Phone Calls Home: the power of positive

7.1 Communicating with Families:  Teacher communicates with families about students’ progress on a regular basis, respecting cultural norms, and is available as needed to respond to family concerns.
For me, communicating with families begins with inviting and culturally respectful contact but doesn’t end there.  Communicating with families also means following through on concerns and questions that arise out of that initial contact. One technique for fostering excellent communication with families is the positive phone call home at the beginning of the year.  This positive phone call lets families know that you are available and approachable, gives clear information about how to contact you, and invites open communication about concerns and questions.  In addition, by establishing a precedence of “good news,” you make future phone calls home easier and more productive, even if they may arise in response to problems in the classroom.

This year, due to labor negotiations and a delayed first day of school, establishing positive communication with our students’ families was particularly important.  Seattle Public Schools began on the same day that the school in which I intern had originally scheduled its Curriculum Night Open House.  When Curriculum Night was rescheduled, I used sharing that information as an opportunity to make positive phone contact with all of the families of our 10th grade Honors Language Arts students.  I introduced myself, explained that my mentor teacher and I would be following a co-teaching model, with changing roles throughout the year, shared two methods for contacting me, and informed parents of the rescheduled Curriculum Night date and time.  I also asked whether parents had any questions about my role in the classroom.  Here is an image of the script I used for those phone calls, recorded in my teaching logbook:


Script for initial phone calls home

We have 65 students in two periods and I either spoke with or left a voice message for 57 parents or guardians total; the other eight had unlisted or inactive phone service. I kept track of the phone calls on each students’ information card, simply noting the date and an “M” if I left a message rather than had direct contact.  This practice serves as a record of my contact with families.  At the bottom of the Script for initial phone calls home image you can see the most important notes I take during such phone calls:  specific information shared by parents or guardians that will help me in serving my students.

In order to remember and respond to this information, I also record it in a different section of my teaching logbook, organized by period, which I review weekly and to which I add notes on observations and informal assessments of individual student progress in targeted areas.  This allows me to address the second and, for me, most important aspect of communicating with student families:  following through on concerns and questions.

During my start-of-year phone calls, for example, one parent expressed concern over her daughter’s writing skills, particularly over writing anxiety and difficulty beginning and sustaining the writing process.  That parent and I discussed several specific techniques for initiating writing and for helping students to find a writing process that works for them.  Three weeks later I made phone calls home to all of the parents who had shared specific concerns.  When I spoke with the parent of this student, I referred to our initial phone call, and explained that we were doing several on-demand writing assignments for our current unit and why.  Here is an image of my notes regarding that follow-up phone call:


Notes on follow-up phone call

In this example, you can see that I referred to the purpose of those writing tasks and to specific observations made about the student’s ability to handle the first task.  I noted that the student appeared confident while writing, was immediately on-task, turned her writing in before the end of the period, and wrote a full page responding to the prompt.  I intentionally made this phone call before grading the assignment because I wanted the focus of our communication to be on the students’ writing confidence and habits, rather than an evaluation of the finished product.  You can also see, at the end of my phone call notes, that the parent and I discussed a way to foster a “next step” in writing fluidity:  out loud editing.  I am pleased to report that the student is receiving help at home in editing her writing out loud, and that when I read her in-class paragraph I noted several edits to her text that corrected awkward or grammatically incorrect sentences.  This information indicates that my communication and follow-through with families resulted in the student’s progress as a writer and editor.

One thing I would like to improve about my parent communication at the beginning of the year is finding a way to continue positive outreach to every family throughout the year.  While it is both manageable and worthwhile to continue phone communication with a few families who have requested targeted observation and support, individual phone calls to 60 parents takes about three hours; for all 140 students it would take over five hours.  When I have my own classroom, I plan on asking parents if they would like to receive regular email updates on our classroom and building a parent/guardian email list for each class. I would send an email to families at the beginning of each unit.  That email would outline essential questions and objectives for the unit as a whole.  I would also attach a link, if available, to an article or short story the students are reading in class, in order to spark shared literacy and conversation at home.

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