Not long ago, my wife and I were chatting with a high school principal in her office. From her desk, she can see out an expansive window: students entering and leaving the building, the immaculate landscaping and flora that dot contribute a newness to the school grounds, and a parking lot that fills after her day has begun and is often empty again when she leaves work.
The desk is littered with files and loose papers that require anything from her complete attention to a simple perusal and signature. Her laptop sits amidst them, open as usual. She surveys her work area and sighs.
“How were we able to get it all done before?” she asks, harkening to days when she had more time to interact with students and have extensive conversations with colleagues.
My wife answered: “We didn’t have to keep checking email. We didn’t have to always be online.”
The principal nodded, tilted her head, and grimaced.
Was technology not supposed to make things easier? Supposed to save us time? Sending an email is quicker than writing or typing a memo, putting it in inner-office or U.S. Mail, and waiting for a reply. Regardless, writing has become more and more an essential duty for classroom teachers.
I spoke with twenty-year veteran high school teacher Leigh Buffat about professional writing in a high school. She listed several audiences for her writing: parents, principals, guidance counselors, students, and supervisors. Furthermore, as a former yearbook sponsor, she emphasized that teachers need to be able to “communicate as businesspeople,” as well. She stated that, though, she prefers phone calls in many cases, email has facilitated some matters: “Written communication has become more important since time is a precious resource. I may be in class when they’re [parents] available; they may be with a client when I’m available. Instead of waiting for a time to connect on phone, we can communicate more immediately about students’ grades or behavior and find solutions sooner.”
But along with convenience comes overuse and an abundance of messages that consume more time. Since it is less of a burden to communicate an idea, every idea seems worthy of communication.
Buffat addressed this reality, especially in terms of social media: “I don’t like when administrators and supervisors insist I be ‘linked in’ in every way they are. Let’s keep the spaces [between work and time online off contract hours] separate. Don’t tell me to follow you. I’d rather just check email at the same time every day. I don’t want administrators’ or colleagues’ work concerns imposed on me during non-contract hours.”
But before slamming the iPad to the ground and swearing off email—especially from the one colleague who insists on marking every missive as “urgent”—teachers must appreciate both the benefits of technology in their written discourse and how best to use this technology. This is especially true given the need to communicate with parents, the audience that Buffat addresses most frequently.
The Benefits of Contacting Parents and Choosing the Best Platform
Indubitably, technology has created better opportunities for teachers to communicate with students and parents. And before thinking about the one mom who calls weekly to check up on her son’s progress (though he has an “A” average, hovering in the mid-90s), keep in mind the many other parents whose children need more support from home, but who also lack the time to call during the school day.
Researcher Hosiin Shivrani reaffirms the long-standing belief that parental involvement—especially through communication with teachers—benefits the students. Shivrani states three positive outcomes resulting from teacher-parent communication: the parents may feel more optimistic about education; the students may consequently attach more meaning to school; and, ultimately, the students may perform better academically. A study performed by Brown University Professor Matthew Kraft and Harvard University—Kennedy School Professor Todd Rogers showed these exact benefits in a recovery credit program. In the program, teachers texted parents on a weekly basis. The researchers believe that this contributed to fewer students abandoning the program altogether and more students completing it successfully.
If technology can facilitate student-learning, then teachers need to explore how to use it most effectively. Kraft emphasizes that the more specific teachers can be in telling teachers in what ways students need to improve, the more conducive the communication will be to parental support. The communication need not be as intimate and immediate as a text-message (after all, remember that Kraft and Rogers were studying cases in which the students’ academics had reached a point beyond critical—they had already failed the class on a first attempt). Depending on the socioeconomic status of a school’s population, too, texting (and even email) may not be as viable. Gilgore, et al. cite a Pew Research Report that indicates that in 2015, two-thirds of households used iPhones. There’s a good chance that some of your struggling students live in the other third.
Buffat says when she needs to contact parents, “I try to glean a best method from their contact information—like their place of work or address.” For instance, if the place of work appears to be an office setting, she’s more likely to try email first. If the family lives in a more rural setting, she is more likely to try a phone call, thinking that internet connections might not be available or that the parents may not have an email account they are required to check.
Gilgore, et al. discuss teachers trying a variety of methods for teachers to contact parents, but also warn about overwhelming them by simultaneously sending messages in multiple formats (i.e., a phone call and a text and an email). They also warn of schools (and teachers) presenting parents with too much information. They need to be selective and provide only that information which is necessary.
Beyond Platform: Ideas on Effective Communication with Different Audiences
Buffat says she is most likely to write for parents “if a student is failing or acting atrociously in class.” In these situations, she understands the importance of knowing her audience and “listening to them” first. She says, “I would ask if there’s anything going on? Are they aware? Is it going on in other classes? What’s the underlying issue I’m not getting?”
If she’s using email, she is careful about her salutations. “I look at if they’ve ever emailed,” Buffat begins. “I pay attention to greetings and salutations. If a mom signs ‘Thanks, Nancy,’ I’m not going to address her as ‘Mrs. Fortenberry.’ But if they use a formal ‘Mr.’ or ‘Mrs. So-and-so,’ then that’s how I’ll address.” This is only a small part of being sensitive. Frequently, she is responding to emails from parents or students who are concerned about being absent due to illness, and asking what they may be missing or need to make up. “I’ll tell them, ‘Don’t worry. Be sick. When you get back, we’ll work on making it up.’ Right now they just need to be getting better. If they ask if there is ‘anything I can do at home,’ I’ll tell them to ‘sleep, take medicine.’”
She has also had the experience of writing to parents in her capacity as yearbook sponsor. “When I did yearbook, they wrote to ask how to buy or worried they had missed the deadline,” she says. “Sometimes they complained about something—why is their kid not in the book, why is the name spelled wrong?—and I’ve learned not to fight fire with fire. They just want to be heard and understood. In reply, I apologize up front, remind them that we’re a student publication, and tell them, ‘Here are things I can do at this juncture. What would you like to do?’”
She adds that there are constraints she must abide. Obviously, she always wants to be truthful and provide facts and observations. “I can’t use the language I always want to use,” she laughs. “I have to clean it up. Sometimes I have to use euphemisms or innuendo. Can’t just ask, ‘Is your kid stupid?’”
Writing for students mainly means writing clear instructions and communicating expectations. Buffat reminds teachers, “It’s definitely a time when you want to get [grammar and spelling] right. Also, the tone of it. Make it so your students see you as approachable in your syllabus. There’s also a matter of credibility with content. If they’re going to be doing a bunch of silliness, I’m not going to be that credible.”
In terms of strategies, she has a couple of main tactics. She says that she “gives them formatting requirements and guidelines—stuff I recall having questions about when I had to do that type of work. I anticipate their questions, though sometimes I anticipate them incorrectly. They are actually confused about something else I didn’t think about.”
She has become less inclined to communicate with students (or parents, for that matter) on social media. In her capacity as yearbook advisor, she used Twitter and Instagram for marketing. She found that “initially students enjoyed following, but not so much anymore. Social media is their hangout, a personal space. They don’t want us there like they don’t want parents there. The school has [a course delivery system] where I can set up alerts and posts.”
Buffat says that some of her writing involves completing forms and evaluations. The audience for these may include a variety of people: a counselor or special education teacher and a principal and parents and, even, the student. She assumes a general audience and “includes only observable details, not gut feelings, using a professional and formal style.”
She acknowledges there is a perception that all educators will use immaculate grammar and high-level diction. In her experience, though, this is not always the case. She says, “They would think teachers would speak and write with correct grammar. Just as it is with parents, teachers have different backgrounds and education levels and ways of sharing knowledge. Some people may not have extensive vocabulary. What they may do day-in and day-out, they know it. They are intelligent. I am surprised when I get emails from co-workers that use non-standard English. It probably changes the way I perceive them.”
Part of this slip in usage she attributes to the primary struggle she sees in writing for schools: having time to write. “A lot of stuff is composed off contract hours. If not done on our own time, we wouldn’t have productive communication. Sometimes I get stuff from people, and I say, ‘What the hell? Don’t these people have degrees?’ But they probably were rushed and didn’t have time to refine it. I get it. But I still might be inclined to take them less seriously.”
- Businesspeople and College Admissions Officers
In the role of yearbook sponsor, Buffat was in charge of a publication with a budget of nearly $100,000. This required drafting business contracts and contracts for advertising. She also needed to write email to yearbook company representatives and customer support people. With them, she says, “We had to be on the same page with the company, and that meant having the same vocabulary and using the correct technical terms with technical support. I had to be explicit about our issues, but I knew they didn’t have a lot of time. So it needed to be to the point.”
Buffat did not mention writing letters of recommendation for students wishing to attend college or attain scholarships. However, I have ample experience in this matter. For the sake of the student for whom I’m writing, I’ve always been extra careful about usage. If I speak as a professional about the academic capabilities of a student, then admissions officers should not question my capabilities. Also, I ask students to complete a recommendation request form on which they will give me more information than what is on a resume. Admissions officers want to see beyond the data of a student’s test scores and gpa; they want to know who the student is, why they should invest an admissions spot or scholarship money on the student, that the student will contribute to the campus community and avoid academic probation; they want to know that the student has integrity and that the student has the resilience to overcome the difficulties that many college freshmen face. But they also want to know all of this quickly. Being able to recall a specific piece of writing or an anecdote about the student helps. Showing enthusiasm (as warranted by the students’ performance and personal traits) for the student is essential, but it is necessary to do so without hyperbolizing (after all, if several are applying to the same college, it looks funny to the admissions officer when they see applications from four different students who are each described as “my best student ever” by the same teacher). It also helps to relate a hardship the student has already overcome.
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