Informal Education: The Value of Proactive, Positive Outreach Home

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After the first day of school, the boys shared that the best part of the day was, and I quote, “Hot lunch!” We heard about chicken nuggets, fries, the choice of milk (“I had chocolate, and he had regular”), and the amount of ketchup that they each used. So – not much about class, but the report was that hot lunch was a big hit.

It has been a few weeks – over a month, actually – since the start of school, and the conversations at home have changed. Big Brother, who is in 2nd grade, is obsessed with history: “My teacher said that we are learning things that 3rd graders usually learn!” (Good work, 2nd grade teacher!). We hear about the Boston Tea Party and Paul Revere and spies from the Revolutionary War who were women.

But I want to take a moment to write about Small Brother, who is in 1st grade. At the beginning of last week, an email came home, and included this line: “I want to let you know that I am so proud of [Small Brother].  He is working so hard in first grade. I really enjoy him very much.”

And then, a few lines later: “He has been my messenger first thing in the morning and gets to run around the school delivering a few messages.  He also runs the most laps when we head out to The Daily Mile. He told me he is training for a race!”

I want to say this as clearly as I can: this message is awesome.

First, this teacher took time out of her day to proactively reach out to the family and say, “Your kid is great, and I’m glad he’s in my class.” Families don’t always get those types of emails that are specific to their kids. And of course, he is great – and we’re glad his teacher agrees!

But then she also talks about how she’s being proactive in helping him get out some of his daily energy: she knows that he loves a task, and she saves them up for him to deliver around the building. And in those lines, we knew that she noticed and saw him as an individual. 

Personalized emails like this take a few minutes to write, but have a deep and profound impact on home: families know what’s happening, and they know that you, as the educator, see their child.

Jerry Frew, from the New Hampshire School Administrators Association, shares his advice from his time as a former school leader: 

“One thing that we always encouraged was for every teacher or teaching team to reach out with a postcard (which we provided with the school mascot/logo) email, or phone call to EVERY child’s family who they have contact with.  A simple ‘Welcome to a new school year, we are looking forward to an awesome year with (Child’s name). Please contact (teacher or team contact information) with any questions or concerns – you are our most important partner in your child’s education!’ This establishes a positive tone from the onset of the year.”

I’ve worked with schools that used part of their staff meeting time to fill out postcards, like Jerry mentioned, to send home; some administrators set up an area near the staff mailboxes so that educators could quickly write them. Educators can also build in five minutes of their grade- or subject- team meeting to send a few emails to families, with the intent that the outreach is positive

We’re trying to build a relationship between school and home, and to do that, we need to begin with positive communication. It’s not always about calls – and actually, it’s often not about calls. But it IS about personalized and individualized communication. When I train educators in family engagement, I try to remind them to remember their A+++ students when they reach out to families – because they are often forgotten when we try to “prioritize” our outreach. But those students, and families, benefit from a proactive and positive note home.

We love the folders in the backpacks – but they are rarely specific to the kiddo. Those three-sentence emails specific to our student? That goes a long way into knowing how class is going.

But wait — what about high school educators?! How in the world could this work if you have 120 students on your roster?

First, if your school has an Advisory, homeroom, or Learning Community system – focus on those core students who are “your kids.” As a teacher, I had an Advisory that stayed with me for their four years of high school; they were my kids, and I was their family’s person at the school as an ambassador, of sorts.

If your school does not have a system like that, begin with your first period class. Build up the muscle of this type of outreach, and let’s be honest: teenagers and first period classes can use more positive conversation. You don’t have to do everything all at once, but choose a specific class and make sure to reach out to all families with a proactive, positive, and personalized message. And if it takes you through the end of October? You’re still reaching out more frequently – and positively – than what families are accustomed to.

After receiving the email, my partner followed up, scheduling an in-person meeting. When she asked Small Brother if there was anything he wanted her to share with the teacher, he said, “That I love her class.”

Liz Canada is our Director of Policy and Practice. Prior to her work at Reaching Higher NH, she taught high school English in Denver, and coached educators and administrators in Family Engagement in Massachusetts. She is also on the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s teaching team for Dr. Karen Mapp’s course “The Why, What, and How of School, Family, and Community Partnerships.”Have questions about family engagement? Want to point out that her cousin also helped to move her in to her apartment? Email Liz at liz@reachinghighernh.org. And, share this information with your colleagues.