My school community is pretty unique. We sit right next to a big university, so we serve many of the university employee’s children. Many of our families both live and work within walking or biking distance of our school. Some can even hear the school bell from their living rooms! Because of this, lots of kids and families walk or bike to and from school and work each day. At my classroom’s front door when I greeted kids each morning, it was not uncommon to also wave and have quick conversations with former and current classroom parents as they headed off to work. As in many schools in California, my classroom door opened up to the outside- not to a hallway. Plus, my classroom is situated in the front of the school. So, I often saw all the comings and goings at the start and end of the school day. Casual conversation with students’ caregivers was the culture at my school. Much of my communication with families happened that way. In addition to regular casual communication, I also tried to send a weekly email update (if I’m being honest, it was more like every two or three weeks) to keep families informed. Communication with students’ caregivers was always pretty easy for me. Then, our school buildings shut down.
Before I get into the details of this post, I have to acknowledge that my school system provided a device (Chromebook in the case of my fifth graders) and internet connection for all of our students who needed it. In my classroom alone, I checked out 13 Chromebooks. I recognize our privilege here. I also have to say it shouldn’t be a privilege- it should be a right for all children in our society as a whole.
Mistakes I Made in the Spring of 2020
Once we were ordered to go full distance, I made three major mistakes in communication with classroom families and caregivers this past spring.
- After we shut down, I started emailing classroom families every single day to give updates and just check in. In fact, I even numbered the emails- Update from Ms. Nosek Day 1, Day 2, Day 3… Day 16. I thought I was being helpful, I really did! Then, I received an email response from one of my classroom dads for which I am so grateful.
“Dear Christina- Thank you for the updates. I appreciate your constant communication, but I can’t keep up anymore. Can you send one weekly email instead of daily emails?” I was shocked! But, at the same time, I was so glad that someone finally said something! It never occurred to me that I might have been overwhelming my classroom parents or that I was clogging up their inboxes unnecessarily. In retrospect, I have no idea what I was thinking with those daily emails.
- In addition to sending too many emails, I used multiple methods for communicating with families instead of one. In my school system, we use eMail, Schoology, and UptoUs for family communication. After sending messages on Schoology and UptoUs with little response, I learned that most parents really only look in two places for messages- their eMail and their phones. So, I decide to stick with one method of communication- eMail. Despite advances with learning management systems (LMS), I’m finding that most caregivers prefer traditional forms of communication. This study from 2019 also found the same thing. While LMSs have their advantages, such as housing student assignments and learning materials in one place, they aren’t necessarily always the best answer for communication with families. Sometimes they are, in my case they weren’t.
- I constantly checked school email, even after work hours. I stressed out about responding to messages right away. If this was you, too, you might want to check out the first post in this series about self care. Almost no message ever needs an immediate response. Some require a quicker response than others, but rarely is anything so immediate that it requires a response right away.
What I’ll Do Moving Forward As the School Year Begins
Without being able to see my classroom families and with the goal of wanting to inform without overwhelm, here are three small changes my fifth grade team and I are putting into place come August.
- Change #1: Meet the 5th Grade Team Zoom. We don’t exactly know when we will do this, but we imagine being able to do it the week before school starts. We want to just meet parents face to face (via Zoom), tell them a little bit about each of us, and then answer questions. We’re hoping this will give families both a little information and a little comfort as we begin the school year. My teaching team tries to do everything together- especially now, so it makes sense for us to hold a “meet the team” instead of a “meet the teacher.” But, there is no reason why an individual teacher can’t hold a solo session! In addition, we will likely have optional Zoom check-ins with families every few weeks.
- Change #2: Be specific with families about my role as a teacher and their role as caregivers. This became very muddy and quite a challenge in the spring. To nobody’s fault at all, many families took on too much of the teaching responsibility while other families just didn’t know where or how to start. All of us were unexpectedly thrust into positions we’d never imagined having- expectations and roles were not defined at all. So, one thing my team and I have talked about is effectively communicating our expectations for our students’ caregivers and seeking out and listening to their expectations of us. All of this needs to be clearly and honestly communicated and defined from the beginning. If it’s not, miscommunications and misunderstandings are are likely to spiral. Since our students will be doing their learning away from us physically, communication about expectations and roles for everyone is absolutely critical.
- Change #3: Clearly tell parents when and where to expect communication from me and the fifth grade team so they will not miss any messages. For this upcoming school year, my team decided to email weekly updates on the same day (to be determined still) each week. In that one email each week, families will see all necessary information and links for the week ahead- as much as possible to plan ahead. As all teachers know, it is not possible to effectively plan multiple days in advance. Good teaching is based on what happened the day or even moment before. In addition, we’ll house all email messages to families in one Google doc that will also be housed in a “Family Folder” in Schoology, our district’s LMS. So, it will be relatively easy to refer back to a message even well after they were sent. Your situation may be different. Perhaps families and caregivers may need a different method of communication. Whatever you choose, consistency and predictability is key!
I really missed seeing my school families almost as much as I missed seeing my students this past spring. Clear expectations, defined roles, and regularly scheduled consistent communication using one mode will have to do until we can greet each other and chat in person again. I’d love to hear some ideas you have for family communication- it’s more important now than ever before.
Post #4 is coming up tomorrow! Tomorrow’s writing will discuss the importance leaning on colleagues and professional networks during this difficult time.
All posts in this blog series will be housed here: 15 lessons learned for the 2020-21 School Year, July 20-August 7th Click on the follow this blog link to have the posts delivered to your inbox each day, or check back tomorrow!