Wednesday, July 29, 2009

What No One Will Tell You When You Come to Work at the DOE, Part 5: Family Relations

Welcome back, old and new friends!

I decided to think about the issue of collegial relations for another week and blog instead about the only-slightly-less-thorny issue of home and family relations. Not relations with your own home and family, of course, except to say that I usually bid my own friends and family farewell during the last week of August and promise to get back to them sometime in October. No, here we mean relations with the families of your students.

First, a disclaimer: I am filled with trepidation whenever I contact a parent. Giving a parent bad news is definitely one of the worst parts of the job. It's certainly necessary at times, but I hate it. I guess what I'm trying to say is that it's okay to dread it. After all, most parents (sad to say not all, but most) love their kids and want the best for them, and it's a blow to them to hear that their little darlings aren't doing well. It's natural to not want to be the one to deliver that news. But sometimes you have to, and most parents will admit that, if there's bad news to be heard, they'd rather hear it sooner than later.

My first step in forming good relations with the families of my students is to be proactive and positive. I send home letters to the parents of my students on the very first day of school that explain, in exhaustive detail, my rules, routines, grading procedures, expectations, yadda yadda yadda. You'd be surprised by how many teachers don't do this. Do it. It makes parents feel included and informed right off the bat.

Some of the best advice NYC Educator ever gave was to call every single parent in the very first week of school. I do it myself, and it's not nearly as burdensome as it sounds (and it's not as burdensome for me as it must be for him in the high school). This is not a rundown of everything you've found out about each child in your assessment process and it's not a live performance of the letter you sent home; it's a short call in which you introduce yourself, say something positive about the child in question (it's okay if it's generic), and express your high hopes for the coming school year:

"Hello, Mrs. So-and-so. This is Miss Eyre from the Morton School. I'll be Adele's English teacher this year. She seems like a lovely bright girl. I'm looking forward to teaching her. Have you reviewed the materials I've sent home? Wonderful. Please let me know if you have any questions. You can always contact me at Thanks for your time and have a nice evening."

A phone call like this sends two messages at once. To the parents, it says you are a considerate and pleasant person who reaches out to parents from Day One. To the kids, it says, I know your phone number and I'm not afraid to use it, capisce? I think that's a good message to send. Before you attempt this trick, make sure you have obtained from your students a minimum of two phone numbers and the name, pronunciation, and relationship of the adult who will probably answer the phone. As you probably know, many kids live with non-parental legal guardians, stepparents, and extended family members. Also ascertain if the adult who will answer the phone speaks English. If not, try to get a translator.

How to obtain this info, incidentally, before you get emergency contact cards returned? Simple: Ask the kiddies. On the first day, even high schoolers will generally not lie, as there's not much chance they're in trouble already. Pass out index cards and ask them to write emergency contact information in case they cut off a finger or something before you get an emergency contact card. I ask for two phone numbers, name of at least one legal guardian, relationship, and home language. These days, I think you can get that all on ARIS if you're in NYC, but whether or not ARIS will be up and running with your current class(es) on the first day of school is anyone's guess, plus phone numbers tend to change quickly. Anyway, the kids will probably tell you the truth. Then save those index cards all year and use the back side to note any home contacts you make.

Which is the next thing to keep in mind: DOCUMENT ALL HOME CONTACT. Save every e-mail, photocopy every letter, note every phone call. Some parents will claim that May is the first time they ever had the foggiest notion that Junior was failing four classes. You must be able to prove that this is not the case, that in fact you phoned, e-mailed, and sent notes home to Mr. and Mrs. Junior on seventeen separate occasions between October and April. If you can't, your administrator will assume it never happened.

And that leads nicely into how to break bad news to your little darlings' families. I've found that it's best to break it quickly. When there's bad news, I don't lead off with a positive. That positive is not what I'm calling about. I cut to the chase. Most parents tend to assume that it is not good news when a teacher calls anyway:

"Hello, Mrs. So-and-so, this is Miss Eyre from the Morton School. I'm sorry to have to tell you that Adele did not hand in her project even after I gave her three more days to hand it in late. She was informed of the due date for this project three weeks ago. It will be very difficult for Adele to pass without handing in this project. Let's talk about how we can help Adele to not miss the next project."

Most parents really will be fine with this, at least to you. There are nightmare stories out there and I'll give you some suggestions on how to deal with them shortly, but rest assured that most parents will express dismay at their offspring's behavior and say that they will talk to them about it. Reiterate any assistance you offer--tutoring, extended day, whatever--thank them for their time, get off the phone, and note it on your index card (the most important part!!!)

Okay. So maybe the parent is not fine. Maybe they will insist that the project was too hard or claim that Adele was mourning the death of her hermit crab too intensely to even contemplate beginning her project, whatever. I would recommend that you stand more or less firm. If your policy is that you don't accept late work after three days (as is my policy), reiterate this policy, unless there really is some kind of really exigent circumstance. If you offered Adele assistance that she chose not to accept, explain that to the parent. Really, the vast majority of parents will at least be civil, if not compliant, with you at this point.

As an aside, trust-but-verify any story a kid gives you about some kind of emergency. Kids do, unfortunately, tell stories from time to time. If a kid claims to have screwed up due to, say, the death of a beloved aunt, simply express your sympathy to the child and follow up with a phone call: "Mrs. So-and-so, I was so sorry to hear about Adele's aunt." If the kid is telling the truth, you can talk to the parent and make arrangements to help the kid make up work or whatever; if not, well... But, obviously, in times like this, a little flexibility can go a long way in building goodwill.

Okay. So the nightmare happens: A parent is giving you a hard time. They don't believe you or, worse, they blame you for something going on with the kid. I need to stress that this really does not happen all the time. Most parents will want to work with you in a constructive way. But let's say it does happen because, well, it does happen. You can try a couple of things:
  • Bring the evidence. Invite the parent to personally review their child's notebook or portfolio with you, say. This stuff doesn't lie. It's hard to argue that you're not helping the kid when the kid simply hasn't done anything.
  • Bring some backup. If you teach in a middle school or a high school, talk to your colleagues and see if this little darling has issues in anyone else's class. If so, try to set up a meeting with the parent, the child, the other teacher(s), and yourself.
  • Bring the higher-up. Deploy this option with caution. Do you have a good relationship with your principal or AP? Does he/she generally have the trust and respect of the parents? Consider the answers to those questions before you ask an admin to help you.

So with the ugly stuff out of the way, let's get back to "positive and proactive." I'm generally in favor of the class newsletter-type-thing, although it is one more thing you have to do. But do it, like, once a month. You can e-mail it or post it to a website to save yourself some paper and copying. Update families as to where you are in the curriculum. Tell them about special events and projects.

Finally, try--and this is hard, I know, days are long and time is short and all, but try--to reach out to parents with good news from time to time, especially if a kid is turning his or her particular ship around: "Junior's homework record has really improved in the past few weeks. I think he can expect a much better grade this marking period if he keeps it up." The parent will be relieved to hear the good news, and the kid will be glad that you noticed his or her good efforts and so will be more likely to keep them up.

I've left one question unanswered, I know: How to handle that strange ritual that no one enjoys but we still do anyway known as PARENT-TEACHER CONFERENCES. Well, frankly, this post is already long enough. Come back in the fall.

See you next week!

Miss Eyre

P.S.: I finally updated my own blog with some real material. Go there. [/shameless self-promotion]

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