Parent/carer communication is easy to get right, painful when you get it wrong and downright disastrous if it goes really wrong. It’s sometimes easy to forget that when we speak to parents, or communicate via other means, that the person on the other end of the line is also a living, breathing human with their own worries and concerns as well as their own day job or personal life to manage. It’s also easy to forget how you desire to be spoken to when you are ringing a parent, period five on a Friday, after their darling child has thrown gluesticks at your ceiling in a lesson and one dropped and landed in Chelsea’s newly done-up bun. You want to get your point across, tell the parent what their child has done wrong, alongside any sanction, and get out of there as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, in doing so, you set yourself up to fail and the building blocks for a poor parental relationship begin to stack on top of each other. You’ll soon realise that once the blocks have started to stack, each conversation you have results in them stacking faster, to the point you dread ringing Mr Smith at all because you know how the conversation will go.
In reality there really aren’t many occasions where a parental phone call should be challenging – a difficult conversation may need to be had but that doesn’t mean that it needs to be one which results in either party leaving it and feeling like they’ve done twelve rounds with Mike Tyson. As a Pastoral Leader I can’t begin to think of how many phone calls I’ve made during my career and I certainly can’t begin to imagine all of the many reasons for doing so. That being said there have been some incredibly difficult conversations to be had; there have been times I have had to recommend we end a conversation and pick it up later; times when the 5-minute phone call becomes 30mins-1hr of trying to resolve a multitude of issues; times when I’ve hung up and had to call social services or the police. You never know where a phonecall home, or a chat on the gate, or any other method of communication might take you. You should know, however, that there are some really simple things you can do to make sure that parental communication/relationships needn’t be the bogeyman.
Parental communication, and by extension co-operation, is one of the biggest keys to your success as a mentor, TA, Teacher, Pastoral Leader etc. Most parents will want to work with you to ensure their child’s school life is the best it can possibly be – almost all parents will want to ensure their child’s school life is the best it can possibly be but may not want to work with you! Courtesy and respect go a long way in building strong working relationships with parents – the vast majority of your communications with parents will likely be by phone. I can’t count the number of times I’ve sat with a member of staff who starts a phone call to a parent with “Hello, it’s Mr X from school, John was a nightmare in his DT lesson today”. Those kinds of opening messages get most parent’s backs up straight away – don’t do it. Introduce yourself, start by asking them if they are alright, if they have a couple of minutes to talk and you’ll often find they are much more willing to engage with you. That’s not always the case but if you’ve taken the time to be respectful at the start of the conversation you will have at least set the table for a polite conversation. Think about how you feel when the insurance salesman rings at 4pm, after a long day, and asks you if you’ve got some time to talk – I’m certainly not comparing us to cold callers but for some parents the feeling is the same!
Try and ensure that your first communication with a parent isn’t a negative one wherever possible – when we take over a class/group, or first start working with a child, we generally know where we might expect problems. Get early conversations in with their parents by spotting praise where possible within the first few interactions you have with their child – this will make it easier for you to call later on if you need to ring for less positive reasons. There are a huge number of parents who dread seeing the school number on their phone – how many times have you had a parent/carer answer with “What’s he done now?”. For some of our communities the thought of a telling off from school brings back negative memories of their own and this is always something to be cognizant of. Even if you can’t see any opportunities for praise you can still call and introduce yourself in situations where you feel it may be beneficial – if you take over a class, for example, that you know have been historically poorly behaved there’s no harm in ringing some parents of key students to introduce yourself, acknowledge the issues from the past and then let them know you are going to be working to move things forward. You may even find that a parent/carer has suggestions/advice to offer that could be valuable for you, having never worked with their child before. Praise phone calls, postcards, emails etc. will always be a great way to endear yourself to most parents/carers and you should endeavour to do this as much as you reasonably can. I’ve always been a fan of the ‘Friday Five’ approach – making five positive phonecalls on a Friday – to end the week on a high and make five children’s(and their parent’s) weekends.
Keep any reporting of behaviour as factual and clear as possible and, if you need to, think beforehand about the message you wish to convey. It can be hard for a parent to hear a statement like “Harry was incredibly rude, and his language was disgusting in the lesson” – you are much better off keeping it to what actually happened “Harry came into the classroom today and when I asked him to take off his coat, he told me to shut up” is harder hitting, much more accurate and also makes it sound less like it’s your opinion. When you report any sanctions you gave you may also want to link it clearly to the school’s behaviour policy – “I had no choice but to have him removed in line with the school’s behaviour policy and the sanction for that is a 1 hour detention” – this takes away some of the feeling that you are directly responsible for the sanction, and thus the person to direct any negative energy towards. If the time is right you can then start to talk about how to move forward, what your expectations for the student are and what the next lesson or interaction with them might look like. That is the ultimate goal – how can you improve the situation moving forward.
Always try to be aware of the time of day and the time your conversation may take – if you know you need to have a long chat with a parent don’t just call and expect them to drop everything for you – there’s nothing wrong with letting them know this could be a longer conversation and asking if there’s a more convenient time for them. Equally, in reverse, you aren’t obligated to take a call that sucks up all of your precious time and you need to be willing to do the same thing for yourself. The more you get to know certain parents, the more you will know their working patterns and their ability to talk with you. Share this information with pastoral staff if you develop it so that other members of staff can benefit from what you’ve found. Some parents will prefer email communication due to their availability and if this works for you it can be a really powerful way to address concerns that also removes some of the emotion brought by a phonecall – all I would say is to treat it as you would an internal email – keep it professional and respond within your working hours. It’s also important to make sure that you are aware of who you are calling, and their relationship to the child, and make every effort possible to use the parent/carer’s name. A pet hate of mine is “Is this Abby’s mum?” – you should be using their title and surname as standard – as part of your introduction confirm who they are, even if it’s the seventeenth time you’ve spoken to them it sets the standard, “Hi, is that Mrs Smith? Ah great, it’s Mr Acton calling from X – how are you? Have you got a few minutes to talk?” and also ensures you are speaking to the right person from a safeguarding perspective.
Be confident in ending a call if it does become problematic – there are some parents/carers who just won’t countenance what you have to say – this may also stretch to abusive language or threats. This can be for any number of reasons but ultimately you do not come to work to be verbally abused. If you can feel a conversation is getting heated, then you are probably best to draw it to a close with a more definite statement “I’m hopeful that we can work together to achieve the best for XYZ but I think it’s best if we pick this up again at a later date. Either I, or XYZ, will give you a call back in the next X days – thank you for your time”. You can then decide if you need to escalate the conversation up the chain and get a more senior member of staff to call to resolve the issue, or whether some breathing room and time to digest the issue will mean you can have the conversation yourself at a later date. It’s always worth flagging this as an issue to your pastoral team, faculty or SLT as you may not be the only member of staff being put in this situation.
For some staff, communication home is something that brings anxiety and fear – this shouldn’t be the case. I can count on one hand the number of phone calls home that I’ve made where I’ve ended the call feeling like it was unpleasant. If you stick to some of the tried and tested approaches discussed here you should be able to develop a script and a methodology for communication that ensures that you always start off on the right foot and, when you don’t, you know how to bring it to a conclusion. As with anything – the more you do the easier it becomes – for the past however many years I have started every phone call the exact same way (introduction, how are you, have you got time to talk?) and I doubt I’ll ever change that now. One final tip is to ask a member of staff who you know is regularly in touch with parents if you can shadow them making a couple of difficult calls, particularly to those you may have struggled with, and you’ll soon see that it’s a skill to be honed.
Having parents on your side is one of the greatest tools to have in your toolkit – the knowledge that you and their parents are working in sync is one that strikes fear into the hearts of many a troublemaker and can inspire many students to show their best self. It’s an opportunity to be capitalised on – don’t miss out.
As always, if you do want to discuss any of the above, feel free to talk to me through Twitter @connoracton.