THE BLOG

The Parent-Teacher Phonecall Needs a Makeover

02/04/2013 08:37 EST | Updated 04/06/2013 05:12 EDT

It's little recess.

I have maybe nine minutes to run to the washroom, grab a glass of water in the staff kitchen, and check my mailbox in the office. En route, I duck into an adjacent classroom to mine so as to make a quick phone call. To a parent. The call is regarding a preference her child has about an optional in-school activity, and I just want to double-check with the mom that this student is truly opting out with parental consent. When I make the contact, I can sense the panic in her voice as she picks up the receiver. And I can also tell that she thinks an unpleasant report will follow the preliminary greetings.

And then she says to me: "I always worry when you call."

I am a bit taken aback. I do not take myself to be an intimidating teacher, nor do I see myself as an unapproachable person. But I get what she is saying. When the teacher calls, usually something unpleasant is inevitable coming down the line. It's just the way the cookie crumbles.

Why is that the case? As both a parent and teacher myself, I can put myself in both roles. I know what it is like to receive the phone call from a teacher and I also know what it is like to make it. Speaking as a parent, usually when a teacher has called our home -- and (thankfully?) these calls have been quite rare -- it has to do with a fairly important issue.

The issue could be minor or of a more serious nature, but there is generally something that I, as a parent, am expected to respond in some proactive way. And by that same token, most of the phone calls I have made as a teacher have been the same: calls with regards to something student-related that requires parental attention.

And, of course, there is nothing wrong with this model of interaction. Per say.

Last year, a woman with far more experience than I in the education field came to our school to speak to the staff. In her discussion, she broached the topic of communication with parents. And one thing she said stuck in my head and has challenged me ever since. I still think about her idea often. And it was this: her practice as a teacher was to make a call home to one set of parents of a student in her class each day after school. And the nature of the call was to simply tell the parents how much she enjoyed the child as a member of her class. Nothing unpleasant, nothing related to an issue. Purely a phone call to say how much she liked their child and valued them as a student.

I can't get that image out of my head. The image of the dumb-founded look on that parent's face when they held the telephone receiver in their hand. Because truth be told. After the parent had gotten over the initial shock that their child was not in trouble, the shock that someone had made a specific call home to them with the sole purpose of stating how lovely their child was, would be enough to knock a parent over with a feather. Believe me, I can just imagine. I am a parent too, remember.

So here's the deal.

Making a phone call a day is doable. It is a five-minute commitment. And it takes the time one might otherwise use to walk through the school once. And what a gift that would be: to call solely for the purpose of making someone's day a little brighter. Brighter both for the parent. And brighter for the child. And it could very well be the change that everyone is always talking about.

A teacher could be "the change." COULD BE THE CHANGE!

The other evening I had to make a call from home to a parent regarding a rather serious issue that had come up in the course of the school day. The tension was inevitable in the phone wires and I felt the need to break the tension somehow, with whatever means I had at my disposal.

After getting through the preliminaries, after addressing the issue and ensuring the child in question was going to be okay, I remembered something funny about the situation that was just one of those things that sometimes serve to be the silver lining of an otherwise dark cloud. As I considered ending the conversation, I decided on a whim to share the funny story with the parent.

And by the end of the story, we were both crying with laughter, humor that is often the bonus result that comes with acknowledging life in all its complexity. The fact that we can take a step back from life and laugh about it is sometimes all that carries us through the hard times. And when parents and teachers can laugh together, it makes all the difference.

I'd like to say that I am the kind of teacher that calls home every night. I don't. But I certainly aspire to be her. And aiming for a target and setting the goals to do so is a very good place to start. Because one never knows what impact that one telephone call might make in even one's child's life.

And one never knows which child just might be the starfish for whom it really matters.