Recently one of our colleagues wrote in to me with a tactic that ties right in to our desire to optimize the long-term flourishing outcomes of our students without burning ourselves out in the process:
My name is Marisa Silver, a 4th grade teacher in Eugene, Oregon. I am a longtime reader of your material and want to thank you for your ongoing contributions to our field.
During an ordinary school year I make a significant effort to reach out to parents in my classroom during the first two weeks of school. I try to talk to each family over the phone or “at the curb” during pickup and say something nice about their kid. I keep a little roster in my plan book so I can check that I've done this for each of my 30 students. Some families take more effort than others to locate, but every parent enjoys hearing something nice about their kid, and that their kid's teacher likes them.
During distance learning no such opportunity exists for informal chats with parents. So this week I have been emailing 6 families per day (6 x 5 days = 30 kids) with just a quick note of encouragement and telling them that their kid is doing a good job in class. We are just 3 weeks into our school year due to an altered calendar and a weeklong delay due to a wildfire in our area. So things have been chaotic and difficult. But I am finding that parent connection is still the way to go, and makes me more motivated to do this very difficult job right now.
My hope is that this will lead to higher engagement and trust in me as their kid's teacher this year. I can do little to change the format of how we are teaching or the timeline for when we will return to in-person learning. But I always have a few minutes to spare to write a nice email to a family.
Here's what I appreciate about Marisa's tactic
First, it's an example of transitioning into distance learning without losing our commitment to sustainable practices. Marisa takes something that we know works well — positive parent contact — and shifts it into the simple, enjoyable practice of writing a brief, electronic note to one parent at a time about something she appreciates in each student. She aims for a number that's manageable to her — six per day for one week. If you try this, your mileage is bound to vary — but I love that she picks a number, quantifies the time it should cost, and works toward her objective.
Second, she doesn't leave this practice to chance. She has a roster that's just for this — keeping track of positive parent interactions. This isn't for documentation purposes — nothing so soulless — but is instead about making sure no student is missed. Too often, we trust ourselves too much — simple methods like clipboard tracking help keep us honest.
Third, she's not waylaid on the imperfections and the “what ifs.” What if someone's email address doesn't work? What if a family doesn't respond? What if I don't have anything positive to say about a particular student right now? She focuses on the practice and lets the problems come as they arrive — handling them as best she can and moving forward consistently.
Fourth, her hope in the practice is well-founded. Indeed, this practice “will lead to higher [parent] engagement and trust.” For those parents that the intervention does positively affect — most, I think it's safe to suspect — teacher credibility is now a bit more established in the home. This positive parent email intervention is not a silver bullet, but it's a darn good sword.
And finally, she responds to the craziness of this year with an emphasis on what she can control. “I can do little to change the format of how we are teaching or the timeline for when we will return to in-person learning. But I always have a few minutes to spare to write a nice email to a family.”
I can't change this.
But I can do that.
Thanks to Marisa Silver for sharing this via email and being willing to have me share with our colleagues near and far.