Angela Gardner, Spanish Teacher, Ross High School
Some years ago, when I began my journey as a classroom teacher, I dreamt of a classroom environment where my students would be engaged, respectful, and excited to learn. At the same time, I was terrified of soliciting support from parents, which I have now come to know as highly beneficial, even essential, to running a successful classroom. Today, I still get jitters from time to time when I have to contact a parent, especially to share unpleasant news, but for the most part, I have found that the risks are well worth the rewards. Here, I will share with OFLA members the methods and timing I use for parent contacts, the purpose of contacting parents, and more. I also hope that other teachers might find some use in having new ideas about engaging parents in their children’s language education process.
The first contact
My cooperating teacher was the first to encourage me to make a positive phone call to parents to begin the semester. Ideally, this contact will happen before students arrive in the classroom. Wong and Wong (2009) suggest sending a letter home to parents before school begins, but this does not offer interaction or opportunity for parents to ask questions that can be of value for a language classroom. open houses offer a similar, face-to-face opportunity, but often the interactions are so brief, they do not allow for more than introductions and pleasantries. A phone contact allows parents and teachers to interact, share information, and have adequate time to address questions or concerns.
During this first contact, information that is helpful to share are behavioral expectations, expectations for use of the target language (will you be using the TL? will students? how often?), and materials students need to have on hand to be successful. Often it is worth asking parents if there is anything they would like for you to know about their child. They may divulge or share information that is helpful for seating charts (like vision problems), or other items, such as recent deaths in the family, behavioral history, and more.
This initial contact allows for teachers to set a positive tone and begin a positive relationship with the parents before the child or parent even sets foot in the classroom. This way, if teachers have to call again later for something less pleasant, there is already prior experience talking with that parent on the phone.
Throughout the school year, it is worthwhile to send regular updates to parents of students in a world language classroom. These updates may include information about what students are learning, classroom expectations, and how to help at home. Parents may want to help, but not have the faintest idea how, especially if they never studied a language or have no other language experience. Simply asking parents to support their children emotionally and morally can be helpful.
In these contacts, world language teachers can also take advantage of resources that parents can offer. Teachers may find out that parents have travel or other life experience that is relevant and can be shared in the classroom. Parents may be delighted to serve as guest speakers. Other resources may include the use of materials for crafts or other items, such as toilet paper tubes, construction paper, or other materials that can be re-used in the classroom to make puppets for speaking activities, decorations for the classroom, and more.
Instead of updates, some teachers may prefer to maintain a classroom website or blog to host this information and share it. Teachers should use the tools with which they are comfortable and can be most effective as communicators. These can and should be convenient in terms of timing for the teacher and parents, they should not require daily updates by the teacher or daily reading by the parents. . For more important or vital information, a phone call or face to face meeting is worthwhile.
Celebration contacts can make a tremendous difference in the day of a parent, child, and teacher. It takes only a few moments to do, but the benefits last a long time. It is quite simple, really. Teachers should be attentive to the students and if they do something notable and positive, the teacher calls the parent to share that information. As a general rule, parents seem to enjoy being bragged to about their own children, and the parents also tend to pass along the message to their child. In providing the child with some positive affirmation that they are noticed, liked, and seen in a positive light, that child can often turn into an ally for the teacher, and will encourage their peers to engage and work hard.
In terms of timing, these contacts can be made throughout the semester, at a time that is convenient to the teacher but close to the day that the shining moment took place. It is also worth ensuring that you are calling during a time of day when the parent is likely to be available to speak for a few moments.
Challenging contacts can strike fear into a teacher’s heart. These are contacts that make our heads spin and our hearts sink. Contacts when sharing disappointing or otherwise unpleasant information with parents can be challenging. It is worthwhile to have a plan in advance for what you wish to say. Timeliness is also key. Documentation of the facts of any incidents is helpful to have on hand. If there is a discipline issue, teachers should contact the parents as soon as possible.. Teachers should have solutions ready to discuss with the parent. It may also be helpful to discuss concerns with a trusted colleague. Teachers must remember to stay calm and professional.
Many school districts offer the opportunity for teachers and parents to communicate face-to-face through a conference setting. World language teachers can take advantage of this opportunity to meet with parents and learn more about their students’ backgrounds. It helps to ask parents questions about what insights they can provide on their child’s strengths and weaknesses, behavior, and any concerns they have. Some parents may also bring their children in for the conference, which can be a great opportunity to allow parents, teachers, and students to work together on behavior management plans, academic plans, or areas of concern. This is also the perfect time celebrate successes. The timing for these is often set within districts to coincide with interim reports or report card periods. This offers students ample time to make adjustments to achieve success later on.
Clearly, there are many methods for contacting parents and engaging them in the learning process for world languages. I would encourage all of my OFLA colleagues to consider contacting parents as a great way to develop strong relationships in the community and with the students we teach. Engaging parents is a wonderful way to support learning in the classroom. It may bring us all just a little bit closer to that dream classroom where our students are engaged, respectful, and excited to learn!
Wong, H., & Wong, R. (2009). The First Days of School: How to Be an Effective Teacher (Second ed.). Mountain View, CA: Harry K. Wong Publications.