Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Communication: The Importance of Connection Between Teachers and Parents

This quote speaks volumes to me, "Without communication, there is no relationship. Without respect, there is no love. Without trust, there is no reason to continue." Communication is the starting point to all relationships, especially those with the parents of children that we serve every day in the classroom as teachers. Communication is an art and also a journey. It's never easy, but the investment of time is well worth the effort. Today, I would like to illustrate why communication is important for teachers to master, and steps that can be taken to become effective communicators.

What is the downside of ineffective classroom communication?

Parents love information. They want to know they have partners in their children's education. Lack of communication creates confusion, abandonment, and feelings of vulnerability on the part of the parents. This leads to a lack of respect between parents and teachers, which eventually erodes trust. Eventually, the lack of trust propels parents to reach for help outside of the classroom such as going directly to administration, the school board, or other teachers and parents for help. At this point, the relationship is at the breaking point. School life is difficult and burdensome.

What is the upside of effective classroom communication?

Parents love your classroom! They spread the word to other parents and the administration of the wonderful things happening every day. Parents will volunteer to come in and help tutor, work with special projects, or even co-lead events with you. They will listen during conferences, knowing you have their child's best interest at heart. School life is uplifting and inspiring.

As a teacher, which scenario would you choose?

Both situations may be led by highly competent teachers who strive to do the very best for their students. The problem lies in that one decided not to invest the time in parent relationships and communication, while the other did. This is the defining difference--time and commitment. Relationships and the communication needed to develop them takes time, and to get the highly rewarding results, teachers must be willing to invest the time into it. However, one of the largest factors is also consistency. Finding consistent methods of communicating, and then marketing those methods to ensure parents are informed.

Steps to Effective Parent Communication!

Please be warned that I use several strategies, because that is what it takes. Why? Because 100% of parents will never have all of these technologies at the same time. To ensure continuity, you must have a few different strategies.

  1. Daily Shout--Out:
  • Remind 101 is a great way to send a daily text and reminders to parents.
  • Group E-mail: I send a daily e-mail to all parents with homework and assignments attached. Get the e-mails of parents at the beginning of the year, and set up a group mailing.
  •  Twitter: Many school systems prefer Twitter as a social media source due to the nature of it's design. It is designed as a newsfeed. Therefore, it's great for sending out quick updates on the happenings of the classroom. This can be done during the day. My previous parents, especially younger ones, loved my Twitter updates and pictures of the happenings in the classroom.
   2. Weekly Updates:
  • Design a weekly newsletter with what is coming up. This can be digital or hard copy. In today's world though, digital seems more effective. Students often lose the hard copies. Therefore, a digital copy can be e-mailed, tweeted, texted, or placed on your teacher website, or edmodo page. This year I'm going to use the website https://www.smore.com/ to create my weekly digital flyers.
    3.  Monthly/Yearly Outlook:
  • Website: If your school offers you a teacher website, it would be a great idea to keep it updated. It is more effective not to have a website, then to have one that has outdated or no information on it. That will only cause stress and irritation with parents. However, a website can be an excellent resource for sustained communication for the year. It can hold resources, monthly calendars, classroom syllabus, and updates.
  • School Newsletters: Most schools create a monthly newsletter. Make sure to review them carefully, and remind parents on a weekly or daily basis of upcoming events.
Other reminders:
  • Send a postcard to all upcoming students before the school year begins. Introduce yourself, and highlight some important events in the coming year.
  • Call or e-mail parents when things are great! Call and send e-mails for no reason other than to praise a student for doing something great or for just having such fantastic parents!
  • Call when things go bad. This can be uncomfortable, but it must be done! If anything goes awry call the parents--don't e-mail in these cases.
  • Get business cards. This past year I created business cards, and passed them out any chance that I got. It had the school information as well as my e-mail address and twitter handle. Go to http://www.vistaprint.com/ to create. I did not spend more than $10, and had more than enough for the school year.
  • Get Feedback: Send out a monthly or bimonthly survey using websites like https://www.surveymonkey.com/ to parents and get their input. Make adjustments where necessary.

Finally, sit back and relax. Meditate and think what it's like to be a parent. What kind of communication would you want from your child's teacher? Brainstorm the answers that come to your mind, create a plan, and stay consistent.

Consistency is the key that unlocks it all. Parents, like our students, desire predictability. If you need help, ask a parent volunteer to help you.

Effective communication does require effort, but the rewards are wonderful. Happy parents make for happy teachers, which in turn creates happy students. All of this equates to a highly rewarding year for all.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Want to be a Teacher Leader under TKES? Here are 8 Simple Strategies!

Through my conversations with teachers, I've found many become frustrated at not receiving exemplary ratings on their teacher evaluations. Currently, under TKES (Teacher Keys Effectiveness System) teachers in the state of Georgia must demonstrate teacher leadership to obtain an exemplary rating on their teacher evaluations. The frustration often ends up an issue of semantics. What is the true meaning of teacher leadership according to TKES? 

Currently, I'm headed into my third year as a teacher under the TKES evaluation system. In the last two years I've received exemplary in professionalism (2 years) and communication (1 year) on my end of year summative evaluations. In these years, I've studied the TKES handbook extensively, and was intentional in the direction of teacher leadership that I wanted to take each year. I believe this intention was imperative for me to receive an exemplary rating (level four) on my summative evaluation, because the demonstration had to be continual throughout the year with documented proof of leadership. 

So, first let's look at what teacher leadership is not, under TKES? 

Teacher leadership is NOT demonstrating mastery of a skill in the classroom only. 
(A teacher may be a master teacher in the area of assessment, but if that knowledge only impacts the students in his classroom, he is not demonstrating teacher leadership, only mastery of the skill.)

That understanding is what upsets most teachers. Although, frustrated with this new knowledge, take heart, there are avenues to demonstrate that mastery, and demonstrate and document teacher leadership for TKES. 

(Warning to all potential teacher leaders! You will have to step out of your comfort zone. You will have to make the time. You will have to document. Above all--you can do it--if you want it!)

Next, how can teacher leadership be observed and obtained?

The goal of teacher leadership: keep it simple. 
(I would suggest focusing on one area of teacher leadership in the upcoming year. Stay focused, and keep the goal simple. That is the surest way of completion for a year of teacher leadership.)

Here is a list of simple (but takes commitment) ways to demonstrate teacher leadership. 

1. Lead a Teacher Book Club: If there is a book that you love, then speak with your principal on hosting a book club. This may be face-to-face weekly meetings or on a forum such as Twitter or an educational wiki or blog. Just plan, communicate, and make it work. Find a teacher and partner up to keep each other accountable. Also, if a PLU is in order, work with the administration to ensure the proper steps are taken to obtain it. It is a team effort.

2. Lead a Professional Development Session: Do you love a new type of technology? Are you the guru of formative assessments? Well, don't keep it to yourself. Ask the principal for time during a staff meeting or department meeting to share your discoveries. Have someone take notes or record it for documentation. 

3. Lead a Twitter Chat for your classroom, school, or district:  This school year, a principal in the county asked several teachers who might be interested in beginning an edchat on twitter for the system. I jumped on it because as a new teacher in the county I felt it would be a way for me to demonstrate my skills in leading projects. Initially, it took considerable work, no doubt about it, but it served as a continual demonstration of Level 4 teacher leadership in the area of professionalism. From the beginning, I invited teachers, educational authors, and speakers to host each week. This added more dimension to the chat, and also allowed for other teachers to demonstrate their teacher leadership, which could be documented for their TKES evaluation. Currently, #CowetaEdChat is still going strong, and I love coordinating opportunities for other teachers to showcase their skills and talents. 

4. Mentor a Teacher: This is a great way for veteran teachers to recharge their batteries. Find a new teacher and develop a rapport. Know that yes, new teachers are passionate, and may like their own ideas, but budding teachers can learn so much from veteran teachers who have witnessed the ebbs and flows of policy in education. Meet once a week, and document the discussion and progress. 

5. Get Published: Write an article on your area of expertise and submit it to educational blogs such as Edutopia and TeachThought, or try for an academic journal in your field. Writing creates something that others can learn from, and no other documentation is necessary. It's all there in black and white! 

6. Start a Blog and Share: Make a commitment to write once a week or twice a month on issues pertaining to education. As a teacher leader, write posts that will inform, guide, and lift up. Share your posts with teachers in your school, and your principal. Ask for their feedback. Encourage other teachers to write as well. 

7. Present at an EDCamp: Edcamps are sweeping the nation. Currently, I'm working with several edcamp organizers and fellow teachers to co-host an edcamp for the West Georgia District on Saturday, August 1st. Edcamps are teacher-driven and teacher-led on topics decided by the teachers who are presenting. What an amazing way to showcase your expertise in a face-to-face collaborative environment with other teachers. Again, have someone take notes, document the experience. 

8. Present at a Conference: Find a conference and present. You don't have to have years of teaching experience to present at a conference. If apprehensive, I suggest pairing up with someone to take the pressure off. There are so many conferences, and all it takes is finding a niche, creating, and presenting. 

Remember, that in obtaining an exemplary rating of teacher leadership, it often means going above and beyond the call of duty. Serving on leadership teams are often just part of the job description, and may or may not reflect exemplary status in the eyes of your administrator. It is best to make a plan for the year, or at least highlight some goals, and then speak with your principal about them, making sure your visions are aligned. In that way, your administration will understand what you are striving for, and they can help you along the way to achieve your goals. 

Finally, take heart! Teacher leadership is achievable by anyone who wants it! Just remember to create a plan, communicate with your administration, and carry it out throughout the year documenting and uploading to the TKES platform along the way. It takes commitment, but it's worth it!

Side Note: The following is a post that I wrote around this same time last year. Looking back it's funny that I did receive exemplary and mastery in the areas that I wanted to focus on for this past school year. This only supports my own belief in the importance of the written reflection to obtain personal growth. As they say, "goals that are not written down are just wishes." Here is the link: http://middlegradesteacher.blogspot.com/2014/07/tkes-proficient-vs-exemplary.html