Talk the good talk

In the 21st century educators need to become professional communicators. Case in point was the Auckland teacher who fired a quick email to parents asking what they thought were the…

In the 21st century educators need to become professional communicators. Case in point was the Auckland teacher who fired a quick email to parents asking what they thought were the “attributes of a highly effective teacher”.
Her quick query was met with complaints about her grammar, spelling and syntax. “Am I the only one staggered by this email from Mrs X?” a parent replied to all the other parents in the class. “One ‘bullet point’ that springs to mind would be to be able to string together more than two comprehensible sentences in a logical syntax, using correct spelling and grammar.”
Another chipped in: “Mrs X sent an email earlier this year about the Marae visit, which was riddled with awful grammar, I think we have a right to be concerned about our children’s education and I wonder what everyone thinks about taking it further?”
Other parents did spring to the teacher’s defence suggesting the complainers send their children to Kristin, a local private school. The final word went to a parent who responded: “By the way, I was head boy at Kristin and still don’t know what a bloody logical syntax is. These people must live in a pretty perfect world.”

Home-school changes

It was a reminder, however, that the nature of home-school partnerships is changing. Parents, especially those in higher decile schools are communication hungry. They expect pro-active communication from teachers and instant replies, and new technology means their demands can be met.
The simple existence of new technologies, however, doesn’t mean automatically that schools and teachers should use them.

Instant risks

Instant communication comes with risks, says Adrienne Olsen, of Adroite Communications, a public relations company that specialises in the education sector. More and more teachers are emailing parents, posting on Facebook, texting, Tweeting, blogging and using other new forms of communication.
Some of them, however, are falling foul of overzealous parents. “Parents will have an emotional investment in the issue,” she says, and an ill-thought-out electronic communication can backfire.
Teachers, she says, may be used to having their audience in front of them. Email, text, Facebook and other forms of digital communication offer different challenges to the face-to-face communications that were more common in the past. What’s more, until recently written communications might have been typed up in the school office by a secretary who had the time to correct grammar and syntax.


Dr Jenny Poskitt, Director, Graduate School of Education, College of Education at Massey University, says digital communication can be of benefit to schools and help engage parents in their children’s education.
She adds that schools should experiment with their communities and find out the communication methods that work best for them.
Experiment is what Willowbank School in Auckland’s Howick did, first with Wiki Spaces, and later with Facebook and Twitter. It also makes available a translate button for most of its digital communications, says principal Deidre Alderson. Willowbank has 60 percent of parents who speak English as a second language and the ability for parents to translate the school’s communications at the press of a button is extremely valuable.

Mail Chimp

The school also uses the Mail Chimp electronic service to deliver its newsletters to parents. Deidre Alderson says one feature of the service is a report on where the newsletter is being read. In many cases this is China because at least one parent has returned home to work.
At Flanshaw Road School, also in Auckland, a Facebook experiment in one junior school class paid off handsomely. Parental engagement in the children’s learning went from around 20 percent to nearly 100 percent when the school started communicating via the Facebook page, says principal Dr Cherie Taylor-Patel.
Unlike some schools, the decile 5 school’s parent base doesn’t have a high use of email, even though most can receive texts and are on Facebook. Hence the school doesn’t send out a lot of emails. “It is about understanding your community and understanding what communication is going to work best,” she says.
Parental anxiety
Each school’s community is different and Flanshaw Road School has also had success with its Pasifika and Chinese parents by holding meetings in their own languages run by the school’s ESOL team, which also helped engage parents. “Parents get anxious if they don’t understand what is going on,” says Dr Cherie Taylor-Patel.
However a school communicates, says Adrienne Olsen, it should have communication guidelines if not a policy. “It is all about managing risk,” she says. “These are guidelines about how both the school and the teachers communicate with parents,” she says.

Such guidelines should cover:

  • The correct channel of communication for the message. Formal communications might be better sent via a written letter, for example, whereas reminders to parents might be sent by text. Or it could be a face-to-face meeting.
  • How often the school or teachers should communicate with parents.
  • The time frame for replying to parent enquiries and if teachers are expected to reply.
  • The style and tone of communications to parents.

More tips for teachers:

  • Don’t send Word documents to parents. They may carry viruses. What’s more they can be altered more easily than PDF documents.
  • Beware of CCing parents’ email addresses. This may breach the parents’ privacy and also give other parents the opportunity to communicate en-masse behind the teacher’s back. It is better to use the BCC field.
  • Don’t assume that a one-size-fits-all communication is acceptable. Some parents only read hard copies, others only email. Still more don’t have email, but might have access to Facebook or prefer a text.
  • Consider having a colleague review communications before they are sent out. Or at least delay sending to give yourself time to re-read the text, says Olsen. This, and BCCing parents would have saved the Auckland teacher from vilification by parents.
  • Be very careful with email to chose the correct words and tone and keep communications succinct.
  • Read up on email, and social media etiquette. These can be googled.
  • Use a spelling and grammar checker on all communications.
  • Never use text speak and slang in communications to parents. Some parents will consider it to be unprofessional.
  • Think about how your communication might be perceived by parents.
  • It is better to communicate than not communicate because parents’ expectations are that there will be communication.
  • Use bulk email or text services. They are easier to control.
  • Saying “it was in the newsletter” isn’t enough. The response to a parent who hasn’t received information is: “how could we communicate with you better?”
  • Reply to communications from parents within 24 hours.
  • Treat all school events as communication opportunities.

Old school info: new school comms

The technology may be new, but Dr Jenny Poskitt says that the information parents want to know is much the same as it always has been. It’s just that the method of delivery is changing. They want to hear:

  • what’s happening in the school
  • what their children are learning or are expected to learn
  • if their child’s behaviour or performance is slipping
  • information about homework.

Parents right

Schools need to be aware that parents aren’t always in the wrong. As one parent of an intermediate-age child told EA: “Parents aren’t always paranoid or over protective. Sometimes they have pretty valid concerns when they are taken seriously.”
The parent’s daughter had been singled out as an underachiever because, her mother believed, of her brown skin. When four parents protested at Māori and Pasifika children being involved in research about underachievement, they were told individually that no-one else had complained.
In one case, the parent was ignored and received no reply at all to a string of emails. Of the four parents who complained, one teaches at a university, another was a primary school principal, the third an anthropologist, and the fourth another professional. “There was a lot of experience we could have brought to a discussion, but (instead) the school was defensive and adversarial.”

Key points

  • Communicating with parents has always had its complexities.
  • But changing technologies and the climate of fear being created by the likes of National Standards heighten the risks involved.
  • Some teachers have had ugly interactions with parents.
  • Time to read up on the basics!