Building Positive Relationships with Families, Part 1: Tough but Valuable
My new friend Miss Hill got me thinking: how do new-ish teachers build positive relationships with families? Does distance or hybrid learning change it at all?
Family Relationships: Important but Difficult
Real talk time. Building relationships with families is HARD. "Anyone who says otherwise is selling something." For folks reading whose immediate reaction is an indignant, "NO IT'S NOT!" please get @ me on Twitter. I'd love to learn your secrets. For the rest of you, read on!
The thing with family relationships is that they're almost always long-distance. Everything you know about long-distance relationships applies here: it's tough to connect, you'd like to talk more often but don't seem to get around to it, sometimes you misunderstand one another, and sometimes you run out of things to talk about. The other person can be super busy and you'd never know it unless you're keeping an eye on their social media feeds, which isn't something I recommend doing to students' families. #creepy
You may have noticed that I'm saying "families" instead of "parents." That's because a lot of students at my most recent school lived with caregivers other than their biological parents. It gets weird to write "caregiver" a bunch of times, and "family" is more accurate to the emotional bond being represented, anyway.
My question as a new teacher was, "So why do this?" I knew, cognitively, that family was important to my students, so it should be important to me, too. Sadly, most of my training around "family relations" had been framed as "tools for classroom management." While it's true that caregivers can be a valuable ally in curbing unwanted behaviors, building relationships with them can (and should) be about so much more than that.
Why It's Worth Your Time
Here's why having a positive relationship with students' families matters: Caregivers know their children far, far better than you ever will. (Yes, even if you're super close with your students and they "tell me all their secrets." Sidenote, don't be friends with kids. That's a whole other blog post.)
As teachers, we're trying to get information to live in unfinished brains while they're still cooking. Here's a reality check: there are lots of times when we simply don't see "our kids." There's a lot we don't find out about how they operate, and that's where families come in.
Confused about why Timmy keeps falling out of his chair? Call home.
Worried that Shana doesn't seem herself? Call home.
Cracking up because Ty did something hilarious? Call home.
Need help hooking Jasmine's interest in a project? Call home.
I'm serious. Families are experts on their kids. If there's literally anything you need to know about a child, no one will be able to answer that question better than the child's family. (There are exceptions, but hopefully that's not true for too many of your students.) Plus, parents are naturally invested in the success of your classroom - they've got skin in the game!
Need help pulling off a crazy new idea? Write home.
Looking for classroom resources but don't have $$? Write home.
Exploring resources or activities but not sure how they'll land? Write home.
Stressed out and needing encouragement? This is gonna sound insane, but I'm serious - write home.
STORY TIME: I've never gotten so much love, support, and generous words from families as I did one week during Emergency Distance Learning this past spring. I'd begun sending out a weekly email to families and students. The idea was just to keep everyone in the loop, but it ended up sometimes serving as a kind of group therapy. One week I wrote, "Families, how are you guys doing? Honest answers only, please! I really care about you," and boy did they respond. A few weeks later when I was super down, I wrote, "Short message this week because I'm really feeling sad and hopeless. Good vibes appreciated." And those dear people showed up again. I think I got seven encouraging, gentle, cheerful emails in an hour. Those messages buoyed me up in one of the worst teaching weeks of my life. I only wish I'd thought to send out an SOS beacon to families years earlier.
Above all, remember this:
Families sometimes feel lost, discouraged, and confused, too. If you emphasize teamwork, you're already ahead of the relationship-building curve. Every parent under the sun needs a network of support. By offering to join their team, you automatically become an ally.
Until next time,
P.S. Many thanks again to @journeytomisshill on Instagram for inspiring this post
If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. Not all families prefer to communicate in the same way. If email isn't working, go for texting. If that fails, try phone calls. But be strategic - if you can batch your communications, that's best. More than 45 minutes trying to reach one family probably means you're missing a piece of the puzzle or an easier solution. If that's the case, ask around your school's staff until you find someone who's already successfully made contact, and try their strategy.