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Virtual Teacher Series: Parent Communication

Oct 27, 2020

“Hours!” she said.  “I spent HOURS on my Sunday afternoon grading just late work alone, and then you want to know what I had to do the rest of the week?”  I could almost guess what it was, “call parents” she said, exacerbated.  My teacher friend went on to explain how as it’s the end of the quarter and grades are due soon, it’s that time of the year that comes around four times per year to communicate to parents whose child is near or actually failing a course.

I squinted and turned my head to the side to lessen the blow of her answer as I asked, “how long did it take to contact parents?”

Three days after school until well past 5pm.

We’ve all been there.  We’ve all been in a place where something in our teaching lives is taking up way more hours than we want it to, or than is healthy.  Whether that’s because we’re new at it and haven’t developed the processes to make it a quick process, or we just straight up don’t like doing it.  Either way, it’s not helping you continue to love your job.

In the year that is 2020, the thing you don’t like doing, in many cases parent communication, is probably taking you even longer, and you are loathing it even more.

For others, that loathsome task could be grading late work.  Just the mention of grading late work in a mostly virtual classroom will send any teacher into an anxiety attack.  If this is you, or if you just need some ideas on a better way of going about all things late work in the virtual classroom, please check out last week’s post on a more sustainable workflow where I give tips on grading late work.

This week we’ll be focusing on parent communication.  You know, that task that seems to bump it’s way down your to-do list week after week, and by the time week 9 of the quarter rolls around, you have to spend a huge chunk of your time talking to parents when it’s probably too late for their help to be effective…  if it was ever going to be effective in the first place, am I right?!?

Well, I’m not promising  it will always be effective, but we can make it more sustainable.  So, let’s get to it.

Parent Communication

Whether you’re a seasoned veteran teacher with loads of confidence or a first year teacher whose motto for confidence is to fake-it-until-you-make-it (been there for sure!), when it comes to calling home, we’ve all sucked at it at some point.  We’ve all dropped the ball here or there when it comes to clearly communicating expectations and/or a child’s failure in meeting said expectations in a timely manner.

Please hear me when I say I carry no judgement there, and neither should anyone else so long as we recognize the ball was in fact dropped and we want to get better.  Well, let’s clarify, we want to get better in ways that are manageable and sustainable for us as well.  Always keep that in mind.  Remember, I’m not here to be anyone’s martyr, nor should you.  But I am here to be effective with the kids in my room, and I will choose to do so in a way that allows me to stay in this career longer than the average 5 years.  And stressing about how I may not be great at parent communication or about how to get better is just not going to allow me to do that.

Let’s map out, first, before we get to the nitty gritty of how to make parent communication sustainable and (hopefully) effective, what exactly is so important about parent communication.

Documentation

Is parent communication always effective with every student?  Of course not.  Who are we kidding?

But as teachers we don’t always do things because they are 100% effective.  We do them on principle and we do them anyway because that’s how I would want a child and their family to be treated…  as if it will be effective.

And, let’s face it… in today’s world of having to prove teachers work their tail-ends off and that we really do care about each of the children in our rooms, documentation is important.

And, it’s just good practice.

So why is parent communication important?  Because whether it’s going to be effective or not, we did it on the principle that I would have wanted  to hear from my child’s teacher(s) and every child deserves a family who will pick up the phone and respond, so I’m going to behave as if they do.

Whether they answer or not is out of my control, so here I go documenting the fact that I reach out.

Frequency

Unfortunately, with all the plates we’re trying to keep spinning in the air, it’s very easy for the plate that is parent communication to slow down and even fall off the stick until the end of the quarter when grades are due, and you end up calling parents just to give them a heads up that the fat F is coming so don’t be all shocked when you get their report card, ok? Ok.

Yea, that’s not great, but like I said, we’ve all been there before. 

Communicating with parents from the start of the year is the number one way to set the whole thing up for success.  And what exactly is a successful parent communication system, you ask?  One that is effective.  Meaning, when you call, the parents answer, they listen, and they execute (meaning the system, not the child - ha!).

But seriously who has time to contact parents every week from the start of the school year?

There are better ways of going about this whole frequently contacting parents thing, but it’s just as easy to set up some elaborate newsletter or parent communication system that requires WAY too much from you and then the system ends up failing before the end of the first quarter.  So, yes, it’s important to frequently communicate with parents from the start of the year, not just when grades are due, but it’s equally important to have a system that you are able to maintain.

Consistency

Lastly, what’s important about parent communication is that it's done so consistently.  This means that you are not just communicating to parents if their child is failing at the end of the quarter, but that you are instead or also communicating about classroom procedures, fun happenings in your lessons and activities, upcoming due dates, reminders, and important things to remember, and any needs you and your students may have.

But, again, how do you add this rather large task of documented, frequent, and consistent parent communication to your already ridiculously long list of tasks, weekly procedures, and to-dos?

That’s where I would like to help.

Parent Communication System

Systems are the absolute backbone of all sustainable classrooms.  They are what allow your classroom to function in spite of you.  And I would like to offer you two options.  I’ll start with the more elaborate one first.

QR code system

The struggle I found with parent communication (and grading, and pretty much everything else about teaching outside of just being with students and teaching them) was that I needed to carve out the time to sit down and do it.

Whenever I did carve out the time, there would always be a more important task that came to my attention or that I would prefer to do instead.  

Enter what I call the “Do It NOW Parent Communication System.”

Here’s what it allowed me to do.  In order to up the frequency of parent communication, meaning let them know immediately that something wasn’t turned in TODAY or that their child misbehaved in class TODAY (not yesterday or last week), I needed a system that allowed me to communicate with parents on a today-basis, not a yesterday or last week basis.

It also allowed me to keep consistent communication simply because it was so easy to do so.

How it works

In my flipped classroom, I checked students’ flipped notes or activities every single day while they worked on the bell ringer (welcome work).  It allowed me to talk to every one of my students every single day - learn more here.

That moment - when I was talking to students - or when I was conferencing one-on-one with students (during class time, because flipping allows you to do that too), I wanted a way to quickly let parents know,  “here’s what’s going on, here’s what was said in a conversation with your child just now, and here’s how we can use your help.”

But documenting all of that, then carving out the time to sit down later and actually communicate it with parents before too much time had passed was where I dropped the ball time and time again.

So, to alleviate this problem, I created a QR code for everyone of my students that we clear-package-taped to the inside cover of their binder (each of my students had a designated binder only for our class).  I would scan that QR code any time a student didn’t have their work on time or anytime we conferenced and I wanted to keep parents in the loop.  

The code would take me directly to a composed email with the parents email address already in place, that I simply just scanned on my phone.  All I had to do was plop in a subject, quickly greet them and let them know the matter for the email, and click send.  

BOOM!

No more waiting until the end of time for me to find a few moments to email parents enmasse.  Instead, the few parents who I needed to chat with, heard from me and it was done immediately… I didn’t even have to add it to my to-do list because it was already done.

How to set it up

First you’ll want to make a spreadsheet that includes each of your  students’ names, their parent/guardian names, and their parent/guardian email addresses.  I did this in the “Get to Know Me” procedure at the beginning of the school year where students completed a Google Form where I asked for this information.

Next, open up a quick Google Doc (here’s a template for you) and insert a table with as many rows as possible, and 3 to 4 columns depending on how large you’ll make the QR codes.  Insert each student's name, making sure to skip a row in between (that’s where you’ll put each student’s QR code).

Then you’ll want to open up a QR code generator, like this one, and be sure to have your spreadsheet of student names and parent email addresses ready.  This particular QR code generator allows you to link the code to a contact.  On the QR code generator website you’ll click on “Contact” as shown in the image below, insert the parent’s name and their email address, then save the QR code.  

 

Plop that saved QR code into your Google Doc above (or below, totally your preference, just make sure you get it right when it’s time to put QR codes into students binders) the corresponding student name.  Repeat this process for each student, then print.  I like to print on card stock.  You could then have it laminated but I felt like the packaging tape protected it enough.  Finally, tape the correct qr code on each student’s binder.

When you scan the QR code from the student’s binder (be sure to be super diligent about getting the correct student’s qr code in the correct binder), it will bring up a contact like this on your phone, at which point you can select “Mail” to send a quick email to them.

There’s a bit of prep work up front, but once the system is up and working, it’s almost no trouble at all to keep the necessary consistency and frequency of parent communication going.

So what about documentation? 

Parent Communication Documentation Form

Even with the QR code system above, you’ll still want to take one more step to document who you’ve contacted and if the contact was successful or not (meaning, did they respond or answer, and what was their response like… helpful or not?).  And, even without the QR code system described above, this would be an easy system to implement for documentation purposes no matter what parent communication system you use.

Just like the qr code system allows us to take care of a to-do before it even gets on our list, this next recommendation will do the same.  And I’ll take you through the how-to, step by step.

  1. Create a Google Form.
  2. Title it “Parent Communication Documentation” or whatever suits your fancy, and include the following “questions” and the question types:
    1. Student Last Name (short answer or drop down menu depending on how many students you have), 
    2. Student First Name, 
    3. Parent Contacted (short answer), 
    4. Form of contact (multiple choice question with phone, email, in person, Remind if you use that, and any other form of contact you might use), 
    5. Date contacted, and 
    6. Parent Response (You wouldn’t fill this out on the initial form unless you got an immediate response from the parent, for instance in an in-person contact.  Otherwise you would leave this empty and complete it in the spreadsheet at a later time)
  3. Once you’ve created the form and have it the way you want it, grab the URL of the form to fill out by clicking on Send, click the chain link, then copy the link.
  4. Take the copied link and plop it into the QR code generator, save the code, print it on card stock, and get it laminated.  Then, punch a hole in it and keep it with your teacher id on your lanyard or in some other easily accessible, always-with-you-spot.

 

The Google Form is what you’ll fill out each time you contact parents, and then you really never even have to look at it again unless you need to know when exactly you contacted a particular parent, in which case you would just open up the spreadsheet the form automatically makes to find out.

In order to save you time from creating that Google form on your own, I would love to share the template I made that you can see in the images above.  Just grab the Virtual Teacher Toolkit in the form embedded below and I’ll send it your way, along with some other awesome goodies (digital interactive notebook template, and inspiration screensavers to name a couple).

*Bonus Tip* - bookmark the Parent Communication Documentation spreadsheet to your bookmarks bar for easy reference when you need it.

And there you have it, teacher friend.

Systems that allow you to frequently and consistently communicate with individual parents, and a way to document the fact that you do so.

The last tip I will leave you with is this.  Much like how we talked last week about declaring the student learning process, you must also make your parent communication process as clear as possible to students and parents.  Let students know what their individual QR code is for.  And let parents know to expect quick and short emails coming their way and the process of how and when you use those.  Then parents will know that you won’t be sending super lengthy emails less frequently, but instead super informative, in-the-moment emails.

It’s all about being effective while sustainable, and I hope the systems described here today help you do both of those things.  Be sure to grab the Virtual Teacher Toolkit below that now also includes the Parent Communication Documentation Google Form pictured above (so even if you’ve already grabbed it, go ahead and complete the form below again to get the updated one with the link to that Google Form).

 

Before you go, I want to introduce you to our Virtual Teacher Feature!

Virtual Teacher Feature

 

Allow me to introduce Natalie Robinson of St. Thomas More High School in Milwaukee, WI.  She is a AP Psychology and US History teacher who is currently teaching in a hybrid model on a A/B block schedule, in addition to some students who are 100% virtual.

Natalie uses a suite of tools as she describes here,

"We use Schoology and the conference app to connect live with our students everyday. I also present information in the Conference by sharing my screen and students can send public chats, private messages with me, and they can also change their status if they have a question or if I want to know if they are done with a task. I also use Microsoft Teams when I have the students work in groups because I can check in with their groups and see what work is being done and who is doing the work, much like a Google Doc."

When asked what her biggest struggle in the virtual teaching world, she resonates with all teachers everywhere in saying,

"That personal connection with students. There are some students who I have no idea who they are because they are 100% virtual and it is hard to connect. Also, having your desks six feet apart, no group work like we are used to, and knowing that kids are just in front of their screens all day."

That connection piece right now is certainly so hard.  When asked about the possible redeeming quality of all things virtual or blended teaching, Natalies tells us,

"I feel some students are more comfortable asking questions because they can just send messages instead of raising their hand in class or making it more public that they are having issues. I also think students are seeing us as more humans because issues that they are having with technology, us teachers are also having so it helps build the relationship between students and teachers."

She tells us that she simply can not do her current teaching job without her coworkers, especially those in her department... shout out to them and all supportive teacher tribes out there!

And she shares this last piece of advice for all teachers in the year 2020,

"It is hard, but do what you can to make the best of a difficult situation. Also, do not try to do too much, our kids are having trouble with this and too much all at once will be hard for them and us. There is no shame in having a glass of wine (or two) when you get home/off of work 😊."

YAAAS!  Have that drink, or take that warm bubble batch, or whatever you need to do to just sit, rejuvenate, and remember it's all going to be all right.

Stay tuned for the final week of our 5-part series of The Virtual Teacher where we’ll talk about having “one spot” in your virtual classroom that seems as if there are a million places to do everything.

See you next week,

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