Updated: Aug 22
When I started this blog, I texted a former student (hi, Phil!) who is now training to be a teacher and asked her what kind of content she would find helpful. She said how to communicate with parents and administrators, and then asked why they don’t teach a class on that. I don’t have a bachelor’s or master’s in education, so I assumed they did teach that class. “They” being formalized education programs and people who know what they're doing.
While I don’t claim to know what I am doing or be an expert in this at all, I’m going to throw out some hard-won wisdom about communicating with caregivers. Once I can figure out a way to anonymize emails well, I'll include some examples. Would templates be helpful...?
Shift your mindset
Caregivers are not your adversaries even though it feels like that sometimes. It helps to remember that they want what's best for their child. Can that come across in odd and unkind ways? Absolutely it can. Is that ok? No, it is not. But we are going to go with the most generous interpretation of their behavior - that they are acting in whatever way they are acting because they care (or are having a bad day).
DO NOT RESPOND RIGHT AWAY
You’re in the middle of your day, happily bopping along. The kids are engaged, you are on top of your shit, and it’s sunny outside. Perfect day, right? Then out of the blue you get an email from a parent that feels rude/mean/accusatory/insert negative here and poof, there goes your day. Our initial instinct is to respond instantly to whatever shade was thrown in the email. I’m going to need you to stop, take a breath, close your laptop, and deal with it later.
Side note - one way to actively prevent this from happening is to batch when you check your email. Email sucks the life out of you and is what Cal Newport calls “shallow work”. It’s of low value and easily outsourceable even though it feels super important. Do you know what isn’t of low value? The work you’re doing in the classroom. If you want to dip your toe into not checking your email constantly, I’d recommend setting specific times to check it. My goal for the upcoming school year is to check email once or twice a day.
When you respond or initiate, try to do it by email and run it by a colleague first
Here is a tip based on hard-earned experience, but there are some caveats. Email gives you a record of what is going on that is easily searchable for you and cc’able for your admin. It also takes the pressure off of you to respond in the moment and allows you to set the tone for communication.
When I have to write a high-stakes email, I try to slow myself down by not responding right away and then drafting an email and sending it to a colleague first for review. Usually it’s a friend but it could also be my principal. Someone else should lay eyes on what you are doing. Now you don’t want to overuse this and I want you to feel confident in communicating to parents. This is for emotionally charged situations. It’s a cover-your-ass move.
Then, if you need to have a phone call, you can coordinate via email. This obviously won’t work if the caregiver never emails you back but at least you have tried to establish contact and tone and then you can go from there. In this case, I recommend touching base with your school counselors, department leader, or admin to see if they have any information about the particular caregiver. If it’s a really sticky situation, have a counselor or admin sit with you while you make the call.
Front-load your communication and set boundaries
The best defense is a good offense. At the beginning of the school year, create something you can send out to families that introduces yourself and your class and establishes a point of contact. This provides useful information about your class and also sets boundaries. For example, I ask caregivers to email me because I don’t want them calling me during the school day. Also, my classroom phone doesn’t work well. I might also remind parents to give me one business day to respond to emails. Again, a reasonable boundary that is upheld by administration. Then, I reach out periodically throughout the semester with helpful information about the class.
Stay with the facts and keep the tone polite
Oh man. Email tone. It’s a tough one. When I was in graduate school I worked at the Human Research Protections Office (HRPO) as a graduate assistant. The HRPO is the gateway to the Institutional Review Board (IRB). Researchers who are using humans in studies need to get approval from the IRB before they can start their projects. My colleagues and I were gatekeepers for the IRB. We’d review their proposals and send requests for more information and feedback. To professors. Who wanted to start their research projects. At an R1 university. So, we had to be incredibly careful with our writing. Specific, polite, and direct. If you need help with the strength of your writing, install Grammerly and/or run your email through the Hemmingway App.