Teacher on the phone. Source: WA/Dann Tardif | Credit: Getty Images/Blend Images

By Eva Orbuch

As teachers and parents figure out how to make distance learning work for kids, parent-teacher communication has never been more important. Innovate Public Schools is a nonprofit organization that builds the capacity of parents and educators to create excellent and equitable schools. A critical piece of that is for schools to engage parents as co-educators and leaders.

Now is an opportunity for educators to connect and communicate with families in new ways that will not only support students learning from home right now, but build deep and trusting relationships for long beyond the pandemic.

Our team includes both community organizers and veteran educators. Through listening to the experiences of hundreds of families since March, we have compiled these recommendations for teachers on how to effectively connect with families during the pandemic. Here is a video with our tips that are also spelled out in this article.

Centering Parents in your Communication

Let’s start with some principles and practices that can guide your communication and center parents.

1. Listen deeply. This is a true opportunity for connection and empathy. Especially if you’re a parent, you may be going through similar struggles as your families! Use an empathetic, caring, and patient voice.

2. Think about what’s going to be most understandable for parents, rather than what’s easiest for you. Remember that many families may deeply want to help, but: may not have much access to technology, may not speak the same language as you, may not feel confident teaching content to their students, or may be struggling with basic human needs, in addition to academics.

3. Pick up the phone. As tempting as it is to just text/email or use other electronic systems to send messages, phone calls will make a bigger difference. Try to get in touch with an interpreter ASAP if language is a barrier.

4. Allow at least 15 minutes per call.

5. Get concrete and specific. Offer a daily schedule for how the student could spend their day at home during distance learning. Many families have asked for this! Also, calls shouldn’t just be when there are problems. Get specific about offering something positive the student did that you want to report home. Parents will appreciate it!

6. Share step-by-step instructions. If you expect students to use a particular technology for their learning, offer families step-by-step instructions on setting it up. If you need parents to complete a task, explain exactly how they can do so.

7. Follow up by forwarding resources. Text or email the family specific resources, links, or information immediately after the call so they can easily access it and refer back, rather than just mentioning it verbally.

Now, let’s review some concrete steps to make your phone calls with families successful!

  1. Prepare for the Call
  2. Make the call. If you don’t know what language is needed for the call, ask at the beginning. If it’s not the language you speak, make a plan to call them back when you have access to translation support.
  3. State the purpose of your call. For example, “I am calling to check in and see how you and your student are doing, both personally and academically. I want to make sure your family has the resources you need to be safe, and that the student has everything they need to work on their distance learning.”
  4. Check in with how the student and family is doing. “I wanted to check in on how your family and the student are doing. I know this is a very difficult time.”
  5. If the family mentions needing a specific resource you have information about, offer to email or text it to them after the call. “You mentioned needing support with food and rent access. I am happy to text or email you the link to a community organization helping families with this. Would that help?”
  6. Tell them a concern you’ve been hearing from other families and see if they have that same one. It lowers the pressure for them to share. “I’ve been hearing from some other families that they are not totally sure how to help their students with our math curriculum. How has math been for you?”
  7. Ask a few focus questions you need to learn about for your teaching and student learning to be successful.

Try to ask open ended questions rather than yes/no.

GREAT QUESTION: “What has your experience been so far with reading at home?”

NOT GREAT QUESTION: “Did your kid read this week?”

8. Close the call:

Be clear on your communication expectations. “I will call you again on _______, to check on ____.”

Ask if they need anything else for now.

Thank them for being a partner with you!

9. After your call:

Log your calls so you have detailed information for follow up, including taking notes on academic progress/concerns and social services needed/offered. Do this either on a template from your school or district, or on your own system that works for you. This will help you keep track of which families you need to follow up with.

10. Send the families follow up email/text about resources if you agreed to. “Here is the information for the food bank.”

This crisis has shown that schools are important community safety nets, and we need to invest in them more. Teachers should have a voice and be part of the policy conversation. Tell your school leaders, districts, and elected leaders what you need to be successful. Showing you care not only about your students’ academic progress, but their families’ health and well-being will help you build trust. Being responsive and accessible to families will make it more likely for them to work with you regularly in the future. As Karen Cervantes Jimenez shares in this La Comadre article, it is easy for parents to blame teachers and teachers to blame parents, when they’re not communicating well. Now, more than ever, teachers and parents need to be partners working together to make student learning happen!

More resources for teachers related to distance learning

A Teacher’s Guide to Collaborative Family-Teacher Relationships

6 Tips for Teaching Remotely Over the Longhaul of the Coronavirus

Covid-19 School Response Toolkit

What Teachers Need to Make Remote Schooling Work

What the Coronavirus can teach us about empathy and equity in schools

To get in touch with the author, email eorbuch@innovateschools.org

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Eva Orbuch

Eva Orbuch

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