Kelley Combs, an elementary special education teacher in Fox Lake, Illinois, used to give out her cellphone number to parents. Not anymore.
“That was not my best plan,” Combs says. “I would have parents send me messages over the weekend and expect replies. I would get a text at 6 a.m. on a Sunday morning asking about something.”
Now, Combs uses online tools to communicate with parents. These tools—including email, mobile apps and the parent portals of learning management systems—allow educators to keep lines of communication open without the risk of late-night phone calls. But these tools can become overwhelming, too, and can create confusion with parents, unless they’re used strategically.
Follow these tips to get the most out of online parent communication.
If you’re not careful, email can take up more time than phone calls. A message here and there to clarify a rule or set up a meeting is one thing. A constant back-and-forth to hash out everything from assignment grades to social skills is another.
“Last year there were a couple of days when I was at my wit’s end, where I spent two and a half hours emailing parents,” says Stefanie Curry, a second-grade teacher in Chicago. “That’s when I went to my principal and said, ‘This is too much.’ It was taking away from planning time, prepping time and student time, to be honest.”
The problem, Curry says, is that she made herself too accessible. Her new rule is that she’ll hold off on answering emails until the end of the day. But really, there’s no harm in a 24-hour (or even 48-hour) reply policy for non-urgent messages. It will slow the back-and-forth, and can also help cool off emotional exchanges.
If your school uses an online learning management system, the parent portal can give parents constant insight into their children’s grades. But if parents don’t understand those grades (and especially if the grades seem low), this access can lead to confusion, or even anger.
Julie Lyman, an elementary reading specialist in Chicago, says that teachers at her school follow district policy and give students a “C” for work that meets grade-level standards—a grade that is seen as tantamount to failing by many parents, until they learn the school’s policies.
“I advise teachers to be very clear as to what the grades are based on, when they do an open house or during conferences, to be clear on what the grades are communicating,” Lyman says.
Barbara Martinez, a kindergarten teacher in Orlando, Florida, uses the ClassDojo app to track student behavior and share the data with parents in real time. “The students want to earn compliments, and they’re excited that their parents get to see them,” she says. “I’m constantly watching kids to see when I can give them a compliment, and parents are hearing more good things than negative.”
The parents are happy to get little notifications about their children sharing and listening, but their attitudes might change if they were instead seeing a constant stream of notifications about their children talking out of turn and pushing each other. So, Martinez saves most negative behaviors for phone calls, when she can have a more personal conversation.
You’re too busy teaching to curate a glossy classroom Instagram feed. But there are times when sharing a simple photo really can communicate more than a wordy email.
Allison Hogan, a first-grade teacher in Dallas, Texas, uses an app called PhotoCircle to share real-time images from her classroom. It helps parents quickly grasp what their children really do at school, without requiring them to read a lengthy description.
“Parents love it, because it opens the classroom up,” Hogan says. “One parent said, ‘I am now a fly on the wall of my child’s classroom.’”
Hogan also uses the app on field trips to let parents know their kids are safe. On a particularly rainy visit to the zoo, for example, Hogan sent parents a picture of her students huddled in a shelter, warm and dry. “I’m able to ease any apprehension and give reassurance,” she says.
If possible, try to give parents more than one way to connect with you online. Some parents may never log into a learning management system, but constantly use mobile apps on their phones. Others may not have a smartphone, but check their email every day.
Hogan asks parents during conference time which communication methods they prefer. “You have to know your audience,” she says. “If they’re more on email, I’m happy to send an email. But I have to be able to reach the people I need to reach.”