Strategies and tactics for productive, successful communication with students and families during the pandemic.
May 21, 2020
Many issues continue to emerge in the virtual teaching landscape of COVID-19. Some students are without reliable internet access, living somewhere different, or dealing with a sick relative. Whether it is attendance, potential food insecurities, or just checking in, teachers are faced with the added challenge of connecting with students and families during tough times.
We spoke with Claudine Miles (Metro Atlanta ’08), who launched Restore More with Kimberlie Milton (Metro Atlanta ’02), about some ways educators can successfully reach out to students and families at this time. Restore More helps schools and organizations build capacity for restorative practices, self-awareness, and social-emotional health.
Engaging Wholeheartedly and Approaching the Students First
When you're having issues with a student right now in this virtual setting, what are some ways you can approach the student?
I think it is ideal to always approach the student first because you want to build a relationship. Any time you bypass that student and go straight to a parent, it puts a strain on the relationship.
In the current climate, we need to be intentional with how we reach out to our kids. You’re not going to see them in the hall. You can't pull them to the side like before, but you can send a text, call, or send an email. If you have a teacher page on social media, you can even reach out there as well.
When you do reach out, be direct. Say, "Hey, I was worried about you. I've noticed that you've missed a certain number of classes, and I wanted to check in with you before I spoke to your parents." I think when you are that direct, it gives the kid a chance to defend themselves, explain, rationalize with you.
Many students are losing family members, and so it could be that there's been a death in the family. It could be a technology issue. It could be an internet issue. Until we ask directly, all we are left to do is assume, and assuming is not equitable, and it's not right by our families. We've got to be direct. I would say if you don't hear back from that student within 48 hours, you'd want to reach out to a parent.
Attendance is suffering in light of COVID-19. Why could that be happening, and what are some things educators take from this?
If we're not hearing from our students and they're completely disengaged, we have to first ask ourselves, why would a logical, rational person completely abandon their studies? It could be because of inequitable access to technology, managing too many responsibilities, whether that's with siblings or finances, dealing with loss, or some other reason we won’t know until we ask.
I’d push educators to think about the quality of their relationship with said student as well. I think we'd be naive if we overlooked that point. If your students are disengaged, I think it's important to reflect on what was the quality of your relationship with said student prior to COVID. More often than not, the students we see disengaging are the same ones that didn't have strong relationships with their teacher prior to COVID. If that is not the case, and the relationship was sound then it’s time to reach out.
Some ways I think educators can engage not only students but parents are finding unconventional ways to bring people together. We know that you're going to have to bring them together to do weekly assignments, and assessments of some sort, but I think educators must continue to be the innovative, amazing people that they are and find some new ways to create community.
“I think it's also important to recognize as an educator you are a bridge right now.”
Being Innovative When Reaching Out
What are some ways educators can reach out, engage, and build community?
I've seen teachers send out weekly newsletters with positive things that are happening in their class, whether it is celebrating someone with a high test score or who has shown up every day. I've also seen teachers send out weekly texts to students with encouragement or prefacing what might be coming up that week.
Creating Google phone numbers that are set aside just for students and parents only is also a nice way to set some boundaries while being communicative. It creates an alternate number for you that will go straight to your phone but also doesn't force you to give out your personal number.
From a whole-school lens, I've really been blown away by how schools have been creative. I've seen virtual award ceremonies, talent shows, and virtual spirit weeks. I've even seen schools do TikTok challenges, where they're encouraging their kids to do a TikTok challenge and remix the words around academic content. I think all of that underscores the main point, which is it’s so important to include the joy factor, especially now. These are the things that our kids will remember. These are the moments that will make our kids smile when nothing else is regular in their world.
What are some tips and conversation starters that a teacher can employ at this time to check in with the student's family?
Often when educators are reaching out to parents, it's usually because of a disagreement, discipline issue, or lack of work completion. I think it's important to separate whatever the incident is from how you engage with the parent. I say that cautiously because, at times, it's easy to get frustrated by a student’s lack of engagement, attendance, or lack of quality work, but you want to make sure that doesn't blur into the conversation with the parent because these are assumptions that can get in the way.
First, it’s really important to go into the conversation assuming the best and take any bias that you might have about that student out of the context of your conversation with the parent. This way you’re calm and emotionally stable to be able to have that conversation.
Secondly, I think it's essential to, again, reach out, be direct, and communicate compassionately. We never know what our parents are dealing with unless they open up and share. If you are coming from a place of judgment and or harbor any negativity, it could be ill-perceived, and raise tensions.
Be Mindful of What and How You Say It
What are some phrases and statements teachers can use in a situation when they have to reach out to parents?
You want to use phrases that get straight to the point but prioritize the well-being of the family.
You might say something like, "Hey, Mr. or Mrs. So and So. I just wanted to reach out and check in about _____? But first, how are you all doing?"
Another thing to consider is reaching out when things are going really well. I think sometimes, as educators, all the responsibilities can be overwhelming, but I think we need to be super intentional about how we communicate now. Sometimes, it's worth reaching out just to say something positive. "Hey, I just wanted to reach out and commend you, because your child has been doing so well," and just affirming and relaying the positive things that you've seen in the student in your online setting.
If there is a concern, I think we have to be mindful of how we state that. I always like to encourage educators to use that sandwich method: State something positive, the concern, and then something positive about moving forward. For example, "Hey, Mr. And Mrs. So and So, your son or daughter has been doing well as of late, but I wanted to talk through a concern I've noticed. [State the concern ] I think we can all work together to get them on track." Even if the student hasn’t had any recent successes, you can reference something from earlier in the year "John had a really good first and second semester, but I noticed as of late, he hasn't been as present. I just wanted to check-in and see how I might support you all."
I think if you position it as, "I know that this child is capable, and I'm reaching out to be a thought partner and offer support," it goes a long way in helping parents feel like they're not alone because it’s tough right now. If we can approach it with compassion, we'll yield better results.
Any other helpful tactics to keep in mind when reaching out to parents and caregivers?
I know we're not in a traditional world anymore, but still being mindful and calling during working hours, so that we’re respecting people's time, whatever that is for your school or your setting.
When reaching out to families, always check in on wellbeing first. As someone who champions self-care and wellbeing, I think it's something we can easily skip over, yet it's so worth doing, so spend that two to three minutes at first to build the relationship. "How is your family?" If you remember a nugget about them, stating that specifically. "How are your other children?" If someone in the family has fallen ill, making mention and asking about them, those are things indicate our care extends beyond the classroom.
I think it's also important to recognize as an educator you are a bridge right now. Our students and parents are incredibly disconnected from the school. Beyond potentially seeing some staff at a meal or technology disbursement event, for the most part, our kids are away completely from us. Educators are playing this incredible role between the school and the families right now, they are the bridge. As the bridge, you must be okay with saying, "Is there anything else the school can do?" when speaking with students and families.
You are not responsible for maybe delivering said things to this family, but being that you are this bridge, it is okay to ask on behalf of the school, "Is there anything else the school can do?" because you might be the only middleman between them and the school. They may not feel comfortable calling the school or speaking to the principal about an economic need or a food insecurity, but they might feel more comfortable saying it to you.
If you just take a moment and ask that question, you might be able to unearth some serious issues families are dealing with, and essentially plug them into the right supports. If the family that you're talking with does disclose something and you learn about a family's issue let’s say a loss due to COVID, not only can you then offer your condolences and grace around assignments, you can also use your best judgment to determine if this a need that the administrative team needs to know and could support?
If I'm on the phone, and a family member discloses a food insecurity, I can take that concern, relay it back to my principal, and then they can be responsible for finding some solutions for that family. Then, my responsibility as an educator would be to follow back up with the administration to see how that family’s need was met and then follow back up with the family to determine if that need was taken care of.
I think that if we take that extra step to actually check in on the family, we can essentially provide our families with more resources. I know in my community especially, housing and food insecurity are major issues right now. A lot of that has been unearthed through educators taking the time to ask the tough questions like, "Is everyone okay? Does everyone have enough to eat?"
It’s also important to be sensitive and not assume every family is struggling. If you just ask that blanket question of, "Is there anything that the school can do to support you all right now?" I think we'll start to uncover more ways in which we can help.
You also talked about assumptions and how that can be detrimental. Can you talk a little bit more about things that educators should avoid?
Be incredibly mindful of your tone. It is a stressful time for many Americans, and your tone should strive to be compassionate, careful, and mindful.
I think it's also essential to avoid judgment. You might be speaking with a parent whose student hasn't turned in any work since the pandemic started. We've got to suspend our judgment to solve the problem. As long as we are judging our students by what they're able or not able to do, then we're missing out on actually solving the problem.
I think it's also important to avoid labeling. Again, said student might not have submitted any work at all, but it would be counterproductive for you to tell a parent, "Johnny is really lazy. That's why I haven't seen any of his work since the start of this pandemic."
Instead, I think it's important to describe the behaviors and make a clear connection to impact. "Johnny hasn't been doing his work. The impact is he went from an A in the third quarter to an F in the fourth quarter. I know that's not your expectation for him. I want to try to work together to find a solution."
Then, finally, just avoid trying to solve it all. I think it's important to avoid over-promising. The reality is we're in a unique time, and there are so many unanswered questions, particularly in education. I think it's important to remember that you are a school liaison. Parents are going to ask—when are we coming back? What's the plan? I would caution teachers to avoid overindulging in those types of conversations. The reality is none of us know. Those decisions are made at the state and superintendent level. That's when having go-to statements, like, "I don't know much yet, but I know we'll keep you posted as we learn. I wish I could tell you more, but we're limited in what we know," and, "I get your concerns, but I can't give you answers that I don't necessarily have yet. We will keep you abreast of any forthcoming information," are very helpful.
Resources & Support for Teachers During the Pandemic
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Note: This guidance is not meant to replace or confuse any guidance teachers and corps members are receiving from their districts, administrators, or employers regarding the engagement with students and families. Ultimately, corps members with Teach For America must adhere to the policies and guidance from their placement schools.