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Educator: Do this one thing

Do This One Thing


Teachers are pulled in many directions. Lesson plans, grading, recess duty, after school committees, grade-level meetings. How can you do it all?

Well, you can’t. And you shouldn’t. Instead, you have to pick and choose the most important, the highest leverage thing that you can do. And here it is:

Nurture a relationship with your students and their families.

Everything else, every other part of the hustle and bustle of a school building has to come second to that. Anne Henderson, one of my favorite educators put it this way: Ultimately the thing that makes a school successful at educating all children is personal relationships—a collaborative relationship between colleagues in the school, a positive relationship between teachers and children, and an open and respectful relationship between the school and parent community. As Ms. Henderson says, “This is the soil in which everything else takes root.”

You know that. That’s why you became a teacher. Because you wanted to teach someone something. So what will you do this year to really nail that one thing. How will you establish and nurture a relationship with your students and their families?

Start with the way you communicate.

Imagine you had a co-worked who never asked you how you were or even knew what your name was. Instead, every time you walked by him, he told you some ways you could be a better teacher--like your classroom is a mess, organize it and think about dressing more professionally. Would you want to talk to this colleague?

Too often we treat parents this way. We talk at them--giving them helpful information and sometimes not so cleverly disguised “constructive criticism” about the thing that is nearest and dearest to their heart--their children.

What if we really tried to listen first? What opportunities do you give families and students to talk to you?

Here’s a simple idea: In Engage Every Family, Dr. Steven Constantino points out that home/school folders usually foster one-way communication. Teachers send graded, completed work home. What are families supposed to do with the work? How do they know?

He suggests to use the folder to promote two-sided communication. You can ask parents to talk to their children about what they learned and write it down for the teacher to see what the child can explain. Or send home information about what the class is about to study with some conversation starters they can discuss at home. Or give parents specific questions to think about as they review graded work. (In the toolbox I have a sharing student work with parents template that may be helpful.)

What if we started the year with a positive note home that proved to them that we want to see their children the way they see them--full of potential?

I’m a firm believer in the power of positive note or phone call, even in high school. (Read more about it here). And I think sending the first one home with the kid, so they can not-so-secretly see it, is a great way to show the students you are on their side. But you have to be careful. Older kids are great at sniffing out fake compliments. (Need a list of not too saccharine compliments that you can use in nearly any situation? Check in the toolbox.)

Open the door to the classroom.

Many times the only feedback that a parent gets about their students learning is a number--either a test score or a grade-point average. What does a number really tell you? Parents want to know their kids are on track for passing, sure, but they also care deeply that their kids learning the things they need to be successful. So share the learning in your classroom. Share student work often, both formally and informally. Share what kids are working on before you’ve assessed them on it. Invite parents to do classroom observations. Invite parents to help with multiplication tables at home. Can parents name what you are working on, right now, in your class?

Don’t be afraid to be personal. 

The Hidden Brain podcast had an episode a few years ago about a study that found that when students saw that they had something in common with their teachers, they did better in class. This could be as simple as liking the same sports team.

I believe parents and families are the same way. So how will you find this common ground if you don’t share a thing or two about yourself? Of course, no one is saying you should “friend” all of your students and their parents on Facebook. You know where the boundaries are. But be willing to open yourself up a little in order for the relationship to take root.

Go where the families are.

If you wait to establish a relationship with parents when they come to school, you may be waiting a long time. Instead go to them. Texting or calling them is a way to go to them. Home visits are a way to go to them. Going to a PTA meeting is a way to go to them. Going to a school basketball game is a way to go to them. Being in the parking lot during drop off and pickup is a way to meet parents where they are. Hosting an informal “Meet-and-Greet the Science Department” at the local Starbucks is one way to go to where they are.

Make it the first thing you do.

When my daughter was going into 2nd grade her teacher sent her a postcard the first week of August. I can tell you that simple gesture cemented our relationship with her and we were all excited and ready to work with her from Day 1.

It may be too late to send a postcard before the first day of school but it’s not too late to concentrate on the most important part of teaching and learning--your relationship with students and their families.

Start here: Want some more inspiration? Watch this inspiring TEDx talk about the relationship between teachers and families.

Challenge: Check out my Weekly Tips and commit to doing one thing each week to connect with families.


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