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Triumph Learning Isider

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.

Comments (3)

  • Posted on Friday, February 15, 2013 at 3:16 am

    Thank you for these wise insights, Teresa.

    A slightly different clientele that also benefits from the approaches you describe is families with homebound students. Because of recent issues in our own famly, I'm now especially sensitive to effectively dealing with famlies who have a child temporarily unable to attend school for a variety of reasons.

    These famlies and students can feel alienated from school, and are sometimes led to feel like they're "doing school wrong" when in actuality they just need some adaptations. Positive, effective communication can do wonders for making these families feel supported and for laying the groundwork for successful re-entry of these students to the school environment.

    "We are stronger when we work together." Absolutely.

  • Teresa Bunner

    Posted on Monday, February 18, 2013 at 4:29 pm

    Thanks, Gary! You are so right to bring this point into the discussion. We have a wonderful home/hospital school and homebound program in our district. I wish that for every family that has to deal with issues that make coming to the physical school location not possible. Each and every child is our student, whether they sit in a desk in our school or work from home.

  • Posted on Wednesday, February 20, 2013 at 2:15 am

    Like you I do the parent phone calls home at year's start. Then I follow up with good calls as often as I can. My parents react similarly to yours to those praise calls. I invite parents into my classroom several times a year to showcase and celebrate their students' work. They are always surprised to get the invite from a high school teacher and often say they haven't sat in on an informal classroom performance in years. I know I need to do more of that. I'd love to hear more about Parent University. How do you staff it? What are the challenges? What's worked really well there? Sometimes my parent outreach pieces aren't as well attended as I'd hoped. I think it's a matter of figuring out what it is parents need in terms of support and scheduling. I'll have to get Davis' book. Thank you!