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Teaching Secrets: Phoning Home

By Kenneth J. Bernstein — June 23, 2010 3 min read
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With the school year just ended, it may seem odd that I’m already thinking of the beginning of the next. As a teacher, I can’t help but look forward, wanting to apply what I‘ve learned in the past year and make changes to be more effective for my students.

Yet there’s a regular part of my teaching routine that I know I will not change. By the end of the second week—earlier, if possible—of school, I call the parents or guardians of every one of my students. I teach high school, and I often start the year with more than 180 students, so calling home is a time consuming process. It’s also one of the most important things I do as a teacher. Let me explain.

First, I want to know what (if any) concerns a parent may have for a child. Such things might not show up in the school records. Perhaps there is a family situation, or the death of a beloved pet, that could affect how the child performs. I will certainly find out about learning disabilities, IEPs and 504 plans, often before the special education teachers can get that information out to me. I may learn about a need for preferential seating, or some other issue that requires me to make adjustments for a particular student—which is, after all, my responsibility. All grades and attendance are available online, but if a parent lacks Internet access, I can find that out and periodically or upon request print out a complete list of the students’ grades.

I may be able to call some parents before classes start, although usually I prefer to wait until the student has been in my class for a couple of days and filled out an information sheet where she or he can express interests or concerns and ask questions. During our phone call, I can also ensure that parents received the letter I sent home that explains my class—grading policies, expectations, amount of homework, how assignments can be checked online, how best to reach me. I encourage parents to stay in contact with me because I understand the education of their offspring as a responsibility we share.

Next year will be my 12th at my high school. By now I am teaching the third child in some families. Those parents expect the phone call, and usually we exchange pleasantries. Other members of my new classes may be younger siblings of those with whom I dealt when I coached soccer or directed musical theater. For some parents, of course, I will be an unknown entity. My teaching approach and style is more than a little different than what many students have previously experienced. By the end of the first instructional day, students are likely to be telling stories about me and my class, and I want to ensure parents that their children are not exaggerating. Yes, I did in fact dress up as a judge, I did stand on top of a desk….

Behavior Management

Most students I teach do not have behavior problems. The phone calls at the start of the year contribute to that, because students know I will not hesitate to call home if there is a problem. Of greater importance, if I do have to call with a concern, it will not be the first contact I have had with a parent or guardian. That makes it easier for us to work together in the best interest of the student. I should add that if I do call with a problem, I always promise to follow up so parents will know if the changes they are making are having an effect.

The beginning of the year is the one time I attempt to communicate with all my parents. Thereafter, I will call if there are issues that need to be resolved—and I will especially call if there is something good to tell the parents about a student. When I call, I do not attempt to hide my phone number. If parents (or students) find it important enough to call me, unless or until the privilege is abused, I’m not going to complain. Typically, I don’t get many calls during the course of a year—in part, perhaps, because I also remain in regular contact via e-mail with parents and students.

These start-of-year phone calls require a lot of time. I teach students of fellow high school teachers who have told me they are not going to do what I do. That’s fine. It is important for me, so I’m happy to do it. Obviously, it’s far easier for an elementary teacher with only 30 or so students to do than for the average secondary teacher. I am as far as I know the only one in my building who does it—but I do think other high school teachers might want to try it and see if they find the value in it that I do.

Believe it or not, I can’t wait until I am again making those phone calls. Because it means another school year has started, I have another batch of students to challenge me, with whom we can explore learning together.

I am a teacher. For me, this is a part of being a teacher.


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