school. Culture starts at the top and is modeled (or not modeled) for all staff members. Effective principals create a culture together with staff members, students, parents, and even the community. When the school name is mentioned in a conversation, a picture in someone's mind hopefully creates a positive concept about that school's reputation. Again, if schools are not starting to create their own brand, they are going to have outside parents and community members creating the story for them. If you are not dictating or creating that story, you may not like what is said about you and your school. Your success rate may diminish. Many schools and classrooms are starting to tell the story of learning and student progress in their classrooms.

Creating a "brand" starts with the philosophies of the school. Teachers can integrate their own ideologies. For example, an exemplary teacher can create a brand around the concepts of "technology, compassion, and curious students." A teacher then uses social media, such as Seesaw, to create digital portfolios. Within these portfolios, students display their technology skills through assignments, show compassion to peers and community members through service project pictures and videos, as well as letting students chose from several project based learning opportunities to demonstrate their curiosity and understanding of curriculum. The whole school year focuses on these concepts or the teacher practices "having the ‘brand' in action." Exemplary teachers connect their classroom brand with the school-wide brand, as well as the districts. This can be difficult, but searching online for blogs to follow, Facebook groups to join, Twitter chats to participate, are a few strategies teachers can use to develop their own classroom's brand.

Creating a visual logo or creating a mantra supports your classroom brand. This can be fun when created in conjunction with other teachers, and you can even involve the students in the process. A National Board Certified Teacher in Great Falls, MT, Amy Konen has created t-shirts that students earn. There theme is based around the concept of "grit." Students set academic or behavior goals at the beginning of the school. The set timely goals to be attained by the winter break. Then, when students met their goal, they earned a #TEAMGRIT t-shirt. By December 22 in her classroom, 27 of 27 fifth-grade students earned a t-shirt! In addition, the fifth graders have had many activities throughout the year that teach them about grit. On special days, all students can be seen wearing their #TEAMGRIT shirts.

6 - How Can Teachers Empower Students to Communicate Their Progress with Parents and Guardians?

The ability to empower students is primary goal of the Charlotte Danielson Framework. Throughout the rubrics (Domains and Components), exemplary teachers are those that understand how to get students involved in their own learning. This sense of agency is important to the educational develop of all students. Communicating student progress should start with the student. When a student comes home from school and a parent asks, "How was school?" A student should be able to expound on their day and discuss their learning.

Exemplary teachers find ways to have students communicate with their parents. Some of the easiest communications strategies are notes, phone calls home, and using a planner. These strategies can communicate most of the information a teacher can communicate with parents and guardians. Having students keep track of their own grades through journals, checklists, spreadsheets, and graphs can be another parent communication tool. Making it visual for students helps them understand their own progress, as well as giving them visuals to communicate their progress with their parents.

Starting as early as elementary school, students are able to access their own grades and receive text messages about their grades when teachers update their grades. Many districts use school-wide data warehouses or systems such as PowerSchool and Infinite Campus. Students can use their device or computer to access their account. In PowerSchool, it has an option that pushes out an email whenever a teacher updates grades. This email can go to parents and to the student.

Teachers who use the Web 2.0 site called Seesaw have students create digital portfolios. Students can then write rationale why they chose each piece of evidence in their portfolio. Parents are given access to their student's portfolio. This is another communication tool where students can be empowered to choose the best evidence that exemplifies their understanding of a concept.

Setting up students for success, creating ownership of their education, and building communication skills starts with the teacher. If students are unable to communicate with their parents, as educators we must model, teach it, and expect it from our students. By empowering our students, we are setting them up to be college and career ready!

(Charlotte Danielson Model: Domain 4 Component c)

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Jon Konen