Can Teachers and Parents Get Better at Talking to One Another? is a new article in The New Yorker.
It’s definitely worth reading the entire relatively lengthy article. I’m adding it to The Best Sources Of Parent Engagement Advice For Teachers.
But you should definitely read these six paragraphs:
A structural flaw in much teacher-family communication is that it is unidirectional: parents get information from school, however erratically, but they aren’t necessarily asked for information from home. “We know that when schools and families communicate in a reciprocal way, not just a one-sided way, children tend to have better academic, behavioral, and emotional outcomes,” Lisa Rafferty, a professor in the Exceptional Education Department at Buffalo State University, told me. Rafferty is a former special-education teacher with expertise in children who have emotional and behavioral difficulties—“invisible disabilities,” as she put it. Adversarial parent-teacher relationships sometimes stem from one-size-fits-all expectations that don’t account for what the teacher can’t see, Rafferty said. As desperate as some parents may feel to know more about what goes on at school, it may be far more important for teachers to know what goes on at home.
“If I were in charge of the world,” Thompson told me, “every teacher would be given the time and the compensation to visit every child’s home before the school year started.” Barring that, he said, teachers should ask parents three questions: Is there anything I should know about your child? Is there anything in particular that you are hoping for your child this year? And what are your worries? “These questions need to be asked and answered in person or on the phone,” Thompson went on. “A proactive question in person builds an alliance.”
And, as kids get older, there may be value in nudging parents gently to the side of the conversation. An elegant 2013 study arranged for cohorts of sixth- and ninth-grade students to receive daily notes or texts from their teacher, who also made daily phone calls to the students’ parents. The regular check-ins caused higher rates of completed, on-time homework assignments and lower rates of disruptive behavior. One ninth-grade teacher observed that students were “more eager to appear vulnerable in class”—a minor miracle amid the tough-guy posturing that is native to the early teen years. But Matthew Kraft, a co-author of the study, said that the calls from teachers to parents left some of the ninth graders feeling rattled, perhaps because “reaching out to their parents undercut their own autonomy.” With older students, Kraft went on, “teachers might benefit from directly communicating with students first, or in conjunction with parents, instead of going over their heads.”
Kraft, who is an associate professor of education and economics at Brown University, began his career in education teaching eighth and ninth grade in public schools in Oakland and Berkeley, including in a specialized classroom setting for kids at risk of dropping out of high school. There, he said, “I benefitted from smaller class sizes and the ability to invest time to get to know kids. That meant that I could make it a priority to communicate with families.” But manifold structural obstacles prevent most educators from creating the kinds of connections that are possible in a controlled research setting, Kraft said. Families may face language barriers. Schools often don’t have formal policies around parent-teacher communication, so expectations are unclear. Educators lack noninstructional time built into their day to make the calls and write the texts—elementary-school teachers may have thirty-plus students, and high-school teachers may have a hundred or more.
As a result, teachers triage—they get in touch only when there’s trouble, which conditions families to dread the calls rather than welcome them. Instead, Kraft said, teachers need to balance positive feedback with “specific and actionable” feedback about how students can improve. As Rafferty put it, “A parent shouldn’t feel their stomach drop every time they see the school’s number on the caller I.D.” (Mine certainly does.) “You have to make sure you’re not always calling home about what a kid needs to fix,” she went on. “You have to catch them being good.”
….Kraft was careful and measured throughout our conversation, but, when I asked him what kinds of communication with families worked best in his classroom, he answered instantly. “A quick and unscripted, unexpected, positive message,” he said. “These families never got that, ever. Just call them up and say, ‘Hey, your kid worked really hard this week. Keep up the great work.’ That’s it.”