What do you say to a parent when calling home?

Like most of the daily activities in any profession there is no secret or magic to making the often “dreaded” phone call home, but there is a right way, and a wrong way. Unfortunately, many teachers never get it right and as a result, miss out on one of the greatest tools at our disposal for student success – parental support. Contrary to popular belief, parents want you to call them whether it is good, or bad news.

We all use the phrases “contacting a parent” or making a “phone call home,” but what do they mean? It means you are about to perform the most important  responsibility bestowed upon a teacher. I liken the act, as well as the significance, of a teacher calling a student’s home to:

A lawyer contacting a client about the status of an important case.

A doctor calling a patient with important news about test results.

A family member calling to relay an update about an ill relative.

As professionals, teachers should have these same mindsets when contacting a student’s home for either good or bad news. A teacher picking up the phone to call home carries with it the same significance as a surgeon picking up a scalpel to perform open-heart surgery, or a lawyer standing to make his opening statement when defending a defendant on a felony charge. It is that important. If you do not believe that, then you are just not doing it right.

On that note, contacting a parent means different things to different teachers, but it shouldn’t. To one teacher, calling home might mean that the parent is contacted only when the students does something wrong. For another teacher it might be to inform a parent that their child has shown great improvement. In both cases, the teacher should never waver from the level of professionalism that a parent is expecting, or the script that must be followed. How does one get good at this? The same way one arrives on the steps of Carnegie Hall – practice, practice, practice.

You are calling for a reason so there is never any justification to be shy or weak about the message you are bringing to a parent. You are the authority and the parent expects to hear that in your voice.

If it is good, start on a high note. “Hello Mrs. Smith, this is Dr. Cubbin, Tim’s science teacher. I am calling to let you know that Tim received a 94% on his test today which earns him a spot in the 90’s Club.” Wait and listen.

If the news is bad, it should be, “Hello Mrs. Smith, this is Dr. Cubbin, Tim’s science teacher. I’m calling to touch base with you about an issue that took place in class today involving Tim.” Wait and listen.

The first two sentences out of your mouth will determine the tone for the rest of the conversation. If it is bad (which sadly most calls home are), don’t start out by trying to make it sound good. “Hi Mrs. Smith, This is Ms. Jones, Tim’s teacher. Tim is a great kid and we love to have him in class, but there was a problem in school today that I need to speak with you about.” This will only cause a parent to think, “A Problem? Really? But you just said he is great and you love having him in your class. So which is it? Is my son great, or is he a problem? Don’t you know? You’re the teacher!” I don’t care what anybody tells you. Starting out a bad call home with a “positive comment” is a credibility killer.

A good analogy would be having your doctor call after your check-up and tell you, “Hi John, I just went over your test results and everything looks great, but I did find a mass about the size of a grapefruit on your spine.” John thinks, “Wait a second, you just told me everything looked great, but now there’s a tumor on my spine is great? Am I fine, or do I have cancer?” All credibility flies out the window. If you are like me, you have probably been told to begin every conversation with a parent on a “high note.” If you are calling with good news, that’s fine, but for a “bad” phone call home, starting out with a “positive” is the #1 mistake made by most teachers. Parents want you to be honest. Don’t placate or pacify them. They don’t want it. They want the truth. (They may not act like it, but they do.)

Here are a few simple points to consider when making the “phone call home”:

  • Calling home is the best tool available for updating parents. I have even made “house calls” to student’s homes that were wonderful, but those were in my early years. E-mail is fantastic and essential in today’s world, but to apprise a parent regarding school issues, nothing beats a phone call.
  • All parents appreciate a phone call home, especially when there is a problem. Never be put off by an angry or upset parent. In psychology they call this transference. They are not really mad at you, but you are the messenger. This problem is easily overcome. (It’s all about the script!)
  • Calling home is an art that requires a deft touch, practice, skill and scripting! (You must learn the necessary scripting!)
  • Make sure you know exactly what to say when before you call a parent (the script!) Have all relevant notes in front of you. It would be helpful to have this class stats in front of you as well. You won’t be quoting from it, but keeping overall class progress in the back of your mind is often helpful.
  • Before you make your first call home (or if you have had poor results in the past) call a colleague and have him or her pretend to be a parent. Have them critique what you said and then make future corrections accordingly.
  • Call from a private location. Some teachers can call in an open teacher’s lounge, but I find that this atmosphere tends to change the tone of the conversation.

Most teachers do not want to call home because:

  • They have had a bad experience calling home in the past and they really don’t want to experience this again (under any circumstances!)
  • They (some teachers) believe that a single negative incident in the student is often not enough to have to deal with the grief a teacher receives from the parent during the phone call. I say they “believe” because if a teacher feels a conversation with a parent or family member is warranted, the phone call is necessary. If there is a problem, do not wait until it gets worse. Think of the doctor finding only one abnormal finding on a blood work-up. Would he say, “I’ll wait until something else pops up to tell the patient. No point worrying him about simple high blood sugar, right”? No. Call today.
  • Often the parents will put the teacher on the defensive and will threatened to “come up to the school” about the issue. Your response? “That would be fine Mrs. Smith. I think we could accomplish having a longer talk so you could see some of William’s work and test scores. We all know that he can be doing better and a sit down might be better for all of us. I am available any day, periods 2 and 6. Please make the front desk know when you arrive.” Period.
  • Students often implement a “preemptive” strike, running home and telling their parent that the teacher (who said he would call today) is the worst person in the world and “He is the worst teacher!” Well, if we can’t overcome that complaint, maybe we are the worst teacher. (After all, someone has to be the worst!)

In spite of the fear and trepidation associated with calling home, teachers genuinely want to keep the parents abreast of all activities occurring in the school that affect the child. They just do not know how to do it effectively. (Again, it is all about the script!) In addition, we know that in order to have a student succeed to his or her potential, there must be an open and honest dialogue between teacher and parent, so whether a teacher feels comfortable calling home or not is irrelevant. Calls must be made and the teacher must make them.

Unfortunately for many teachers, a required phone call home often means they have waited until the student has committed several infractions – too long – to place the dreaded call. And at this point, what else could be expected but dread? This is the absolute worse – but most critical – time to call, because the teacher should be prepared to hear, “Why are you calling now? Why didn’t you call when this first happened?” And you know what? That parent will be 100% right! You will be the bad guy and worse than that, (because we have all been the bad guy at one time or another), you permitted this behavior to go unchecked until now. You have just lost a hefty amount of credibility in the parent’s view because he/she now knows you are not paying close attention to what their child is doing in school. Once again, they are right!

I find this response is particularly true coming from those parents who are “no strangers” to getting bad news from a teacher. (In other words – parents who receive frequent calls regarding their son or daughter.) In their mind it almost justifies why their child is exhibiting this behavior, because you didn’t catch it the first time around. Once more, they are right! But wait, it gets worse, because if – and now when – anything happens in the future, it will be your fault because you weren’t paying attention in the first place. You weren’t doing your job.

Remember: Call early, call often, and call well.

Dr. Michael Cubbin,  Teacher Practice Management Consulting

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