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by Gretchen Wing on May 31, 2017
Remember when the Reagan Administration directed the Department of Agriculture to cut school lunch funding? When ketchup was briefly labeled a vegetable? Those were the days. A dark joke circulated in the education community then was: “If a miracle drug were discovered that made children school-ready every morning and increased their chances of success, the administration would surely fund that drug, right? Turns out, that miracle drug exists…just don’t tell the Ag Department. It’s called FOOD.”
That ultra-basic approach—fed children learn better than hungry ones—has a counterpart in the realm of individualized strategies for dealing with struggling students. I’m talking about those students teachers spend extra time with, conferencing, phone-calling, tutoring, disciplining, or all of the above. During my 20-year high school teaching career, I attended plenty of trainings about behavioral strategies, and some about learning deficits (such training being sadly rare in the high school sphere). I did one-on-one reading practice (in case that student simply couldn’t read very well); I used extrinsic motivation (“Finish your essay and you get to take the classroom chinchilla home for the weekend.”). The most effective thing I did, however, came from no inservice but gut instinct: The Parent Letter.
During the first week of the semester, I gave this letter to all my ninth-, 10th- and 11th-grade students (exempting only my AP seniors). “This week only, your folks have the homework,” I told them. “So, get on ’em. OK?”
Dear parents/grandparents/stepparents/important adults in the life of my student,
Since your teenager entered middle school, you may have felt less in touch with his/her teachers, like your point of view didn’t matter as much as when they were little. I’m Ms. Wing, and that’s not how I operate. I believe the best way I can teach your teenager is to know him or her. So, please, if you would, take some time to answer any or all of these questions. You can do it on paper (in English or Spanish), via email at ____, or give me a call at _____. (Best times to reach me: ______)
What has your teenager’s experience of school been like so far?
What are your hopes and dreams for your teenager?
Anything else you would like me to know as your teenager’s teacher?
Thank you for taking the time to help me help your child be successful. Please be in touch at any time.
This letter produced instant (and often unforeseen) results. Most parents responded fully and gratefully, and their responses spoke volumes beyond their actual words. Two typed pages, or handwriting full of spelling errors? Collegial tone or deferential? Appreciative or huffy? Every year, two or three students would report, “My mom says this is stupid and she’s not doing it—I’m not in elementary anymore.” Or, “My dad says I’m the one who’s supposed to get homework, not him.” Those parents I would call, using humor to approach the topic of their child, but forewarned and forearmed about possible defensiveness or aggression toward teachers.
Basic lesson: Just like fed vs. hungry students, known students are easier to help than unknown.
Throughout the years, several of my colleagues borrowed my approach with their own students. Occasionally, this would backfire, when one parent might be asked to write two or three letters in the same week. But our principal agreed the overall message of caring and invitation to participate far outweighed the odd grumpy parent. What a problem for a school to be known for—caring too much.
Now, having switched to a nonteaching career, I have an epilogue to this story. One of my current colleagues is the mother of a fifth-grader with special needs. She confided to me that phone calls from his school make her cringe, and I found myself cringing to hear. How often, in my early years, had I thoughtlessly alienated parents by calling to tell them what was wrong? The answer is far too often—no wonder they didn’t welcome my “Help.” Once I adopted my “Please tell me about your student” approach, the oppositional dynamic changed. Before I called home, I would pull that student’s Parent Letter and have a quick review.
When a teacher opens a parent phone call with “I know you started off the year worried about ___.” Or, “I really appreciated when you told me that ___,” she/he shifts from accuser to ally.
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