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Communicating Well From Day One
The most important thing for a new teacher to do is to start communication with parents as soon as the classroom list comes out. Send home a note card introducing yourself, welcoming the student to your classroom and including contact information. It signifies to the parents that you are vested in the student's success and open for communication with them at the very onset of the school year. This is especially true when students are beginning in the first grades of Prekindergarten and Kindergarten where many parents are anxious about their child starting school. Chances are no one but the primary caregivers had responsibility for the child prior to this precious age, so be sensitive.
Parents will want to know about you and your qualifications. Keep in mind when meeting new parents that they come with their own set of teacher experiences through their own lives or the lives of their other children. They may have had some good and bad experiences with teachers and may be mistrustful or even intimidated by you at first. Also recognize that if you are a different race or religious background than the student, the parent may feel protective and want their child to receive the same care from you as other students receive and rightly so. Understand this and work to overcome it through consistency and communication.
Find Common Ground
As a new teacher, I remember experiencing this with a parent. She obviously wanted and deserved the best education for her son, but from the look in her eyes I could see she doubted me. Her two concerns were that her son would be too independent and that he may not receive enough education from me. I listened to her and found that when her son needed to be independent, I let him. Listen to the parents about their children, they know them best!
Also, review the curriculum and your approach to teaching it with an apprehensive parent; it takes a few minutes to make a lasting impression. I took this approach with the hesitant parent and we quickly established common ground as I found out that she worked for a local children's television corporation. This same parent, who was at first mistrustful cried at Kindergarten graduation, because she did not know if her son would ever have another teacher like me. What a difference! Building a trusting relationship with parents takes time and the benefits of good communication will last all year long and even beyond.
Keep it Positive
Sometimes misunderstandings occur, even in the best of relationships. Listen before you respond. When this happens ask yourself, what is the parent trying to tell me? Restate what he or she said and make a plan together. More importantly always remain positive. Keep a professional demeanor at all times, even if you feel defensive. Always maintain your composure. Remember, you both have the best interest of the student at heart. That is, a healthy and happy student is the goal. Parents will appreciate your trustworthiness and the reward you will receive will be a great reputation within the school. Remember, parents talk to one another and to your administrators. No one wants to be known among them as "the other teacher," if you know what I mean.
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Create a Classroom Welcome Packet
Although some teachers start with just a classroom welcome letter, I personally recommend beginning the school year by preparing a whole written informational packet about your classroom and teaching philosophy. Include contact information, web page, and best time to reach you. For an added bonus, have the informational packet available on your classroom web page.
The informational packet that I prepare (and update each year) is several pages long and includes the following welcome information:
- a meet the teacher page (including teacher contact information, website, philosophy, best time to reach you and so on),
- a class schedule (this is important for gym days when students need to be prepared),
- a behavioral policy (include a reward policy),
- a homework policy (when and how do you assign homework),
- a copy of the classroom rules,
- a detailed summary of each curriculum area (see below), and,
- expectations for academic success.
- An optional idea is to include a poem at the end about the grade you teach.
On the summary page for each curriculum area, provide a detailed description of each subject area and what your expectations are for the student both at home and at school in that area. For example, when informing the parents about the reading curriculum, include the name of the reading program, phonics program and site word program. Also, include a list or detailed description of the curriculum, including your expectations for learning in word work (for example, how many sight words are the students accountable to know at the end of the school year?). Do this for each curriculum area.
Parents will appreciate that you are forthcoming about your expectations and it begins to build trust. At the end of one school year, I had parents come to me, packet in hand, delighted that I wrote that their Kindergartener would read independently at the end of the school year and that indeed she was reading independently. Not only that, when your expectations are clear from the beginning of the school year it serves as a guide for you, the students and the parents. When you are forthcoming about your expectations with the parents, then they can set goals for the child at home and reinforce what you are doing in the classroom. I have even had parents adapt my classroom behavior and reward policy at home to help keep consistent expectations between school and home.
Although the informational packet becomes quite lengthy by preparing it in this manner, the rewards are well worth the time invested to prepare it. Also, once it is done, all you have to do is update it each year.
During the school year, keep parents informed of which unit of study you are in for each subject area by weekly or monthly newsletters. In each newsletter, give them ideas on how to reinforce the subject matter at home.
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Keep Communication Open
The beginning of the school year packet is a great way to start communication, but communication must be continual throughout the school year.
In addition to all the daily notes, newsletters (weekly or monthly), and homework that will go home with the students, I made a goal to send at least one informational handout or website link for parents to view per month. I used handouts, Doing Math at Home, Practicing Writing at Home, Science at Home and Reading at Home for parents, making sure that they each supported the classroom instruction. Some of them are available through the curriculum guideline books for free use.
The handouts included finding Math in everyday life, like help a family member count their dimes by 10's. For example, we expect students to read at home every day (the length of time and whether they really do or not is the cause of much teacher conversation), but how do we hold children and parents accountable?
Again, parents must know what you expect them to practice with the child, before, during and after reading. Let's say the child reads for twenty minutes and the parent sees it, signs the reading log and that's it. What has the parent or teacher learned about the child's reading experience? With every book reading I not only included the reading log, but a handout that had five general questions. Some research studies show that it is more important for the child to read to the parent than vice versa during the school-age years.
An example of what concept of print questions might look like is: Find the title and author and copy it. List any rhyming words in the book. Write any sight words that you recognize in the book. Count the number of sentences in the book. Write all of the words that begin with a capital letter in the book. Keep in mind that I taught Kindergarten and the books were Beginning Readers but this simple activity can be modified to any grade level.
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Teacher Notes to Parents
So far in this series we have discussed the importance of starting the school year with good communication, writing a welcome packet for parents, and keeping communication consistent. Now let's look at the reason a teacher will need to write to parents, and how to write notes to parents.
A teacher may write a note to a parent for the following reasons:
- Field trips- this is mandatory in most school districts nationwide.
- For supplies, money (lunch, field trip, fundraiser), book return, volunteers, and so on.
- Behavior- use notes for both positive and negative feedback.
For the busy teacher, there are several resources to teachers to write notes to parents. A Note from Your Teacher is one example.
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About Behavior Notes
At times it is necessary to write notes to parents each day about student behavior in the classroom. Sometimes it is necessary to put an individual student on a behavioral plan. Inevitably there will be a child that needs more guidance than other children. The child may have problems controlling him or herself and needs your help to get on track. I use this as a last resort. First and foremost, keep documents to support your need to implement an individual behavioral policy, and keep it positive.
Remember that the student is the parent's pride and joy and for some parents it may be difficult for them to hear and believe that their child has a behavioral issue at school. Invite the student's parent into the classroom for an unexpected visit or to volunteer to help with the class. Again, be sensitive, communicate your expectations and needs, and most importantly, be professional at all times. If it helps, then elicit some help or feedback from the school counselor or psychologist in preparing a behavioral document or to help in the discussion with the parent. Never begin a behavioral plan without the parent consent and signature.
Read more about my philosophy about Classroom Management, here.
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Notes to & From Parents
Notes to and from parents can cause a stressful morning and dismissal. Have a "Notes to Teacher" basket near the door. The students drop excuses, late passes, or special instructions to you there. Later in the day or during bell work, empty the basket.
In Homework pocket folders have a pocket that reads, "Notes to Parents". Put any communicative material in there before the end of the day. Write about where parents can receive notes from you in your informational packet under homework policy (see the last article in the series) so that parents know where find notes from you.
This is not to say that this is the only system that works, but an example of one that worked for me. A really great, experienced colleague once told me to have a system for everything and when new practices or issues arise, create a new system. I remember when I first began teaching and finding an absentee excuse folded up and tattered in a Kindergarteners book bag a week later. I needed a system. You can read more in my article about establishing classroom routines here.
This is based on my own personal experience as a teacher. Each new school year will provide the teacher will a repertoire of communication skills and devices to build upon. I'd love to hear what you have found in your experience. Share it in the comments!
- Author Laurie Patsalides is a teacher with high respect for the profession.