Editor's Note: We know this time of year schools open their door to families, so we wanted to share this piece to begin and continue the conversation for a family partnership year round.
As I write this piece, it’s as if my computer, watch, phone, oven, microwave, and all date-keeping devices are taunting me relentlessly. August is here. For many across the country, that means the first day of school, and for the vast majority of educators, it means our focus must begin to shift from boats and bathing suits to class rosters and curriculum. Yes, summer life, as we know it, is fading quickly, but with that a new day dawns — one filled with excitement, energy, and possibility.
As we prepare to begin a new school year, justifiably, our focus is concentrated on our students. And that’s a good thing. However, I’ve found that a more deliberate and intentional focus on my students’ families early on can also help set a foundation for the year that is much harder to crack as the year progresses.
As you think about all of the “to-dos” you have in order to prepare, consider adding a few (or all) of the suggestions below for how to better inform, include, and work hand-in-hand with families from the start.
Send an email home to parents and families a week before school starts.
About five years ago I started doing this, and the results have been great. Parents might not read it, or if they do it might not be right away, but every year that I've done this, I've had 10-15 (of my 28 students’) households reply, thank me for the information, introduce themselves, and open the lines of communication.
The letter doesn’t have to be lengthy, but think of it as a chance to share the three most important values you hold dear as a teacher. This way parents and families know what you believe — your educational philosophy — which is always a plus. I also include my syllabus and a note that says something like, “I'm including the syllabus so that we don’t have to spend time going over the nuts and bolts at Open House.” Including the day and time of the Open House in your note is a nice way to remind your students' families, and it allows you to talk about teaching as opposed to rules and procedures when you finally meet in person. And if nothing else, the fact that I've had a “conversation” with roughly half of my students’ families before even meeting the students only helps to set the tone that it does indeed take a village.
What if school has already started and you've missed the opportunity to send a letter? There's no reason you can't send one right now! The sooner the better.
Ask the parents and families about their students.
Since I send out a letter a week before school starts, I don’t send anything home on the first day. Instead, at the end of the first week of school, and after I've had a chance to meet and begin to know the students, I send home a second email with a link to a Google Form. The purpose of this form is for parents and families to give me information about their students. I ask questions like, “How much do you think your student enjoys reading?” or “What do you think your student's biggest challenge will be in this class?”
All the required questions on the form are multiple choice and then there are a few optional short responses, so it truly only takes a few minutes to complete. On average, about two-thirds of my students' families fill out this form. In this way, I'm equipped with valuable information that I can use throughout the year to improve my students' learning.
Ask parents and families about what they want to hear from you.
One week after the survey about the students, I send home my last survey of the year. This survey asks parents and families what they want to hear about at Open House. Depending upon your school’s calendar and when this evening falls, you might need to adjust your timing. You might also consider adding this question to the survey about their students.
Regardless of how you do it, asking parents and families if there are specific pieces of information that they want to hear does two things: 1) it helps you better prepare for Open House and 2) it shows that you care. Many times, on the night of Open House, families will thank me for asking if there was anything they wanted to hear. Even if they didn't fill out the form, they appreciate being asked. So, regardless of when or how you send this question home, consider asking parents and families what they'd like to know about your class.
These three steps are a great way to help ensure you kick off the year with open communication and a proof of concept that you care about the role that families play in student success at school.
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Want to keep this momentum going?
Here are two steps I take during the year to continue to loop families into our process:
Pre- and post-unit updates. Before we start a new unit, I always email home to give parents and families an overview of that unit. I talk about the goals for the unit, the core text(s), as well as the assessments (both formative and summative). In this email, I try to provide families with questions that they can ask their student if they want to engage in a conversation about English class. I write something like, “If you want to discuss this with your student, consider asking, ‘What are you thinking about the concept of otherness?’” This is just a quick example, but one thing I hear often from families is, “When I ask my student how school was, they just say ‘fine’ and that's it.” So I try to provide starters that might help the family get deeper into how school, or at least my class, is going. Then, at the end of the unit, I give an update on how it went and then preview the next unit in that same email.
Invite parents and families, with specifics, to parent-teacher conferences. First, I send personal emails to any individual family if their student is struggling. I explain why I'd appreciate seeing them at conferences and what, specifically, I'd like to discuss. As we know, so often the families we need to see most are the ones who either cannot or choose not to be at conferences. A personal invitation can help, and even if they can't make it, I've taken the opportunity to raise a concern. Often times we're at least able to have a “conversation” via email.
For the rest of the students about whom I don't have a specific concern, I send home a mass email in which I invite the families to come to parent-teacher conferences, but I lay out very specifically the topics I'd like to cover. I might say something like, “At parent-teacher conferences, I plan to show you a highlight from your student's most recent paper and discuss your student's writing growth by looking at part of a draft of a paper compared to his final version.” Whatever it is you plan on showing, share that with the families in your invitation. You'll likely be surprised at the responses you receive.
The reality is, there's no magic wand to increase family involvement and all of the tips I've shared above take time. But I've found that these five steps have really helped me develop meaningful relationships with families and to get to know my students even better.
There's a good chance you're already doing one or more of these things to engage parents and families. If so, that's great! If not, consider adding one of these strategies to your routine as you start this year.
Have any other tips for communicating with families? Please share them in the comments below.
Christopher Bronke is a ninth grade honors English teacher and Department Chair at Downers Grove North High School in Illinois. He evaluates teachers, oversees the literacy coaching program, plans and implements professional learning, and works with district leaders on CCSS integration, implementation, common assessments, and rubrics. Christopher is an innovative literacy leader who has experience with CCSS integration across content areas, blogging to empower teacher voice, collaborative and teacher leadership, literacy leadership, and social media in the classroom. He was a member of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Teacher Advisory Council, a Community Manager and Innovation Coach for the Redesign Challenge, Community Manager Lead for Sevenzo, and he currently serves on the Executive Committee as a member-at-large for the Conference on English Leadership. Christopher has served on several Executive Planning Committees for national and regional ECET2 convenings, and is a Co-Founder, Director, and Writing Coach for the National Blogging Collaborative, a non-profit organization that cultivates and supports the capacity of all educators to use their unique voice to elevate the craft of teaching and learning. Connect with Christopher on Twitter: @MrBronke.