Across my teaching career, I have taught at three schools. My first teaching position was in a large high school serving a diverse population of students raised in a factory community. Many of the students then and now came from families who speak English as the second language and usually not in the home. My second teaching position was in medium-sized school, a picturesque bedroom community known for excellence in athletics and academics. The third school I served was in my hometown, a consolidated rural school that today serves about 500 students K-12.
Here was a teaching moment I hadn’t expected!
I share these descriptions because I want you to know the practices I describe below were used successfully at all three schools. Ethnicity, income, educational placement, and community culture were irrelevant factors in how students and parents perceived these relationship-building strategies. The fact is, students want to be noticed and parents appreciate knowing teachers are giving their children personal attention within their crowded classrooms.
Practice #1: Handshakes
Everyday, from the first day of school to the last day of school, greet students outside of the classroom door. My practice was to stand in the hallway welcoming them into the room. I began by shaking hands with each student as they enter. This practice quickly taught me that many students don’t know how to shake hands—some have the limp grip others are finger shakers not hand shakers. For many, shaking hands was as inhibiting as giving hugs. Here was a teaching moment I hadn’t expected! My students needed to learn how to shake hands and equally important, why hand-shaking is an essential personal skill.
Teaching the handshake in class offered a variety of opportunities to practice relationship building activities and lead to teaching accepted etiquette in the introduction process: younger to older, older to younger, family to friends, and friends to family members. Once mastered, we continued to use handshakes after group activities or partner work. Handshaking became a comfortable practice for my students.
You may wonder at what age to begin teaching this skill. Last week, I met a ten-year old who had the most amazing handshake. I remarked to his mother on the firmness of his grip and the focus of his eye. His mother shared that he is in 4-H and when he shows animals at the county fair, he needs to be confident as he approaches the judge. Extending a hand demonstrates a willingness to reach across an invisible line and begin building a relationship with another person.
Practice #2: Birthday Cards
Okay…you may think “My gosh! Birthday cards! Like I don’t have enough to do!”
But wait…I’ve got tip that makes the work so much easier! In the first days of the school year, I ask students to address an envelope to themselves and then write a letter exploring their goals for the coming months. I provide business sized envelopes that I purchase in bulk or better yet, get from the school office. These letters I tuck away and later mail to the students near the end of the school year. Their own thoughts from August/September prove food for thought in May as we discuss how they hit or missed their goals. Additionally, the formatting of the envelope and letter acts as an informal pre-assessment for their addressing and letter writing skills. As with the handshake, I typically discover another teaching moment: a lesson on how to address an envelope in preparation for mailing through the United States Postal Service. As an aside, depending on the grade, skills, and technology access of your students, you can teach them how to hand address or set up the envelope using a writing program and printer.
Following the “note to self,” I lead a mini-lesson on envelope formatting and follow up by distributing blank envelopes that come from inexpensive boxed birthday cards purchased over the summer. Students address this envelope to themselves and enter my name with the school address as the return address. In the space where I will later place the stamp, students enter their birthdate. I collect the cards based on birthday order, from the most recent to the most distant birthday. Each week, I preview who has a birthday coming up, select a card among those I’ve purchased and write a short but personal message that lets the birthday celebrant know I am thinking of them and only them in this note.
Yes, I use real post office mail. Many of my students—rural or urban, rich or poor—have rarely or never received their own letter in the mail. An added benefit—if I were to email the message, parents wouldn’t know I had sent the birthday card. By using the USPO, parents see that their child’s teacher is taking an interest beyond the classroom.
In the beginning years of this practice, I began by looking up addresses and birthdates on my own, but I began to resent the time the search process took, not to mention the time to address, especially if the printer wasn’t cooperating! I quickly learned every moment I can save from my own task list is an additional moment I can spend on improving relationships.
Practice #3: “Caught Being Good” Phone Calls
The stories I could tell…but being limited by time and word length, let me just say that this is probably the most positive of all the family relationship practices put into place during my time in the classroom. The goal is simple—to provide a positive message through a phone call to the parents of every student in class by the end of the first twelve weeks. To achieve this, I simply did the math: how many students do I see throughout the day and divide that number by the number of weeks I had available to use.
Some tips here:
- The first days of school, I let my students know that I will be calling home and I also let them know these are intended to be “good calls” that focus on their positive attributes.
- Make the first calls on behalf of students who are the most problematic, whether of behavior issues or struggles to learn. Postpone calls directed towards students who do school well. My reasoning—students who show problematic tendencies in your classroom didn’t just become that way nor did your “schoolies” just now get good at school. Parents know their children. To call the parent of your top student and share how well s/he is doing is no surprise and offers no insight. But call a parent of a student who has a laundry list of referrals, low grades, and unexcused absences to share “good news” is a practice that will build relationships, support teaching, and promote learning in the classroom and beyond!
- As soon as a student does something you can commend, make the call—that afternoon. Do not limit your calls to be focused on academics—kind behaviors, persistence in learning, insightful questions—are all valid reasons to applaud your students. When you acknowledge positive qualities in a student, pass that along home. Keep track of your calls—these can’t be organized like the birthday cards. These calls are spontaneously related to the classroom that day or that week.
- If the parent does not answer, leave a voice-message but follow up. Do not leave a message with someone who might answer; however, if your student answers, I share why I have called and go on to explain that I want to share personally with the parent. I have had students erase messages not because they didn’t want their parent to hear a compliment, but because they heard my voice and immediately thought the worst. I promise you, most parents and students are not experienced with good calls home.
The word will begin to travel among your students that you are a teacher of your word in making these calls. Be prepared for students to inquire when you will be calling their parents. And know, even though I am reiterating, this works most effectively for students whose parents do not usually or have never gotten a positive call from school.
Touching the hearts of parents when it comes to valuing their children builds a fundamental relationship.
Making real as well as virtual connections with the families of your students has an immeasurable payoff for you as a professional. Touching the hearts of parents when it comes to valuing their children builds a fundamental relationship between you and your students that can grow throughout the year and into years ahead.