When Was the Last Time You Wrote a Positive Note Home to Parents?

I’ve been doing a ton of thinking lately about the communications that parents receive from their children’s schools and classroom teachers.

Now my perspective could be skewed because I’ve spent the majority of my career working with groups of 100+ students in middle schools, but it seems like most school communications — grade reports, weekly phone messages, email and/or blog updates, newsletters describing upcoming functions — are impersonal, designed to deliver one message to a large group of readers.  And most of the direct contact that parents DO receive about their children is negative — phone calls, emails, or notes written in agendas about missing homework, poor grades, or behavior problems.

Stew in that for a second.  And then ask yourself one simple question:  When was the last time that you wrote a positive note or made a positive phone call or sent a positive email to the parents of a student that you work with?

My answer to that question was embarrassing.  Outside of the kind words that I share in front of parents at quarterly honors assemblies, I rarely initiate a positive interaction with parents.  My rationale has always been practical:  I’m completely buried by the day-to-day demands of meeting the needs of 100+ students.  My planning periods are filled with preparing for lessons, going to meetings, filling out required paperwork, and responding to the never-ending pile of email in my inbox.  Reaching out to share positive words with parents gets pushed aside as I try to keep up with the “more pressing needs” of my professional life.

What’s even worse is that I’ve come to realize that the positive interactions that I DO have with parents about the kids in my classroom are almost always interactions with the parents of students who already get a TON of positive reinforcement from schools.  I’m more likely to celebrate kids who are making great grades or turning in great assignments or asking great questions than I am to celebrate the squirrely kid in my classroom who can’t sit down, who struggles with assignments, or who is a distracted chatterbox.

I haven’t been able to shake the shame that comes from realizing just how harmful my unwillingness to carve out time to reach out to parents with kind words about their kids really is.  

Isn’t it possible that there are parents I’ve served over the past twenty years of teaching who feel hopeless or angry or skeptical simply because the only time that I ever contacted them directly was when their child was struggling academically or behaviorally?  Worse yet, isn’t it possible that there are parents who have completely given up on schools and teachers — and maybe even their sons and daughters — after YEARS of hearing nothing but the negatives about their kids?

So I made a simple commitment this week: I’m writing handwritten letters to the parents of two students every single day between now and the end of the year.

Some days, the notes I write will be based on specific things that I’ve seen a kid do in my classroom.  Maybe I’ll celebrate a question that they ask, a pattern that they find, or a remarkable task that they turn in.  Other days, the notes I write will be based on the character traits that are worth admiring but often overlooked in the kids in my classroom.  Maybe I’ll celebrate their willingness to be polite and respectful in all situations, the kindness that they constantly show to their peers, or the persistence they show in difficult circumstances.  My hope is that by the end of the year, I will have written to the family of every kid on my learning team.

I’ve only been writing for a week, but I’ve already learned a few important lessons:

Writing doesn’t take me long at all:  I’ve chosen to write my notes during my lunch period — which is 23 minutes long.  I’ve had no trouble writing two notes AND eating lunch AND shooting the breeze with my colleagues for a few minutes during that period.  That means “finding the time” isn’t an excuse for me any longer.

My kids dig the letters that I’m writing:  I’ve also chosen to leave the letters that I write unsealed and to tell the students whose parents that I write to that they are welcome to read what I’ve written before bringing their note home.  Almost every kid has done just that — pulling out their notes as soon as I hand them out and reading them immediately.  That matters, y’all:  Kids crave praise from the important people around them.  Especially those who struggle academically or behaviorally as compared to their peers.

I had to explain the purpose of my letters to my students so they wouldn’t panic:  The first day that I handed letters to students, both kids said, “Did I do something wrong?”  Talk about a stinging critique of my communication patterns, right?  Letters home from Mr. Ferrriter = Someone’s in trouble.  So I took a few minutes in class to let my kids know that I was sorry for not taking more time to send positive notes home.  Now, my kids are almost always surprised when I hand them an envelope, but surprised in a good way instead of nervous about what’s inside.

Writing letters has made ME feel good, too:  My original goal for writing to parents was to make THEM feel good about their children.  That’s an easy win, right?  Every parent likes to know that others see special things in their kids.  What I didn’t realize was just how good writing to the parents of my students would make ME feel.  The few minutes that I spend identifying and articulating the things that I value the most about the students in my classes — including those who struggle academically and behaviorally — serve as a daily reminder that EVERY kid sitting in EVERY class really is wonderful in their own way.

There’s nothing remarkable here, y’all.  In fact, it’s hard to believe that I’m JUST coming to the conclusion that I really SHOULD make more time to say positive things to parents about their kids.  My guess is that EVERY teacher knows that saying positive things matters.

But sometimes, we let important habits slip by the wayside because we are convinced that we are too busy.  My challenge to you is to prioritize positive interactions with parents during your daily schedule.  Not only will it make your parents feel better about you, your school, and their children — it will make YOU feel better, too.

Acts of kindness warm the hearts of everyone.

#trudatchat

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Related Radical Reads:

This is Why I Teach:  They Make Cards

This is Why I Teach:  Individual Moments Matter

This is Why I Teach:  Inspiring Jake

 

4 comments

  1. rhonimcfarlane

    Hey Bill, what you’re doing is awesome. Over a year ago I designed postcards for our school to send home to parents with positive messages about our kids. As a postcard only provides a small space to write, it means that the positive message can be brief and therefore doesn’t take long. I agree with you in regards to getting a personal boost out of sending these little acknowledgements home. I have also found that it makes me far more present in acknowledging actions and efforts than previously which just increases my own awareness and gratitude for the young people I work with. I have always been one to write cards to the people I work closely with to acknowledge my appreciation, but this year I have also used the postcards to share feedback that students have provided about staff. For example, recently we collected feedback from our entire Year 11 cohort on their first term of school. One of the questions we asked was “What is something that one (or more) of your teachers are doing that is helping you be successful?”. Students provided a range of responses, but many of them identified specific teachers and how they appreciate certain things they do. As I read and analysed the responses from the students, I kept a stack of postcards beside me and as I came across responses that recognised specific staff, I wrote these responses as quotes addressed to the particular teacher. I placed each of these postcards in teachers pigeon holes, no names attached just signed off as – Year 11 student. On one of my walk throughs on the second last day of term, I noticed one of these postcards pinned on the wall behind a teachers desk and I queried the teacher. Nothing beats the gratitude of those we serve, very evident in the pride in which this teacher exhibited. I love that you have shared this because you influence so many others to do little things that can have impacts beyond what we may ever know. Keep it up champ!

    • Bill Ferriter

      Rhoni wrote:

      I agree with you in regards to getting a personal boost out of sending these little acknowledgements home. I have also found that it makes me far more present in acknowledging actions and efforts than previously which just increases my own awareness and gratitude for the young people I work with.

      ——————-

      Totally this, Rhoni. I get lost in the grind sometimes and gratitude is the last thing on my mind when that happens. Because I am committed to writing every day, though, I’ve GOT to be aware. And that heightened awareness gives me moments where I stumble into gratitude for kids. That is HUGELY uplifting to me — which, in turn, improves morale in my classroom.

      Rhoni also wrote:

      One of the questions we asked was “What is something that one (or more) of your teachers are doing that is helping you be successful?”. Students provided a range of responses, but many of them identified specific teachers and how they appreciate certain things they do. As I read and analysed the responses from the students, I kept a stack of postcards beside me and as I came across responses that recognised specific staff, I wrote these responses as quotes addressed to the particular teacher.

      ——————

      Totally stealing this idea, Pal! What a cool way to recognize the work teachers are doing. And no kidding: I think I’m going to leave student names on the postcards, too!

      Thanks for pushing me to take this idea even further. I’m in.

      Rock right on,
      Bill

  2. Lisa Buchman

    In ES my children’s teachers would praise my kids for their social aspects. It was easy for them since I would volunteer a few hours every week. On the report card the teachers were allowed to write comments and those were mostly about their academics. Fast forward to MS where I don’t volunteer. Conferences are discouraged for kids whose grades are exceptional. When I show up for the discouraged conferences I don’t really want to know about the grades (because I know they are OK), I want to know if my kids are being good people and if they are behaving well in class. The MS report card has a comment section and the teachers are allowed to check off a canned response. “Is a joy to have in class” is what comes home as a response from just about every teacher. No thought in that at all and it’s just so…..awful.

    • Bill Ferriter

      I’m with you, Lisa, because I am on the other side of that equation. I’m the one discouraging conferences and checking off “a joy to have in class.” And it isn’t because I’m lazy — it’s because when you have 100+ students to work with, finding any time for personal interactions becomes WAY harder to do.

      In so many ways, I wish we would keep class sizes and loads smaller. It would make for more personal experiences for everyone — and personal experiences matter.

      Sadly, it would also cost a ton — and no one wants to make those kind of investments in public schools.

      In this case, I really do think that this is a function of getting the school system that we pay for — and while strategies like mine are an attempt to address the challenge, they are only one small step taken by an individual teacher. They are hardly a systemic change that will lead to better learning spaces for everyone.

      It’s tough.
      Bill