During the first weeks of school, teachers work hard to get to know their students personally and academically. They spend time talking with students, playing games, and providing opportunities for learners to get to know each other. However, in the era of mandated standards and their accompanying high-stakes assessments, it’s tempting to feel that get acquainted activities waste precious time.
What often feels like even more of a waste of teachers’ time is getting to know students’ families. Stereotypically, elementary parents are more often physically present in the school building than secondary students’ parents. But, in the current political climate, EL parents of any grade level may not approach the school. Fears related to immigration status, their own schooling experiences, or their lack of knowledge of how schools work in the US will keep many parents away. As a result, a vital connection between home and school is often left undone.
Proactive educators will find ways to reach out to EL families that feels both welcoming and safe.
Here are two ways you can do this:
1. Smile and Move Out of Your Comfort Zone
For families that bring their children to school, you can greet them warmly as they approach the classroom. Smile, greet everyone (mom, dad, grandma, little brother), and invite (with words or gestures) families to enter the classroom for a look around, as appropriate.
Your school may limit adults in the building, so you may have to go outside the school doors to interact with your students’ families. Welcome family members as they mingle on the sidewalk, engaging them in small talk about their walk to school or events of the upcoming day. Try to focus on the family and what they’d like to share, not on your concerns about their student’s academics or behavior.
These should not be lengthy parent/teacher conferences. They are quick, 1-2 minute conversations that reassure parents that you’re an approachable person who cares for their child. (Even parents of secondary students want to know these things!)
2. Communicate in Understandable Ways
Sometimes, you will never meet a parent face-to-face. Regardless, it’s important that you communicate with all families, and in a language they can understand. This is not just a nice sentiment. It’s actually required by law, particularly if you are communicating information about school policies and procedures, student progress, and other school-wide information that is being provided to English-speaking families.
When I first started teaching elementary school, the main way I communicated with parents was by sending home a weekly letter. I hand wrote the letter on cute themed paper and made photocopies to put in each child’s backpack every Friday. (Yes, remembering that makes me feel very old!) In the letter, I summarized what had happened in class that week and gave families a preview of the upcoming content, as well as any important, related events. I tried to provide insight into what their children were experiencing in school. Thankfully, there are so many more ways to stay in touch with families today!
My current favorite is the ClassDojo app (www.classdojo.com). ClassDojo can be used in many ways in the classroom, but I love its family communication uses. Parents are invited to set up a free account and join your class. When they do, they will select the language they would like to communicate in. This allows you to write in English, but the families to read and write in another language. The translation is computer generated, so it’s not perfect, but it is good enough to understand the gist of what’s being communicated.
Through the app, you can post pictures of whole class, or individual student, activities and accomplishments. You can post information for all parents to see, or you can send private messages to individual parents. This is a timely way to provide families with insight into their child’s day and what they are learning in school. It also allows families to communicate with you in ways that meet their needs. They don’t have to come to the school building to share their concerns about their child or to ask your advice about something. As you build relationships with families, you will gain more insight into your students and find ways to make your teaching more effective.
Many secondary schools use the Remind app (www.remind.com). It can be used in similar ways to communicate with both students and families, including sending private messages and in-app translation.
Families want to know that their children are spending their school days with a caring adult who values their child and their family. By creating opportunities for meaningful conversations and communicating in ways that families can understand, you are showing that you are that type of person.