Teachers may spend their days confidently addressing a room full of squirming or distracted students. But when it comes to having a chat with parents, these same teachers may get so nervous they avoid the interactions.
“Many teachers that I have talked to don’t like to call parents,” says Crystal Frommert, a middle school math teacher at a private school in Houston. “We think that it takes too much time, or we think that it might turn contentious.”
And these days teachers can turn to other means of communication, like emailing notes to parents, blasting out weekly newsletters or relying on parents to check their students’ progress through digital class portals.
But Frommert argues that these other means should not substitute for the occasional phone call or in-person conversation. In fact, digital tools can lead to misunderstandings.
She’s learned that the hard way. One day she dashed off a quick email to a parent who hadn’t filled out a digital health form for her child. It was meant as a gentle nudge, but the parent took it as terse and demanding, and complained to the head of the school about Frommert’s tone.
Frommert shares her experiences and lessons communicating with parents in a new book, “When Calling Parents Isn’t Your Calling.”
We connected with Frommert for this week’s EdSurge Podcast. And she notes that parent communication can be more complicated than ever these days.
EdSurge: You’ve been teaching for more than 20 years. What changes have you seen in communication between teachers and parents?
Crystal Frommert: One of the things that I think is a negative change is that online gradebooks are quite common everywhere. Not every school has them, but most schools I’ve heard of have an online gradebook.
Some of these online gradebooks will even alert the parent when a grade has been posted. So you will be a parent at your job doing your daily work, and you will get an alert on your phone that your son or daughter made a 72 on a test — which I think is horrific. It’s horrific for the parent, because that’s distracting to them. It’s horrific for the child, because the child didn’t even have a chance to explain him or herself, or or bring the paper home to have a conversation. Because there’s always a story behind that grade.
And what happens is the parent has higher anxiety because they’re getting dinged on their phone or they’re checking there. Maybe they just want to check the online grade book and they’ll send an email to the teacher. And they wonder, ‘Why is my son missing an assignment?’ Why did my daughter make a 62 on this test?’ Or even worse, they will text the child themselves during the school day, saying ‘Why does your teacher say you have a zero on this assignment?’ ‘Why did this happen?’ And I can’t imagine the pressure that those kids feel and the parents feel.
I’m the parent myself, and I have turned off all of my access to look at the online gradebook because I prefer to have actual conversations with my teenager about how she’s doing.
And I was much better as a teacher about communicating a child’s progress before the online gradebook, because I knew there wasn’t a backup. There was nothing communicating their grades. I was the person communicating their grades.
And now it’s very easy to become complacent and think, ‘Well, they could always check online if they really want to know what’s going on.’ But that’s not a substitute for actually having communication.
Do you feel like the percentage of time of the job it takes for parent communication is higher now than when you started teaching?
My very first year of teaching I taught in rural Texas — this was the early 2000s, when email was not that common — so all of my communication was by phone and in person. And it’s hard to compare, because now you can sit down and shoot off an email in just a few seconds. So that part seems faster. But it’s also more frequent. So it’s really hard to compare — if I’m making face-to-face conversations or phone calls — to compare the dozens of short emails that I’m sending or that I’m getting that are pinging me in my inbox. So I think it’s just very different. If there’s more communication, it’s just quite a different type of communication.
These days many teachers have weekly newsletters they send to parents as well, and as a parent myself I get these for my two kids. But as someone who writes newsletters here, I know that can be a lot of work. What do you think of this trend?
Jennifer Gonzalez, with Cult of Pedagogy, she has a post called ‘Why no one reads your class newsletter.’ And I love that. A colleague of mine who’s also a dad, he said, ‘yeah, I’m gonna be honest with you. I don’t start reading your narrative until you mentioned my kid’s name.’
And so what I’ve done is, I now start with the kid’s name. I’ll say, ‘It is a pleasure to have Jeff in my class. We are learning about solving quadratic equations.’ And so I got the parent’s attention right there because they see their kid’s name right at the top. And I think the same with newsletters. If it’s not something that they’re going to need to take action on,they just sit there in the inbox. Parents’ inboxes are full, too, and they’re pinged all day long with information overload. So if there is a newsletter, try to make it more meaningful and have action items for the family — practical tips for families that they could do something at home — rather than just here’s the curriculum, because I can see that getting lost in an inbox.
You note that when parents aren’t engaged, people criticize that. But so many parents these days might have jobs that aren’t flexible or they just can’t take as much time.
Yeah, I think there’s always extremes. There’s extreme parents you can never get ahold of. And then there’s also the extremes where you just cannot get them away from your classroom door. So I’m not saying either extreme is good, but there’s a huge range in between, and as educators, sadly, I think we’re very quick to judge when a parent doesn’t write back or doesn’t seem to care. And that’s not fair because we never really know what’s going on in someone’s house.
And I can give you an example of a story that’s happened to a friend of mine. She was director of a dance team, and after practice, every single practice, this girl was not picked up for like 45 minutes after — every time. And it’s pretty easy to jump to, ‘Well, the family just doesn’t care.’ But she became curious … and she asked the teenager, ‘What’s going on?’ And she said, ‘I’m not really supposed to talk about this, but I have a brother who has a major health issue, and it’s really difficult for my mom to leave him alone, so I have to wait for someone else to come home to take care of him before she can leave and pick me up.’
And she said, ‘Oh, I appreciate you telling me that. I will keep that confidential.’ But she did use that information to have a conversation with the parent, and it was a conversation of, ‘How can I help you? How can we find a solution for this?’ And they did somehow. So I think it’s really important that we stay curious.
The demographics of the country are changing these days. How much language and cultural barriers can play a role in parent communication?
I work at an international school. Our students represent over 60 countries. We have dozens of languages that are spoken in the homes of our families. And from my experience I’ve noticed that when someone is writing an email and it’s in their second language or third language, it becomes quite difficult sometimes to get the tone to come across appropriately.
And I know this because I’ve written emails in Spanish. I’m not great at Spanish, and I’m sure they came across very harsh and abrupt. So I probably should not be writing emails in Spanish if I want my tone to be lighthearted and kind.
So I’ve learned that when I do get an email that just seems like, Oh, this tone is a little bit off. I’m gonna pick up the phone, and you’re gonna hear something completely different most of the time.
Accessibility is extremely important. So if a parent feels like they cannot talk to the teacher because of the language barrier, I feel that it’s a responsibility of the school to make sure there are translators available. That there is someone available for that in-person meeting or someone on a conference call who can be there to help with that language barrier. And that should not be up to the family; that should be up to the school to make sure that’s provided.
We are hearing more examples, especially with the culture wars in education these days, of parents being really angry, and even sometimes abusive of teachers. Are you seeing more of that?
I did a little bit, and it had to do a lot with some parents who were afraid of critical race theory. And I think that’s died down a little bit. It had seemed to hit its spike around the pandemic. That was really a hard time, and I hope that that does not resurge again.
I put a chapter in the book about that, of having a conversation with the family, that we are coming from a place of partnership, so no matter where you and I are on the political spectrum, we have a common goal, and that’s the success of your child. I want your child to learn. You want your child to learn. I want your child to be safe. You want your child to be safe. Those are things that we can absolutely, 100 percent agree on. So then we can set that as a foundation of going forward.
And we can discuss the things that are less important than those: learning and safety. After that we can get into the details of the type of book that I’m assigning in my class and coming from a place of research, explaining why it’s important for students to read books from diverse authors and diverse voices. And not coming from it in an attacking way, or defensive way, but coming from research, and how this is going to help your child learn there. You may not always come to an agreement, and that is OK. And it’s not always going to be sunshine and rainbows. But not getting defensive is extremely important. And staying professional is going to help that conversation create itself into a partnership rather than a conflict.
Are teachers trained enough to handle these types of situations?
More needs to be done in teacher training. When I was a student teacher I sat in on a few parent conferences, but they are always the nice ones, the easy ones. And if there was one that was gonna get a little tough, they did not invite me to come in, because maybe they’re trying to protect me as a student teacher. I don’t know but I think that.
And I’ve taught as an adjunct at a university for seniors who are doing their student teaching. And so I have a little bit of experience with this, and I think that those student teachers very much could use that experience of being in the tough meetings.