The problem with communication

I like to think that I’m a fairly good communicator. For every 1 student who says I don’t make sense, 9 other students tell me how much they appreciate my methods of making complex concepts clear for them.

Yet every year, I still get email messages like these:

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Parents are so confused as to why their middle school teachers so very rarely contact them, even when things are going less than well for their student. The first time they hear of their child’s poor progress often happens in the form of an official looking transcript in the mail. Unbelievable, right?!

Well, believe it or not, there are reasons for the madness. And there are ways to help yourself about it.

Secondary school is NOT elementary school

Elementary school teachers see one class of 20-30 students all day, everyday. Most elementary schools hold teacher/parent conferences at least once per year, regardless of how well the student is performing. Families not only can pick up a school or classroom newsletter in person when they pick up their kids, but they also see the teacher face-to-face at the door at times. Parent skills are still needed as volunteers for book fairs, craft fairs, costume parades, and field trips.

Secondary school – both middle and high school – teachers see 5 classes of 30-40 students per day, but not always everyday depending on if the school site has block day schedules. Most secondary schools hold teacher/parent conferences at maximum once per year. Families increasingly rely on carpools, after-school care, or their walking/biking for their student to get home. So even if there is a school newsletter to pick up, it’s probably easier not to. Craft fairs and costume parades are nonexistent. Field trips take all day, perhaps in a different town a couple hours away. Parents – with the looming cost of college quickly approaching – are pulling more shifts and working harder for their paycheck than every before.

And that’s the way it should be. Secondary school shouldn’t be exactly like elementary school. It would be impractical, it wouldn’t serve to teach our students the communication skills they need, and it would just be down right weird.

So if the school doesn’t reach out to parents in secondary school anymore, how do we communicate?

Parents: First, rephrase that question to something more like, “WHAT and HOW are the ways the school communicates to me that are different from how it was done at my elementary school?” Once you’ve done that, you’re mostly golden.

The biggest change from elementary to secondary school communication is going from an intimate, 1-on-1 style to mass-comm. On an intellectual level, most people understand that secondary teachers have a lot more students. But rarely in my experience have I come across anyone – parent, student, regular layperson, even educators themselves – who fully understand what this means on a daily level. So let me break it down:

I have 150 students this year. My work day is 7.17 hours, or approximately 430 minutes. 430 ÷ 150 is approximately 2.9 minutes. I have approximately 2.9 minutes per student to:

  • assess their individual needs
  • plan and deliver an effective lesson
  • provide meaningful feedback on their work
  • monitor their classroom behavior, and intervene as necessary
  • collect and organize their paperwork, grade it, then return it
  • communicate to them what they need to do next
  • communicate to their families their progress in class

And I haven’t had lunch, or yet figured out where on earth chrome book cart I had checked out today went. Or peed.

In juxtaposition, elementary school teachers have between 14.3 to 21.5 minutes per student to do the same. That’s approximately SEVEN TIMES the amount of time a secondary teacher has. Mass communication probably also happens at the elementary level, but people know that they can still approach the teacher 1-on-1 fairly easily. At the secondary level, mass comm is the air we breathe.

Secondary schools should still have a newsletter though – it’s probably mass emailed to you, rather than passed out as a hard copy. Which means two glitches could happen:

  1. Because you probably have not updated your contact information with the school since your children entered that school, say in 6th grade, there is a chance that the email on file is no longer the email you actually check regularly.
    • The solution: Update your contact info with the front office. Don’t do it through the teacher. The teacher has no access whatsoever to change your personal contact information for you, no matter how much you, or they, wish they did.
  2. Because it is a mass mailer, your email may have probably shunted the school newsletter to your junk mail folder.
    • The solution: First, check your junk mail folder. If you find any messages from your school there, move that message to your inbox, or appropriate folder, and then ADD the school’s contact email to your address book. Once an email address is in your address book, then your email shouldn’t shunt further messages to the junk mail folder
    • Otherwise: Do #1 above.

Most secondary schools also have some sort of web-based attendance and grade book system. Learn how to create your own account, how your student can create their own account, and check in on it at least once per week. Each of your student’s teachers should also have some sort of online presence as well. At my school, our online grade book has a feature where teachers can link their websites to their grade book.

If you can, participate in a parent group. Nowadays, you are probably not limited to the white-bread PTA. All California schools are required to have some sort of school-site committee, or an LCAPP committee and an English Learner parent group. On top of these, my school has a Padre Unidos, an African American Alliance Network, an LGBT network, an athletics boosters, and the parent volunteer group associated with the leadership/activities class. Also, if your school has a student run newspaper, video journalism broadcast feed, or a Remind app group, then you should also subscribe to those.

Messages from the principal will usually go out as a mass auto-dialer, although these are few and far between (an elementary school principal has to oversee and manage 20-30-odd staff; while most secondary school principals have 70+ staff, and a larger campus with a student population more likely to graffiti, steal, and do other property damage). Everything in the newsletter email section above applies to phone numbers as well.

If worse comes to worst, don’t be afraid to reach out first. Email is typically best, otherwise, set up a face-to-face appointment. I cannot have a deep phone conversation about your student’s progress during the school day because your student’s 34 other classmates are waiting for me to do something on the other line. I’m usually not in my own classroom in the afternoons due to meetings and staff collaborations, and I need to protect my mornings before school in order to prepare and get my ‘battle gear’ on, if you know what I mean.

Teachers are happy enough to talk to parents, especially those who want to know how they can help their student improve.

Teachers: Think outside the box. There are tons of apps that can help with communication. Take a risk and try one. Make it known that you are experimenting with it, and have a learning curve yourself. Parents are more likely to be forgiving of an accidental butt-dial than complete silence from the teacher.

Learn about the features that may be already embedded into the tech that you use for school everyday. For me, I do mass email messages to parents and students a week prior to progress reports, and then again a week prior before the end of the quarter. I follow up the message by using the grade report feature on my web-based grade book to send grades to each individual student and their families. Granted, there are times when this schedule falls to the wayside. It’s ok. Just pick it back up again. You can do it!

Ok, cool. I’m in on all this mass comm stuff. But my student is FAILING. How come the teacher hasn’t notified me yet?

Parents: First, I need you to define what ‘failing’ means to you. Then, I need you to compare your definition to the following:

  • A letter grade of F ranges anywhere from 0% to 59%. The needs of the student with a 59% is very different from the needs of the student with a 0%.
    • In addition, the needs of a student who works SUPER hard and still has a 59% is also vastly different from the needs of the student with a 59% because she or he has completed and turned in 3 out of the past 30 assignments. Guess which one a typical teacher will spend more of their limited time on?
  • Parent/student/teacher conferences are officially held once per year, and only for the students who have multiple Ds and Fs
  • And if their Ds and Fs are not in either English or math, then there are times when schools don’t even bother. We have enough to get on with.
  • An 8th grade student at my school can have 2 Ds and Cs in everything else, and they’ll still walk at advancement
  • Until the day public school has a place to put students who are failing massively past the last day of their secondary grade level, then there really is not urgency to help those who are

I’m glad you have super high standards for your student, because I do too. But a letter grade of B in my class is actually what it is supposed to mean: above average. Just because I’m Asian, doesn’t mean that I consider my Bs to be an ‘Asian F.’

Second, I need you to refresh your memory of the expectations of secondary school in general, and your teacher’s classroom specifically. You got it? Ready? Then here goes:

You, the parent/guardian, are not in my class. Your student is.

I am not judging you, nor your parenting skills, if your student has an F. Their grade and citizenship marks are entirely their own production. I expect my students to keep up with the homework, to participate fully in class, to ask clarifying questions, to be aware of what they need to study, and to actually do so. Any student doing any of these things with any kind of fidelity have always passed my class, and will continue to do so. Any student not doing these things, then well.

Your student is also not a baby anymore. They need to learn that their actions have consequences – and they are old enough to feel the consequences for themselves. Middle school is that weird and wonky field where grades kinda matter and kinda don’t at the same time. No one past their 9th grade teacher will look at their middle school grades ever again. If a student has a tendency towards failing of their own accord, then now is the time to let them fail, when the stakes are low and their habits are still malleable. So go ahead, take that phone away. Lock up their game system. Change that wifi password. Go old school and ground them. If it’s an option, bring them to work with you after school is over. You have to go back to work after you pick them up. Why can’t they?

Third, I need to you to re-read the section above about mass communication. You know that online grade book? The fact that I’ve posted the grade there means I’ve communicated it to you. I’ve also passed back the test in class, gone over it with my students, fielded questions, and brought up the most missed questions again and again as warm-ups, homework, classwork, group work, projects, and extra credit. I’ve reminded students on a daily basis that they might see these problems again on a future assessment, even if we’ve moved on to a different topic. I’ve offered both mandatory and voluntary tutoring sessions. The ways to relearn the topic, and to recover the grade, are already in play – announced in class and accessible to all students, with reasonable due dates.

If your student chooses not to do any of that, then well. This experience of failure might be a good thing for them in the long run.

And if it isn’t a good thing. If it is another action that fits their pattern, then both you and I and everyone at school already know this. This kind of kid has been on our radar for a long time, possibly since kindergarten. Mike Mattos, the creator of the Response to Intervention, would call these students ‘Tier 3.’ And if you want the school to help them, then you need to skip to the bottom section of this post.

Teachers: All I ask is that you update your grade book, and reply to emails with clarifying questions in a timely manner. That’s all. Please. Pretty please with a cherry on top? PLEASE?!

Ok, sure. I get it. A teacher has a lot to do, and I need to check the online grade book and their website. And it’s my student’s responsibility. But what about the counselor? What do they do all day? How come they haven’t contacted me?

Parents: According to this article, the ideal ratio of students to counselors is 250:1. I can tell you right now that this ratio does not exist at most schools. It certainly does not exist at my school, where it’s closer to 450:1.

On top of which, counselors are more and more often getting called on to handle behavior – social, emotional, interpersonal, intrapersonal, etc. They manage aggressive students after a fight, girl-boy drama, teen depression, bullying, both social media and IRL, sex education, mindfulness sessions, family drama, students with mental health issues, foster youth, chronic absentees, stress, 504 and SST cases, and so much more.

If your counselor hasn’t personally contacted you – please take that as a good sign.

Teachers: What I’ve always wanted to do is to create a system to work a lot closer with counselors. I’m lucky to work with some great ones, and we’ve been able to do a lot. Yet there is so much more to do. It can’t be done by any one single person. Yet, we each individually have so much on our plates that meeting as a group feels like a chore right now.

Whoa. Ok. How can I help?

Both parents and teachers: Now you’re talking!

First, encourage your local representatives – state and federal – to visit your local school and shadow a teacher or counselor for a day. Invite them to teach a class, sit in on a group counseling session, to a PTA meeting, a board meeting. Write them an email about your passion for education in this country, and that we as a nation need to support it better and more often than ever before.

Second, know that you and your children’s secondary teachers are probably more on the same side than you are with your child. No matter how wonderful a kid can be, they have this funny tendency to freeze up and make some poor choices. And usually, no one but them can see these poor choices. Sometimes their peers can. Next, the quad and cafeteria supervisors can. Middle school students sometimes act one way towards one adult, and another towards another. I blame this entirely on human nature.

Be ok with checking. Make your student empty their backpack in front of you. Walk your student into their classroom before school starts and watch them hand over their late work to the teacher. RESIST THE URGE TO DO IT FOR THEM.

It’s hard. I know, I’m with you. It’s hard when you are divorced from your child’s father/mother, and not in the ‘we’re not married anymore, but we’re still cool, and I know my ex-whoever is very committed to our kids, as am I’ kinda way. It’s hard when they go to the other house and you have no control over what school work happens (or does not happen) there.

It’s hard when you have to work full-time. Even harder if you, like me, live in the California Bay Area and commute on average 40 minutes each way. You leave the house before your kid is up. You trust that they will catch the bus on time. You get back after they should be in bed, but if they happen to be up still you want to spend it with family time rather than on school work.

Believe me when I say that your child will have a much stronger memory and value of family if you make family time BE school work as well. You do it together. You learn it together. You spend time pondering difficult and unfamiliar math problems like it’s a game together. You research the Civil War together. You read their English essays and poems and have deep, philosophical discussions together. You are the f***ing Kennedy’s and their intellectual dinner conversations, and you ROCK it. One of my favorite memories of my mom is when she would drill me on vocab for Chinese school while I brushed my teeth. She would fill the sink with super hot water, steam up the mirror, and make me write my characters in the fog.

I have no memory whatsoever of any family vacations we’ve taken, or game nights we’ve had, or movies we’ve watched together. I used to think we just never did any of those things, because we didn’t have the money, but my older cousins say otherwise. They would visit from wherever they were studying in college, and my parents would take us all over the place.

But nope, no recollection whatsoever. My strongest memory, and hence my strongest personal value transmitted from my parents? => Doing good, solid work together. No wonder I became a teacher.




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