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  • Writer's picturekatelyn russell

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).


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.

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  • Writer's picturekatelyn russell

Updated: Aug 8

I won’t bore you with the backstory, but a whole lot of unrelated things pointed me in the direction of design thinking this summer. [EDIT - I was too lazy to write the backstory. And also, I did already. It's here if you're interested.] And I am really, really, really into it. Here’s what I’ve been exploring:

Design thinking for Leading and Learning

This free EdX course provides a great introduction to the fundamentals of design thinking with classroom examples. Meaning they go into classrooms and interview students and teachers about their experiences. I got a lot of ideas about HOW to implement design thinking and am happy to have this class in my back pocket.

IDEO Design Thinking for Educators

The title says it all. A whole FREE handbook on how to use design thinking to solve problems in your classroom and school.

Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything

Behavior design, design thinking, tomato, tomato. I don’t actually know how to write that phrase, but hopefully you get the point. Design thinking applied to behavior. Go get it and read it, you won’t be disappointed.

Design Thinking Toolkit for Educators

Ok confession - I haven’t gone through this resource yet but I still wanted to include it. I downloaded it and am looking forward to reviewing it soon!

Creative Confidence

A book by the founders of IDEO and the at Stanford that gives you practical tips to ignite creativity in yourself and others.

Creative Acts for Curious People

I reserved this book from the library and got about three pages in before I bought my own copy. This will be one of my reference books going forward, I’m sure of it.

The Design of Everyday Things

Confession #2 - I didn’t make it all the way through this book but it is one I will go back to and reread. Don Norman is a cognitive psychologist and product designer and I found the exploration of design and the human psyche fascinating.

PS isn’t it funny how we use words like “ignite” or “spark” when we talk about creative things? I am doing it without thinking, which means it’s likely something I’ve absorbed from the culture. I wonder if it’s because we associate creativity with passion. We think that passion is inherent - that it is just there and if we could only find it and do that thing which we were put on earth to do, we would be happy. But, as Cal Newport argues, that’s probably not true. This is analogous to how we think creativity is inherent. Another fallacy - it’s something you can learn.

  • Writer's picturekatelyn russell

I’m reading Essential Labor: Mothering as Social Change by Angela Garbes. In it, she talks, in part, about how caregiving is so invisible because it deals with the messy nature of the body. This made me start thinking about the myriad ways we try to sanitize and deny the body in schools. I mean, we quite literally sanitized them during the height of Covid. But I am talking about the, “making something more acceptable by removing, hiding, or minimizing any unpleasant, undesirable, or unfavorable parts,” definition. The body is an inconvenience in school, not the seat of our experience, and something to celebrate.

I mean, we can start with start time. The research is clear - earlier start times are bad for high school students, and later start times are good. The end. You would think that the course of action, then, would be clear - school should start “later”. In our district, that meant pushing the start time back 30 minutes for high schoolers. So now we start at 8:15 instead of 7:45. The elementary school starts a bit later than that. You should have heard the opposition and the outcry, not one of them considering the body. They were all about logistics. Which, in schools, are always more important than the body.

In my school, we get 22 minutes for lunch. Which is not enough time to walk the body to the cafeteria, stand in line, retrieve lunch, find a place to sit, eat it mindfully, and then walk back to class. And what about if you have to go to the bathroom? What about if you need to visit the nurse for a bandaid or to get medication? Deduct that from your 22 minutes. Also, can we step back and for a moment consider the ridiculous number of 22 minutes? I swear, numbers like this made the school day so much worse. I am always looking at the clock for a weird time - 8:58, 11:31, and 1:11. The kids are, too, and we spend a lot of mental time and energy trying to figure out when classes end or begin. And then we become obsessive. “It’s 22 minutes, not 20!”

This is all to say we build an environment to deny and obstruct the body. It’s a vehicle for carrying around the all-important head so we can stuff it with facts so that it can pass the requisite exams necessary for graduation. I am guilty of this forgetting too, of course, and want to make it more central to my teaching. You don’t have a body, you are a body, and it’s not here to shuttle your mind from place to place. If you need to go to the bathroom, please go. If you need a snack or a drink of water, please have it. If you don’t feel good, please go to the nurse, or even better, go home and rest. How can we teach our children to be healthy if we don’t start there?

I was in training for Universal Design for Learning this summer and the speaker emphasized how crucial it is for the brain to feel safe and taken care of to learn. I couldn’t get past the basic needs part of the talk for a while. We assume that because we are in a wealthy district, our students come to school fed and taken care of so that we can stuff as much as possible into their brains. But I see exhausted, depleted bodies. Bodies that don’t sleep enough, might not eat enough because they are unhappy with their size, and don’t move enough during the day. Bodies that are whispering to their owner that they love art, please take an art class instead of AP whatever. And we scratch our heads and wring our hands and wonder why our students report such poor mental health.

I am not going anywhere concrete with this, I don’t have a neat and tidy solution. But to innovate, you need to get clear on the problem. And this is a problem.

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