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It Takes a Village: Rethinking Ways to Connect With Families in a Virtual World

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“It takes a village to raise a child” is a proverb reflecting the spirit of several African cultures that understand children benefit greatly when raised with the support of a strong community. It is a belief that is reinforced in schools across the globe through the development of teacher-family partnerships and that sets the stage for a successful school year. Strong partnerships make families an educator’s ally and pillar of support.

For many educators and administrators, the start of the 2020–2021 school year was like no other and proved to be incredibly taxing. Educators were challenged with changing many things they knew and loved about teaching. The summer months were spent rethinking and redoing lesson plans, and designing virtual classrooms or redesigning classroom and school spaces to align with social distancing guidelines. How the pandemic affected our students and their families was also on educators’ minds. While the pandemic altered many of our traditional practices and thinking about what school is and what school looks like, the one thing that it did not change is the importance of cultivating a relationship between school and home to build the “village” necessary to support students. By making efforts to connect with families—by nurturing collaboration and communication—educators can build a strong school-home connection that benefits our community of learners.

Connect

We have all been affected differently during this pandemic, and the same holds true for our families. It’s important when initiating relationships with students’ families that we come from a place of understanding and empathy. We are all trying to work our way through current circumstances the best we can while keeping the same goal in mind: to make this school year the best we can for our students. By prioritizing understanding at the start of the year and continuing throughout in an effort to learn more about each family’s situation, the stage can be set for a strong partnership based on open communication and understanding. Once we are aware of each family’s situation, we are better able to meet their child’s educational needs and further support their academic and social growth. Displays of understanding, empathy, and kindness as we get to know and connect with families will be remembered and will help to facilitate the development of a yearlong positive partnership.

Consider the following ideas as you work to establish connections with families:

  • Use Survey Monkey or Google Forms to gather information. At the start of the year, this information might include their preferred method of communication (i.e., phone call, email, text), their hopes and dreams for their child this school year, and other information you might find helpful. Consider using Survey Monkey or Google Forms to check in with families at the end of each grading cycle to make sure you have the most up-to-date information.
  • Set up one-to-one virtual meetings with families throughout the year using Zoom or Google Meet. Meeting face-to-face this way can be beneficial in building your relationship.
  • Set aside time each week to make individual phone calls, send a positive text message, or email an encouraging note to parents about their child.

Engage and Collaborate

Once we have an understanding of the needs of our families, we can begin to set the stage for family engagement and collaboration. Because of the lack of a physical space or limitations placed on adults visiting the classroom, it is important that educators continue to consider ways to involve families in their child’s schooling. When students see teachers and their families collaborate and interact with one another in ways that are positive, it strengthens their understanding of collaboration and their mindset toward school.

Consider the following ideas as you engage and collaborate with families:

  • Read-Aloud Videos. Ask families if they would like to send in a video of a family member reading a story to the class. This video can be sent to you and then shared with the class for everyone to enjoy.
  • Family Videos. Encourage families to record a short video highlighting their family to be shared with the class. Highlights could include pets, hobbies, or favorite activities.
  • Morning Meeting Virtual Guest. Invite families to join the class as a virtual guest during a Morning Meeting or Responsive Advisory Meeting. As a guest, the family member could participate in the components of the meeting.
  • Closing Circle Virtual Guest. Have families join the class as virtual participants during closing circle. For example, they could participate in a group activity, such as Love it or Leave it or Just Like Me.
  • Family Interest and Expertise Survey. Consider gathering areas of interest and areas of expertise as they relate to the content to be taught during the year.
  • Take the responses into consideration to see with whom you might collaborate in order to enhance students’ learning. For example, if your class is studying plants, you might invite a student’s family member who has an interest in gardening or works at a local gardening center to join the class virtually to share their knowledge. Students could prepare questions ahead for the family member that would springboard their learning of plants.

Rethinking ways to invite families into virtual classrooms helps families and teachers get to know each other in a new and different way, and opens up opportunities for all families to engage and collaborate with the learning happening at school. Families often want to involve themselves in their child’s school day and see what is happening when their child is at school. Using videos, Zoom, Google Meet, and interest/expertise surveys gives families opportunities to engage in their child’s learning and collaborate with teachers as a way to enhance their child’s learning.

Communicate

Effective communication is key to any positive working relationship. This is especially true for families and educators, and it is even more pertinent today. As school environments change, we need to develop new ways of cultivating family engagement and sharing information with families. With the move toward virtual education, the use of two-way communication platforms can provide educators and families the ability to quickly send messages back and forth. When families can communicate in this way with a teacher—whether to ask questions about school or gather clarification around schoolwork or related technology—we are letting them know that the school values their participation in their child’s education, that we are in this together, and that teachers are here to support them throughout the school year.

Due to the increase in electronic communications for families, they may be receiving more emails and digital reminders than normal. This can be especially true for families with multiple students in different grade levels or students with multiple teachers. To avoid overwhelming families, consider working with your colleagues to decide on the best digital communication tools for everyone to use within your grade level or schoolwide. This will help keep communications with families streamlined, manageable, and sustainable. What follows is a list of digital tools to help enhance and streamline communication between school and home.

  • Applications (Apps): Here are a few popular communication tools used by educators to initiate two-way conversations, share important information, and help support family engagement.
    • Remind: A communication platform that provides easy communication in real time (remind.com)
    • Talking Points: A messenger tool that can auto-translate messages into over 100 different languages (talkingpts.org)
    • ClassTag: A messaging tool for easy scheduling of conversations or conferences (classtag.com)
  • Smore.com: This site provides templates for newsletters.
  • Social media: Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram are platforms that can be used to share information in real time with families.

It is important to note that before choosing a digital tool or social media platform, you should check your school’s communication guidelines and review your school’s social media policies. This will help guide your decision on which resource might be best for you.

When you have determined a communication plan that best fits your needs and the needs of the families you work with, share the plan with them, along with guidelines for the successful use of the communication tools. Consider too that we all have different comfort levels and skills related to the use of technology, so be sure to plan how you might support your students’ families to ensure that all are comfortable with the digital tools used.

Relationship building is ongoing and will be a focus throughout the school year. The more time and energy put into building family-school partnerships, the stronger those relationships will be and the more you can rely on them during the most difficult times of the school year. The pandemic has changed education and how educators approach teaching, and this is the time that we need our “village” the most. Families are relying on teachers to keep their children safe and help them enjoy the new virtual school, and teachers are relying on families for understanding and support. For teachers and families to do their best work, we need each other. Teacher-family partnerships are a pivotal part of the work happening in classrooms this school year, and when strong, supportive partnerships are apparent, the possibilities are endless.

Here are some proactive tips to consider when sharing a communication tool and plan with families:

  1. Share your hours of availability. Let families know when you will be able to respond to their messages and how long it might take to receive a response from you.
  2. Clearly communicate where important class information can be found on the school website and on your class’s web page.
  3. Send a screenshot or video of the important features of any digital tool that families might need to use.
  4. Consider rolling out the various features of the digital tool throughout the year, rather than all features at the same time.
  5. Clearly explain the tool’s purpose and how to use it effectively use.
  6. Be consistent in choosing your communication tools.
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