I’ve always maintained that teaching and learning is a three-way partnership between the student, the parents and the teacher. In previous years, at the start of the year, I have spent time nurturing relationships with students and their families. Last year, I didn’t feel like I gave this aspect of school life as much time and energy as I had in the past. Sure, I had great relationships with most of the students and their families, but not all of them. And, I paid the price for it; I felt like I was constantly chasing my tail, reacting to situations and defending myself. It wasn’t a pleasant way to exist. I was unhappy, my mental health suffered and from that, my physical health.
But I can’t change last year. I can’t change the interactions I had with families. However, I can change what I do now. This year, I vowed it would be different. I wanted to change the way I established relationships with families. These are some of the things I am doing to strengthen bonds with families:
- Conduct a family survey. This idea came from Pernille Ripp and is probably the best thing I’ve done to start off on a positive foot with parents. The information that came out of the survey has been, and will continue to be, incredibly useful. You can find a copy of my survey, which is based on Pernille’s, here.
- Contacting parents to discuss issues before they get out of hand. After reading the family surveys, I identified a couple of anxieties held by some parents, so I gave those families a quick call to chat about them more. As one parent told me, “It’s better to turn off the tap rather than mop up the mess.” I love this saying and used it when talking to parents at our recent Meet the Teacher evening. Some parents had similar questions about general issues, which I was also able to address at the Meet the Teacher evening.
- Calling parents for positive reasons. Parents always worry when the school calls – either their child is sick or has been misbehaving. I always begin a phone call with “Hi, it’s Anna here, your child’s teacher. Your child is fine! Do you have a few minutes to chat?” It only takes a few minutes out of your day, but means so much to parents; they really appreciate hearing some thing positive about their child.
- Inviting parents into our classroom, both the physical space as well as the virtual classroom. Last year, the Year 4 team began a once-a-term’Meet the …’ afternoon, with the focus changing according to what we were studying. Parents love coming in and chatting to ‘convicts’, ‘scientists’, ‘playwrights’ and, this year, ‘bloggers’. They always comment about how much students have learnt and how well they can articulate themselves. Parents are also invited to join us on our blogging journey by subscribing to both our class and individual blogs.
How do you connect with families and establish positive relationships?
We’ve all been there. Planned an incredible lesson and been so excited about how wonderfully it is all going to unfold. Only to have the lesson flop. The students just weren’t as excited as we thought they would be. They didn’t seem to get the explanations that you thought were so clear.
It is after lessons like this that we really need to reflect on what happened and why. But often this reflection occurs in private, or perhaps during a debrief with a colleague. Almost certainly only with adults. What if we asked the students? What if they told us what went wrong and their theories on why? What if they told us what excites them and what doesn’t?
The idea of student feedback has been playing on my mind over the past few weeks as I have participated in Pernille Ripp’s online book club and as the teachers gathered at school before the students returned. Sure, we do a once, perhaps twice, yearly student survey. But what if we were checking in with students on a more frequent basis? What if students were providing us with feedback on a weekly basis? How might we structure this so feedback becomes a seamless part of the classroom culture? So, for Term 1, I’m going to experiment with a weekly feedback form through the platform, Socrative. Anonymously, students can provide responses to several short questions that will remain the same for the term. I don’t want it to be an arduous process; but rather an integrated part of our class culture; just something that we do. The questions I’ve decided upon are:
- List three words that best describe our classroom this week.
- What is something you enjoyed about our classroom this week?
- What is some thing you didn’t enjoy about our classroom this week? What could we do differently?
- Give Miss Davidson ‘Two Stars and a Wish’ – two things she does well and something you’d like her to work on.
I tried this for the first time on Friday, after a week at school, and the results were interesting, albeit relatively unsurprising, which I suppose it the goal of something like this (after all, when we hand a parent a report card, we know we haven’t done our job if they get a surprise at the results). I jotted down the common ‘least enjoyed’ experiences and have begun making plans to improve these – differentiating our morning puzzles and discussing/exploring how we can support students who feel the need to call out and interrupt all the time.
Another question that I want to ask my students on a regular basis this year is ‘What do you want me to notice about you?’ I did this several times last year and the feedback was incredibly interesting.
- I want you to notice that I always try my hardest.
- I want you to know that I find it hard to listen sometimes.
- I want you to know that I don’t understand Maths very well.
- I want you to know that the classroom is sometimes too noisy for me to concentrate.
This year, I plan to weave this question into our newly established Reflection Journal.
What questions would you ask your students to gather feedback on your teaching?
The new school year started on Friday. I used to find the Friday start a little odd – what was the point of just one day? – but now I really value it. In just one day you can begin to establish the foundations of a positive class community – through fun and shared experiences – without students (or teachers!) getting too weary early on. We all leave school content, have the weekend to rest and then return for our first full week, ready to sink our teeth into learning. Many students on Friday told me that they felt nervous, but excited about the day. We even coined the term, ‘nervexcited’ as a way to explain our feelings of the first day of Year 4. All those nerves and the high level of excitement take up energy, so it is lovely that students are able to get a taste of life in Year 4 before a weekend to recharge.
The first day in 4D was a high energy one, filled with lots of community building tasks such as:
- A game of ‘Categories’ (kind of like musical chairs but with different categories called out) to learn about one another and what we all got up to over the holidays.
- A couple of picture story books (‘Wherever you Go’ by Pat Zietlow Miller and, for a bit of fun, ‘Dirty Dave the Bushranger’ by Nette Hilton and Roland Harvey, a favourite of my brother’s when he was young)
- An inference game, inspired by this blog post, where the students made inferences about me, their new teacher, based on the clues in my evidence bag (What can you infer about Miss Davidson based on this hiking boot, book, dog lead etc?)
- The ‘Coded Hundred Square’ Maths challenge, which required lots of teamwork, persistence and flexible thinking.
- The ‘Spaghetti and Marshmallow Challenge’, which required even more teamwork, persistence and flexible thinking. Both these challenges gave me a fascinating insight into the teamwork skills, use of different strategies as well as each individual’s level of persistence.
But, whilst building a sense of community in the 4D classroom was awesome, my favourite part of the day was when students and parents from the last two years popped into 4D to say hi. Throughout my teaching career, whilst I have been chasing new adventures and new experiences, I’ve moved schools a lot. One of the things that I really missed was being a part of a school community. On Friday, I had the beautiful feeling of feeling really connected to the school community. It was a lovely moment, the feeling of making new connections and rekindling old connections. It makes me excited for the year ahead and I’m looking forward to maintaining that sense of connection within the community throughout the year.
How do you build a sense of community in your classroom?