How Teachers Can Use Their Annual Parent Letter To Get To Know Their Students
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 that 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. Keep reading to find out how building relationships with students and parents can help struggling students succeed in and out of the classroom.
What's the Best Way To Support Struggling Students?
There's no one right answer to this question, because each student (and each student's needs) is different. Every school teacher implements many different strategies during and outside of class time to help support students who exhibit disruptive class behavior or struggle in difficult classes to help students achieve future success.
Teachers may spend extra time with students, schedule conferences or phone calls with parents, tutor students, discipline them, or some combination of all of the above. They likely attend trainings about behavioral strategies and learning deficits to ensure the educational environment they foster in the classroom will help struggling students achieve academic success. They may even schedule one-on-one time with some students to hone in on specific lessons or skills. Finally, some teachers find extrinsic motivation—providing students with a reward if they achieve a particular milestone or score—to provide positive reinforcement and help students submit assignments on time.
While each of these strategies can be incredibly effective depending on the student, there's one approach that takes minimal effort but has manifold benefits for students and teachers alike: A parent letter from teachers.
Does Engaging Parents in Education Matter?
Parents play a crucial role in the academic success of their children. Numerous studies highlight the correlation between parental involvement and student success, but many teachers don't know how to harness the power of parents to support struggling students.
Most teachers send out a formal letter at the start of each term as an initial form of contact to parents. This letter to parents often is a generic letter outlining the class syllabus and class rules. While this letter may be helpful to parents (if it's even read), it doesn't typically garner any sort of response from parents. Ultimately, it mainly serves to provide parents with teacher contact information to address direct questions or educational issues.
What if this letter could engage parents and build relationships between parents, teachers, and students to yield student success?
The Benefits of an Annual Letter to Parents
Just like fed students learn better than hungry students, known students are easier to help than unknown students.
When written thoughtfully and intentionally, an excellent letter to parents can give teachers insight into what's behind the faces they stare at in the classroom every day. Parents know their children best; they know their struggles, fears, and triggers. By using the letter to parents to ask questions about students, teachers gain insight into the motivations, dreams, and struggles of each individual student. This in turn helps teachers uniquely support every student through the challenges presented that school year.
Additionally, addressing parents deferentially from the start helps build a positive relationship between parents and teachers. After all, you're an expert in your subject matter, but they're an expert in their kid.
How To Write the Perfect Parent Letter From Teachers
Depending on your subject, grade level, and student population, you may find some letters provoke more detailed responses from parents than others. Some teachers prefer writing handwritten letters, while others use a draft template and send parent letters via email. Whatever the format, there are some basics you may choose to include:
- The first paragraph is typically a teacher introduction. Provide your name and subject and explain your excitement to be meeting their child.
- In the second paragraph, you may want to briefly outline the class syllabus and schedule.
- The third paragraph can be used to provide general class expectations; for example, no offensive language, regular attendance, and weekly quizzes.
- In the fourth paragraph, explain the importance of parental involvement in education. Explain that, to foster a relationship between the student, the parents, and yourself, you'd like parents to answer a few questions about their child. Be sure to provide a clear way for parents to respond (direct email, completing a form, etc.).
- Close the fifth paragraph by providing parents with your contact information and hours of availability, so they can reach out to you with additional questions.
Veteran high school educator Gretchen Wing provided this sample of an effective parent letter from teachers:
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.
According to Ms. Wing, "this letter produced instant (and often unforeseen) results. Most parents responded fully and gratefully." Even parents who refused to respond or responded curtly gave her insight into the home life and character of students and parents. "'[Parent] responses spoke volumes beyond their actual words. Two typed pages, or handwriting full of spelling errors? Collegial tone or deferential? Appreciative or huffy?" Effusive parents told Ms. Wing as much about their children as the parents that threw the letter away without responding.
Effective Parent Letter From Teacher Tips
There are a few things to keep in mind when drafting your parent letter. Use these tips to make your letter effective and insightful.
- Address letters to specific parents or guardians. Using parent names helps show parents right off the bat that you're seeking a personal relationship with your student and their parents.
- Ask purposeful questions that really dig into who students are. Some teachers might ask about the subjects students enjoy, their hobbies, areas they struggle in, or what motivates students.
- Adopt a tone that expresses your desire to listen, not tell. Parents may shut down if your letter assumes students will be difficult or may struggle. Instead, reiterate your desire to learn about their child to best support them throughout the year. Listen to Ms. Wing's advice: "How often, in my early years, had I thoughtlessly alienated parents by calling to tell them what was wrong [with their child]? 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."
- Reference back to this letter in conversations with parents. "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," according to Ms. Wing. When issues with students arise, pull out the parent responses and use them to evaluate the problem and troubleshoot issues. Remind parents of the responses they provided you early on to create an environment of collaborative problem solving between teachers and parents.
Every teacher wants to see their students succeed. An effective parent letter sets the tone for the school year and can help you uniquely support students all year long.