Friday, January 21, 2011

Phoning home

I hate calling parents.  I admit, this is almost entirely my fault.  First of all, I always let too many infractions go by before I do so, so that by the time I call I have an insanely long list of complaints ("...and then today, he poked another child in the eye with his pencil and called him a boogerhead") that the parent is always shocked, I mean completely shocked to hear about because of course he's never been like this before and they had no idea there was any problem.  (I know all the "Tips for Surviving Your First Year of Teaching" books always make it sound like you should practically be visiting your students at home over the summer to introduce yourself, but the reality boils down to: I don't have time to call 28 sets of parents just to shoot the breeze.)  Second of all, at my last school, calling a parent inevitably resulted in one of three things: (1) The child returned to school alluding to the fact that he had been or would be spanked or hit if his parent received another call home; (2) the child returned to school even angrier at me and the world because one of his electronic devices had been taken away as a result of his behavior, prompting the child to make the entire world suffer for his own misery, or (3) absolutely zero change in behavior. 

Thirdly, there's always the wariness factor.  Often I'm calling parents I haven't met, because unfortunately the parents I need to speak to the most are the parents who don't come to Meet the Teacher Night or parent/teacher conferences.  Sometimes there's a language barrier; sometimes I hear other children yelling or crying in the background; sometimes, with the advent of parents replacing their home phones with cell phones, I reach a parent who isn't really in a position to talk.  Many times there are such long silences on the other end of the line that I'm not sure if I'm being met with hostility or not.  In those cases I end up rushing through my prepared speech, or I find myself making excuses for the child ("I think he may have been upset because the other student took his pencil, but it's still not good manners to call someone a boogerhead"), even if in my head before the phone call I was ready to nail him to the wall.  And a lot of the time, it's not like I'm telling the parent anything they don't know.  "Yeah, he does that at home too, and I just don't know what to do about it" is a common response.  It's as if they're telling me: "Look, lady, if I had better control over him, you wouldn't have had to make this phone call in the first place."

This isn't to say I haven't made progress.  Last year, I pretty much gave up on sending notes home when I found several weeks' worth of The Baby's negative behavior reports stuffed into his desk.  This year, I called a few parents on a day when Ms. Halpert was out of the building, and when she returned she wanted to know what the students had done that was so much worse than usual. My answer was nothing, really, but at some point the usual shenanigans deserve a phone call home too.  Out of sight is out of mind, and I think some of our kids' parents have convinced themselves that they're perfect angels when they're out of sight at school all day...and if they don't hear anything to the contrary, how are they supposed to know what is really going on?

 My favorite parent to call was The Antagonist's mother.  She was the first one to tell you that her son had faults, and she was refreshingly open to hearing them.  I called her so often that she would answer the phone by saying, "What did he do now?" and then we would both laugh.  It may not have always changed his behavior, but just the idea that he knew that Mom knew what I knew at least put it all out in the open.

Unfortunately, I often call parents from my cell phone, just because it's more convenient to make a call from the privacy of my classroom, where I don't have a phone.  Last year, Julio sauntered into the classroom (late as usual) one morning and informed me that his mother had sent me a text message.  This year, my newest troublemaker's mother has taken to texting me at all hours; today, I got a text from her at 2:30 pm about where her son was supposed to go after school.  I didn't actually read the text until after school was over, because -- believe it or not, newest troublemaker's mother! -- my phone does not ring out loud nor do I check my texts during the school day, even on Friday afternoons.  On the up side, she gave me permission to call her at any time, and one of my favorite tricks is to whip out my cell phone during class and prepare to put students on the phone with their parents right then and there.  (This backfired on me once when no one answered and I had to leave a message instead.)


Jaclyn said...

When I taught high school I didn't get the feeling that parents meant to say, "Look, lady, if I had better control over him, you wouldn't have had to make this phone call in the first place."

I think they actually meant to say, "I didn't do anything wrong, but somehow this child has turned into a little monster, and since I can't control him I'm just counting down the days until he grows up and leaves my house."

Minnie said...

Hi Miss Brave

I think it’s wonderful that you get to share these posts because what you are going through is what so many young teachers (well all teachers really) are facing. It seems to me that your school doesn’t have a process to go through in cases like this. I would expect schools (I’m in NZ so the system is totally different although the kids are the same) to have a written policy on discipline and this should include how and when parents should be involved.

If your school doesn’t have this in place, it’s really important that you set up a system that works for you. This should be developed with your class so that they have ownership and so that they know what your expectations and actions are. MOST IMPORTANTLY you have to be consistent in your use of this process – the same for everyone.

I always started the year by negotiating class ‘rules’ – I had a process for doing this on the first day. The students then wrote out the rules (first handwriting lesson for the year), but in order from the one they thought would be most difficult to keep for themselves individually to the least difficult – a good way of getting to know them! Then I shared my discipline process with them and got them to write it down as well. I then asked the parents to sign this and return it and it gave me a good idea of which parents would be supportive.

The process I used with my Yr 7 and 8 classes was: Step One – a discussion with me re the negative behaviour. Step Two – if it continued the student had to write ME a letter explaining the behaviour, why it was wrong and what they were going to do to moderate their own behaviour. Step Three – If it happened again – a letter home, written by the student explaining what they had done and how they were going to overcome it. I expected the letter to be returned the next day with a signature and if that didn’t happen I would call the parents or go and visit. The last step was to call the parents in or go and visit them – with the student present.

I taught some of the toughest kids you could imagine and I only twice had to go and visit parents – usually step 2 was far enough.

I see you say that you haven’t got time to visit all the parents. The only parents I visited were the ones that didn’t come to parent conferences, which cut the numbers considerably – especially when I had 36 kids in my class! It’s really amazing when you get to know those people – and they get to know you as a person, not as a teacher. Do it before trouble arises. Don’t say that you are coming to see them to discuss their child, say you’d like to meet them and are going to drop in for a coffee. You will learn so much about your students as people and you’ll get a good idea of what they face at home. If you are nervous, take a friend or anther teacher. Make it friendly – cuddle the baby, have a laugh, be relaxed. It is scary, but worth it – and remember that teacher/parents conferences are very scary for many parents especially if they only have negative interactions.

A few days ago I met one of my toughest students who is now in his late 30s. He told me that he has two children – 12 and 9 and that he makes sure that he always keeps in contact with his kid’s teachers and follows what his kids do at school and that it was all because of what we as teacehrs did for him at school – brought tears to my eyes!

Teachinfourth said...

Holy Hannah...I've only given my cell number out four or five times. I am not quite as brave as you are. I figure with the phone at school, email, and IM, they have plenty of ways to reach me.

Good for you though.