Before I realized that I wanted (maybe needed?) to be a teacher, I worked in the national office of an AmeriCorps program as a “Special Projects Assistant” to the CEO. It’s well known that I was, and continue to be, very special. But what I learned was how to develop relationships. Over time, I’d watch as the founders and staff would build relationships with donors and convince them — we’re talking individuals here, not even corporations — to give as much as a million dollars a year. Certainly, people gave because they believed in the power of our organization to change the world. But they also gave because they trusted the founders and the staff. They gave because of their relationships, not just their beliefs.
I’m not looking for anyone to give a million dollars, but I do want parents at home to support my efforts at school. I want them to read with their kids, play partner games for homework, do the extra work it takes to challenge their kids or to help them close the gap, and be the biggest, loudest cheerleaders for their kids’ achievement.
In short, to be an effective teacher, I need my efforts to become our efforts.
To do that, I need to establish mutual trust and respect. I need parents to know that I like their kids, that I see what makes every kid special, talented, and smart. I need to show that I’m a professional and that I know what I’m doing. I also need to show that I want to learn from them. That I know parents are the most important people in their children’s lives. I may have a deeper knowledge of teaching, but they know and understand their kids better than anyone else.
The easiest way to begin building that relationship is to communicate with parents early and often.
(1) I send a letter before school starts to introduce myself. I want to give the kids something to share with their families and to get excited about. Since I teach third grade, I want the tone of my letter to be warm and approachable, but still professional.
Introduction Letter 2009 (PDF)
(2) I send home a parent packet soon after the start of the year explaining all the “nuts and bolts” information for my classroom. Sent home in advance of Curriculum Night, this gives parents helpful details about homework, Friday folders, and my other systems as well as some basic information about the specials schedule and how to contact me.
The packet includes a parent survey, volunteer sign-up sheet, and two blank CORI forms. From my perspective, the parent survey is the most important component. It teaches me so much about my students and about parents’ hopes and dreams for the year. On the second page, I ask parents to list the top three goals they have for their kids in third grade. Later, when we have our first parent conference, I report back on the progress we’ve made towards those goals. Of course, I have other learning goals for students, but these are important guides for my work.
Almost without exception, parents write excellent goals for their kids. Learning from them saves me a lot of time at the beginning of the year, when I’m just getting to know my students. It’s just one example of how trust and respect can — and must — go both ways.
(3) If you’ve read about Friday letters, you know that my students write to their parents every week, letting them know what they learned, what they enjoyed, what was challenging, and what made them proud of their effort. While students write Friday letters, I choose two students to write a post for our class blog. Using all the good writing techniques we practice in Writer’s Workshop, the bloggers report on our week for parents. Since I use Apple’s iWeb, it’s a snap to update the website. Plus, parents can comment on the blog, giving students an authentic audience and feedback on their work. (I wish I could show it to you, but I make the site password-protected for safety. I’m still figuring out the right boundaries for elementary school students on the internet.)
(4) The last thing I try to do (emphasis on “try”) is call every parent during the second and third week of school. There are so many times when we need to call for difficult reasons, it’s important that the first phone call a parent receives from me is purely positive.
So, with all of this communication, by Curriculum Night in mid-September, I like to think I have already established some trust with parents. Or, at least the benefit of the doubt. And from there, we can begin a terrific year. Together.
— a. fox