This article is written by Truth for Teachers writer Erika Walther, M.Ed.
The COVID-19 pandemic took the world — and education — by storm. School buildings closed, but learning continued. As we move forward into recovery from the pandemic, we have a unique opportunity to improve the ways in which we engage with families. We can move toward methods that work better for both teachers and families.
One month into our first state-wide lockdown, I woke up to this message from a parent:
“Hey Ms. Walther – how are you? I just wanted to check on you and make sure you are holding up okay in all this. You check on us and the kids, we just want to make sure someone is also checking on you.”
I was floored (and teary-eyed almost instantly). Building relationships rests at the forefront of my pedagogy. Seeing those values reflected right back at me was refreshing at a time I needed it most.
The truth is, I did need someone to check on me.
My anxiety was raging, the growing uncertainty and high emotional toll of pandemic living (much less teaching) was palpable.
Over the next few weeks, students were intentionally taking time out of their own morning meeting share-outs to ask me how MY day was going and I was looking forward to that day.
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These moments have continued throughout my experience of teaching remotely for the past year. They keep me grounded and remind me of the importance of building and maintaining relationships with students and their families even when everything seems so uncertain.
But one certainty remains: positive relationships between teachers and students’ families are the key to everyone’s success.
Building relationships with students and their families from a distance during the global pandemic has required many shifts in how (and when) we engage our families. It also requires crucial conversations around how and when teachers make themselves available to families.
Families need options.
I found it most effective (and efficient) to engage with families on one consistent platform at first, only adding in others when necessary as a response to families and their needs.
I began last school year by focusing on sharing ALL key information on one online platform. Most families were great with keeping up with the posts and messages at first. But as the year goes on, they rely more and more on direct communication from me in the form of text messages or phone calls.
This prompted me to add in automated text messages through an additional platform as another layer to my family engagement strategy to meet the needs of families without abandoning my previous system.
Today’s parents are more in tune with electronic forms of communication. Letters, automated phone calls and messages don’t always hit the mark with many families.
For many younger families, one-to-one communication is the best way to engage with their child’s teacher. I still post announcements on our class web page, but I also send out reminders via text message and link to my online posts directly. (Batching web page posts and automated direct messages together during the same work session is key to making sure that adding layers to my strategy does not add hours to my workday.)
One thing you can do to support parents who may be overwhelmed with school communication is ask them for an “educational emergency number” for reaching out in a situation when you truly need to reach them. Explain that you will only contact that number when you absolutely must speak with them about their child and respect that boundary as much as you want them to respect yours.
Teachers need flexibility with scheduling.
As a teacher leader, I found early on during the pandemic that colleagues and families were more apt to respond to my communication later in the day.
I decided to shift the times I sit down to send communication batches and complete other daily tasks to later in the day rather than working early in the morning before school hours and continuing to work for hours after dismissal.
This has allowed me more time during my mornings to focus on my own self-care routine for starting my day off on the right foot, while allowing me more productive time spent during my afternoon working hours.
I recognize that your situation could very well be the complete opposite. The key here is that if you do decide that shifting your non-instructional working hours would be beneficial to both you and your school community, make sure that you are shifting your working hours, not adding onto them.
Teachers still need to set boundaries.
Shifting your availability for communication and follow-ups does not mean you are working more hours or picking up the phone after dinner. It certainly does not mean scheduling a zoom conference with a parent at 8pm.
The key to protecting your boundaries without ostracizing families is setting boundaries from the start and remaining consistent. Decide as soon as possible what block of time outside of your live teaching hours works best for you to communicate with families. Pick a day/time when you do not typically have other things going on such as afterschool programs, doctor’s appointments, etc., and block that same day and time out each week to batch together your parent contacts. Communicate that block of time to families as your “office hours” and make sure both students and parents understand that this is when you are available.
Explain to your families exactly how they can engage with you during your office hours. Will you be hosting office hours online or in-person? Will you be utilizing video calling, phone calls, or text messages? If parents have a choice, you may want to include a live spreadsheet or survey where parents can sign up for times and modes of communication that work for them. Will parents be able to just walk in your classroom or hop on your live link or will they need to make an appointment? These are all things I think about when setting up my communication systems at the beginning of the year.
I’ve found that live video calls worked best by appointment, for both parents and for myself. If a parent is running late they can still hop on my live link without rushing to the school building. Fewer scheduled conferences were “no-shows.” I will be continuing live online conferences moving into this school year as well based on the success I had with working families.
Communicate your office hours to your administration team as well. Making sure school leadership knows exactly when you are hosting office hours and conducting conferences to accommodate working parents is one way we can start to shift the conversation about how many hours teachers actually spend working.
If your office hours are from 3-5pm Wednesdays and Fridays, stick to that schedule as much as possible. If a parent has a habit of leaving messages or texts late at night, be mindful of the urge to respond right away. Wait until business hours the next morning to send your reply. I’ve noticed that doing this consistently encourages families to limit their communication to business hours as well as time goes on.
You may feel guilty restricting parents’ access to you, but keep in mind that even calling a doctor’s office after hours often still means leaving a message and waiting for a reply the following business day.
Trust me, even I struggle with this during the more stressful, high stakes times of the year (report cards, state testing, etc.) but sticking to my office hours consistently truly has made a huge difference especially during a hybrid-learning year like last year when it is all too easy for boundaries to be crossed after working hours.
Some parents may express frustration with your availability, but as time goes on, they will understand. Families would rather work with you and not against you, so just stay consistent and give it time.
When teachers were asked to turn our homes into classrooms, we did so without question. But along the way we realized that boundaries were necessary to keep the ever-thinning line between work and home intact. We realized that we cannot check email or answer calls 24/7. We thought about ways to protect our own privacy as well as that of our students. Keep those boundaries that you set during online learning as you return to your school buildings.
While there may be situations that come up every so often that require more immediate attention (such as a student being suddenly homeless or a true family emergency), for the most part you will find that families will respect your boundaries when you are consistent with them.
However, if you feel that parents and guardians need access to emergency services if a situation should arise outside of business hours, post your local emergency hotline numbers to your school communication pages. Put those numbers in your syllabus or weekly newsletter and keep them there. Refer to those phone numbers during parent nights or orientations to make sure that families know how to access them.
Tell families clearly early in the year that if they have an emergency and they cannot reach you or your administration team, they have access to these numbers. This sets the tone that teachers are not “on-call”, but families still have access to someone who can help in a true emergency.
Assume the best intent.
One thing I’m asked about frequently during meetings is what to do when “the parents don’t care.” Let’s take a pause on this statement.
Less engaged parents want the best for their child just as much as the more visibly involved parents. Never assume that a parent you do not see or hear from often is an uninvolved parent. Lead conversations with questions, rather than assumptions about families or students.
Another factor to consider is that some of our families truly feel out of their wheelhouse when it comes to the world of education. They inherently trust us as professionals and don’t necessarily feel the need to step in. They may even feel that they are overstepping even if they have a valid concern.
These families can come across as difficult to engage with, when in reality they simply don’t feel comfortable stepping into what they view as “our” realm. We must encourage our families and invite them into the space for discussion early on, making sure they see themselves as trusted partners on a team.
Start with asking parents what their concerns are for their child’s learning rather than leading with your observations. Parents often share the same concerns for their children and are more willing to team up with you to meet their child’s needs if they feel respected as a trusted stakeholder in their child’s success, rather than judged or written off.
This may seem simplistic, but this one strategy has made a huge difference in the way families respond to my concerns and suggestions. They trust me more; they understand that we are on the same side and we need to operate as a team, rather than going on the offensive.
Ask first, validate with your own observations later.
I have never met a parent or guardian who did not want the absolute best for their child. Homelessness, addiction, health problems, and even loss of custody have created hardship for many of the families I have served over the years.
In the face of even the worst situations, families still make it clear to me that they want their children to succeed, and that they are willing to work with me in the process.
Even if struggles in the home are apparent, it is key to focus conversations on student strengths and needs. You can build a plan from there with families firmly on the team, rather than being filled in as an afterthought.
Acknowledge frustration to focus on conversation.
I cannot count the number of parents who have broken down on the phone or zoom call with me when talking about the stress the past school year has put on them, even prior to COVID-19. With the potential for a 10-minute check-in to turn into an hour-long conversation, it can be tempting to steamroll right over a parent voicing frustration with their child’s progress, but these frustrations and concerns will not be going away any time soon.
It is crucial to make sure families feel heard early on in conversations. While there is no need to stay on the phone for hours, there are ways to acknowledge the stress everyone is experiencing while keeping the conversation moving.
I choose to validate parents quickly and move on to my suggestions in the same breath. I am careful to justify the reasoning behind my suggestions briefly in neutral language like this:
“I understand your concern with your child’s attention during online learning. One thing I can suggest is to have a special space set aside for your child to do their lessons away from their siblings. This will allow me to make sure they are following along with the lesson. I can let you know in a week or so if I’ve noticed a difference.”
Never write off no-show students.
Last year, my principal said something that has stayed with me, “We cannot write off our students.”
We cannot write off the children who we have not yet been able to reach. Those are the students who may need us the most, if not as a teacher, then as an advocate.
The pandemic has made student attendance a hot-button issue as teachers across the country are held accountable for student participation in online learning. Regardless of the reason for the disengagement, teachers as well as districts are beholden to student attendance.
We find that those with the loudest voices and farthest-reaching platforms are often those who have spent the least amount of time in actual school buildings with students or interacting with families. Decisions made about teacher-accountability are rarely realistic.
Students are often left home alone to their own devices as essential workers struggle to secure and afford childcare while keeping our country running.
Again, not making assumptions about families is key here.
When I am struggling to reach a parent and their child has not logged on for online class in weeks, this can feel like trying to dig through a brick wall with a plastic spoon. However, we cannot let these students fall through the cracks.
I set aside a specific time at least once a week to attempt to reach that family, be it through another colleague who has a relationship with the family or doing my own sleuthing to find an accurate phone number or a relative who can relay a message.
You never know what a student and their family may be going through and it is crucial to be sensitive and understanding in this regard, especially in the current climate as we slowly move into recovery as a nation from the physical, mental, and financial strain of the pandemic, the effects of which will linger for years to come.
For schools offering in-person learning, online learning offers a different kind of solution.
My hope is that we take what we have learned about online teaching and learning and apply those lessons to plans for giving families options in the future. The choice to continue with a remote learning option in the coming years could empower families and students in a way we have yet to see in much of the United States.
Remote learning would give parents choice and voice when making decisions about their child’s education, be it public or private. The long-standing issue of education quality in the United States being determined by a child’s demographic or zip code could soon become obsolete.
Quality online education is an opportunity to improve equity and access for millions of families whether they live in a busy city or a remote town.
In the meantime, we can improve equity and access by continuing some semblance of remote learning options even as more schools transition back to in-person instruction. There will undoubtedly be many students who will not be able to attend in-person school for a long time yet. Those students deserve a quality education as much as their in-person classmates.
Still yet, some students have thrived during online learning.
Many students who traditionally have struggled in school or shut down have become markedly more vocal, more confident, and more engaged during online lessons. Without the distractions or over-stimulation that can exist within in-person classrooms, many students hit their stride.
These students deserve the opportunity to engage in a new form of “least restrictive environment,” where appropriate. Encourage your families that would benefit to ask school leaders, districts, and school boards for online learning options moving forward. Empower them to advocate for their children to have the best chance at success, even when the push to get every child back in school in-person seems to drown everything else out.
Don’t pack away your Zoom skills just yet.
The many engagement strategies we have employed during distance learning to reach all students continue to apply as more students and teachers return to their school buildings this year.
The online lesson platforms that I used during the pandemic will continue as I transition from hybrid learning to fully in-person learning this year. Opportunities for students to collaborate and get actionable, real-time feedback have improved in my classroom with the addition of online tools and will continue to be relevant during hybrid and in-person teaching.
Online platforms are increasingly beneficial for families as well. Virtual conferences, town-halls, school board meetings, and community engagement events allow many working families to engage with minimal disruption to their schedules and income. I am hopeful that these options will continue as we move into the next phases of the pandemic.
In this way, we can elevate the voices of families and community members in a way that we have not yet experienced and keep them where they belong: at the front of the conversation.
Distance learning has changed the way that we engage with not only students, but with their families. As we continue to navigate our ever-evolving “new normal,” it is imperative that we don’t forget the lessons we’ve learned not just in our teaching practice, but in the way we build and maintain relationships with the families we serve. There are many ways to protect your boundaries while still expanding the options families have to communicate and collaborate with you.
My hope is that the lessons we’ve learned in the last year will drive us forward to a better way of supporting students and keeping families in focus.
About the Author
Erika Walther has worked for Baltimore City Public Schools since 2012. While working as a case manager for youth in the juvenile justice system, Erika realized that relationships between students and their school communities were a major indicator for student success. Her conversations with young people working to escape the school-to-prison pipeline inspired her to pursue a career as an educator. Erika joined Urban Teachers in 2013 and never looked back. She currently teaches fifth grade Language Arts and is also a Multi-Classroom Lead, supporting other Language Arts teachers in her building.