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August 1, 2018
Vol. 60
No. 8

Good Reasons to Call Home

    School Culture
      When I first began teaching, calling parents terrified me. Each time I had to pick up the phone to talk about grades or behavior issues, I would panic, overthink it, and start looking for other pressing matters to take up my time.
      On top of my own panic, my colleagues weren't always a great help. I heard story after story of parents arguing, taking their child's side at all costs, or simply ignoring the call entirely. Their best advice was to use the Sandwich Method: Start with something positive, break the bad news, and end on a positive note. But those thin slices of good news weren't fooling anyone; everyone knows a call from school is usually a bad thing.
      I lived in fear of making calls home until I heard Taylor Mali recite his poem "What a Teacher Makes," and these lines unlocked an epiphany:
      I make parents tremble in fear when I call home:Hi. This is Mr. Mali. I hope I haven't called at a bad time,I just wanted to talk to you about something your son said today.To the biggest bully in the grade, he said,"Leave the kid alone. I still cry sometimes, don't you?It's no big deal."And that was the noblest act of courage I have ever seen.
      My students amaze me with their creativity, compassion, and courage all the time; why was I keeping those awesome moments to myself? Instead of waiting until I had a negative reason to call home, such as bad grades, missing work, or a behavior issue, why not call right away with something positive?
      I began a practice of calling home right away to talk about positive experiences with students. In the first week of school, I call at least one parent a day, or I pick a couple of days to make multiple calls. Google Forms and Sheets make it easy to keep track of parent communication and to hold myself accountable to maintaining positive points of contact. Sadly, parents are often surprised to get a positive phone call about their child; even the parents of the most well-behaved students don't expect it. The day after these calls, I've noticed students return to class with a smile, a thank you, and an appreciation that someone has noticed them for something other than a mistake. This strategy is even more powerful if you make it a point to call the parents of "those kids," the ones your colleagues may warn you about or who come to class withdrawn and a little cautious.
      I had one such student—I'll call her Katy—in my freshman English class. Katy was painfully shy and terrified to speak in class, but also had a love of art. I made it a point to call her mom early to share successes and discuss Katy's passion for art. Over the course of the semester, not only did Katy become more social, but we also found ways to make assignments more accessible, build confidence, and improve her general attitude toward school. A year later, Katy's mom reached out for help with her other child's academics. Two years later, I still catch up with Katy and her mom whenever our paths cross. To this day, I hang on to a piece of Katy's art (pictured) as a reminder of how awesome our students are.

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      The payoff of positive calls home continues to surprise me. Parents are no longer afraid when they hear my voice on the other end of the line. Parents who other teachers say never follow through or answer their calls now call me directly, check in on work, and make a point to say hello. Parents who have negative feelings toward school from their own experiences now see a positive connection.
      What's even more compelling, for me, is the effect these calls have on students. Students have a few more smiles, a desire to connect in class, and appreciation for being noticed. Perhaps this foundation of respect, acknowledgement, and appreciation is the missing piece to forming relationships that change a life, or even just a day, for the better. 

      Clint R. Heitz is an instructional coach at Bettendorf Community Schools in Bettendorf, Iowa.

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