As educators, we know that a strong partnership between school and home helps to facilitate student academic success. Often though, families can be disengaged from school because they feel unwelcomed or their own school experiences were not positive. How do we create school environments that invite and welcome culturally diverse families? How do we connect with families to create a collaborative effort? The key is to look at effective communication.
There are several ways we can establish school-to-home communication. When we are all talking to each other, we create a more positive, encouraging academic experience for our students. Here are some ways to create open communication lines:
1. Make the first contact a positive one. I’ve talked with a number of families who have shared that they feel like the only contact they ever have with school is when their child is not doing well academically or has misbehaved. Think of ways you as a classroom teacher could connect with families. How can your school as a whole do this? We often depend upon Back-to-School nights or Open Houses, but not all families can attend at those times. Even those who can are often too intimidated to attend because the school does not feel welcoming.
When I was a classroom teacher, I made it my goal to make a phone call home to every family in the first week of school to introduce myself, tell the family how very glad I was to have their child as my student and to open the lines of communication. As a high school teacher with a large number of students, that was tough! I focused on the ninth grade classes I taught to help develop a positive experience for families the first year of high school.
I’ll never forget calling one father. His son was one of the most respectful, kind young men I have ever had the privilege of teaching. When I called his father to tell him this, there was stunned silence on the other end. Then this father said, “I have never had a phone call like this from a school. Thank you.” One phone call. Just a few minutes. A phone call that will forever be stamped on my heart. (As a side note, this young man posted the highest gain on a standardized test that any of my students has ever achieved. Correlation? I think so.) For my classes at other levels, I sent a welcome postcard if I ran out of time for phone calls. Be creative. You know yourself and your community. Families really will appreciate any effort you can make!
2. Provide communication in home languages. When I worked in a large district in California, we had over 80 languages represented! It’s difficult to have every resource available in that many languages. But if our goal is to create a partnership with families, then we have to do everything that we can to open lines of communication. If you have a university located nearby, many of them now have community service requirements. This might be a great resource to find some students who are proficient in other languages who could donate their time to help you translate materials. Work with your community cultural groups. Perhaps everything can’t be translated on paper, but you could hold meetings in primary language to share information and make families feel welcome. Once again, be creative! The connections you make and the relationships you form will be well worth the time you spend.
3. Create a community center/family center/parent program. My colleague, Bonnie Davis, in her book How to Teach Students Who Don’t Look Like You (2nd edition, Corwin Press) talks about creating family centers, staffed by volunteer parents. Through our program, we have created a Parent University. Parent University seeks to connect families with their child’s school, the school system and community organizations through learning opportunities to facilitate positive engagement with the schools. If our goal truly is collaboration with families to insure student success, there needs to be a place for families within our schools.
What have you done as an educator to reach out to families? What has your school done? I’d love to hear your ideas! In the end, everyone: parents, family members, teachers and school staff, all want the same thing—to help our young people grow and learn and reach their potential. We are stronger when we work together.