Building relationships with parents

Note: I wrote this blog post a couple of years ago but it sat unpublished and moved down the lists of posts on my site. Rather than delete it (it is a little old) I decided to hit publish in the hope that somebody finds it useful.

It doesn’t matter whether you are a teacher in a small school or part of a large department in a huge school.  Relationships with parents are important and can make or break a school.  The principles of communicating with parents remain the same whether you are running a page on behalf of a school, a department or a class.

A huge part of building that relationship is getting your message out to parents. There are positive messages and negative messages, both need communicating but in different ways.

Positive messages usually celebrate success or things that have gone well.  Good work, competition wins and good results are all examples of successes that should be shared with parents and the wider community. Personal experience tells me that parents don’t visit the main school website unless they are looking for a school place, and so you have to take the message to the places they are – on social media.

Setting up a school Facebook or Twitter feed is not something that should be done without the express permission of your school leadership team and clear policies in place. Find examples of schools that use social media well and show them to your leadership team and governors.  Pick trusted members of staff who will be responsible for posting to these sites and monitoring them for feedback from parents.  By using a service like WordPress or IFTTT.com, news articles on your website can be syndicated to Facebook or Twitter with the minimum of effort (as long as it has an RSS feed)

Using social media is a bit like gardening.  A good school page needs nurturing, it needs pruning and weeding if you are going to get the best out of it.   Posts that get the best responses will typically include a photograph and information about school students.  If you are posting information posts, try to make sure these aren’t the only kind of post you make otherwise parents quickly lose interest.

Text messages are an amazing resource and one of the best ways of communicating a short message either to an individual or group of parents. We use a system integrated into SIMS and stores messages in communication logs etc.   An example of when I use text messages is to send reminders to parents, for example, a reminder about celebration assemblies and performances at the end of term (attendance is typically higher following a text reminder) Text messages sent in this way tend to be restricted to senior staff (because of the cost) but emails can be sent through the same system for free.

Phone calls are a good way of passing on bad news as they are less likely to be misinterpreted. They are also an excellent way to pass on good news, a phone call home is worth a dozen stickers in a school planner. Think of a phone call as putting fertiliser on the garden, you don’t see the benefit for a long time.  With some parents, it is best to have an exit strategy before you call, for example, call just before the lesson change bell goes so you have an excuse to hang up.  My great Dragon’s Den idea was an app for teachers to play various sounds (fire alarm, smashing glass, screaming) which could be played down the phone as an excuse to end a call.

Of course, these are just the mechanisms with which you communicate with parents. What you say to them is more important than how they are delivered.  An unanswered email or an unreturned phone call gives an extremely bad impression, whoever it is from. These tools have the potential to work wonders with parents, but if not used well can have the opposite effect.

I’ve worked in a school where parents had a negative impression of the school and shared it freely. By following the strategies in this blog post we were able to change the opinion of parents so they actively recommended the school to other parents.

Why don’t we want to take staff out the classroom for CPD?

I know, since I recently left a senior leadership post, that schools are finding finances are tight at the moment. I know that schools are struggling to keep the staff they have. This means that funding costs for CPD are going to be tight – quality CPD costs money and then there are cover costs on top. I also know that individual teachers are under more pressure than ever to teach good lessons, deliver results and to help students achieve target GCSE grades.

That made me think of the parallels between investing in CPD and seeking advice about how to invest your money. Last year I saw a financial advisor and paid for his advice – I did this because I had two options. I could leave my money in a standard deposit account or take advice about how to invest my money to make it last me to 60! To get a better return on my money I had to pay for some advice from an expert. This is a similar decision to choosing to invest in CPD for staff, it should be a no-brainer but that isn’t the case in some settings.

The graph shows survey results from real middle leaders (I asked them myself!) It is interesting to note that the number one barrier to engaging in CPD is taking staff out of the classroom. I’d be willing to bet that good quality CPD for a teacher could outweigh the detrimental effect of missing a single lesson (or even a couple). Unfortunately not wanting to take staff out of lessons can be a rather short-sighted approach and one which could have wide-ranging and long-lasting repercussions.

Of course, another option which only the most forward-thinking schools have embraced is to timetable CPD time for all staff. School leaders in these schools already appreciate the value of quality CPD and this post isn’t directed at them.

As a member of a regional committee of the Association of Science Education, we run a number of CPD events for our members (and those that aren’t). We run our CPD on a Saturday morning to allow teachers who are willing to give up their personal time to attend. This isn’t an ideal situation but removes barriers to CPD for those who want to take part. You can find a full list of ASE regional conferences here.

 

Why we went for Stonewall’s school champions – it’s about more than LGBT

We were recently awarded the Stonewall School Champions Silver award (only 8 schools achieved this recognition in the previous two years).  The award is relatively straightforward to apply for and doesn’t require much effort above and beyond what you should be doing already.

The award initially caught my attention working in a school in special measures, thinking it would benchmark the processes we had in place and help direct our efforts to improve. One of the core values of our multi-academy trust is inclusivity and we pride ourselves in encouraging our students to be as inclusive as possible.

To get the Bronze award the main focus was on policies and making sure that HBT bullying was addressed.  In addition, we had to make sure that LGBT awareness was incorporated into the curriculum and assembly programme.

The Silver award was a little more demanding and focussed on trans issues, and being prepared to treat trans students appropriately (e.g. asking how they would like to be addressed).  There was also a strong emphasis on gender neutrality – we have a gender-neutral uniform for staff and students, and gender-neutral toilets.

One of the most useful strands to come out of the School Champions scheme was the focus on gender equality.  Gender bias is embedded in so many aspects of our lives from the UK mainstream media through to Hollywood movies.  Stonewall encourages schools to treat all genders equally so that students who don’t identify with their birth gender don’t feel discriminated against or uncomfortable.

Stonewall aren’t the only ones considering how we can encourage gender equality.  The IoP has recently published helpful resources on inclusive teaching (inclusive of all genders) shown below, with detailed information for teachers on their website.

The BBC screened an excellent documentary called “No more boys or girls: Can our kids go gender free?”  which examined some of the ways we perpetuate gender stereotypes. Stories keep hitting the news related to gender such as Clarks shoes with their ‘Dolly Babe’ shoes for girls whilst boys got tough functional shoes with names like ‘Leader’

Thanks to a focus on gender through the School Champions scheme we no longer have boys throwing like girls and no longer is a woman’s work never done.  Instead, we have a level playing field where everyone is treated equally and have the same chances and opportunities.

We have the next generation of students in the palm of our hand. We influence them, nurture them and help to shape their ideas. I’d encourage more schools to sign up for Stonewall School Champions – in doing so you will be helping the next generation reach their potential regardless of gender or sexual identity.

 

The importance of the curriculum – thank you Amanda Spielman

Last week the new Chief Inspector Amanda Spielman spoke at the ASCL conference.  She was setting out her stall as one of the most influential leaders in the world of education, and she told the conference of school leaders “Vitally important though a school’s examination results are, we must not allow curricula to be driven just by SATs, GCSEs and A levels. It is the substance of education that ultimately creates and changes life chances, not grade stickers from exams.

She also told her audience “I am determined to make sure that the curriculum receives the proper focus it deserves.

It’s hard to point the finger of blame at school leaders who, anxious to avoid being labelled coasting schools, have done everything they can to boost their progress 8 scores and EBacc results.  Fortunately, the governors at my school had the foresight to put the needs of the individual first when we built our curriculum so we aren’t pushing students through inappropriate exams to boost our school results.

Last week  I attended some CPD with the Institute of Physics discussing how to encourage more girls to follow a STEM career.  Whilst the advice they were giving wasn’t anything that you won’t have heard before it does make you appreciate the effect that teachers and the curriculum have on the long-term life chances of our students, regardless of phase or socioeconomic background.   Much of the language we use in class and the way we run our lessons could potentially have long-term implications for our learners (Stonewall give similar messages about gender neutrality which can influence attitudes from a very early age)

A fortnight ago I was part of a discussion with the 11-19 committee at the ASE talking about combined science vs triple science.  The options path decided at the end of KS3 (year 8 now in many schools) can determine, for better or worse, the life chances of students who may either choose or be guided towards an option that isn’t appropriate for them.  This decision could be made on experience in previous lessons (bringing us back to the message from the IoP) or could this choice could be restricted based on a flawed assessment system at KS3.    Those of you interested in the combined vs triple debate will be interested to read this article on education datalab.

My point is that the curriculum you offer, whether it be at departmental level or at a whole school level, will have long-lasting repercussions for your students and it is important you’ve got it right.  For this reason I commend Amanda Spielman for the tone she has set as she takes up the mantle of Chief Inspector and look forward to seeing the discussion about the curriculum develop as she continues in office.

 

Building staff resilience and promoting good mental health

Schools are challenging places to work – those of us who work in schools are aware of the challenges faced by everyone in the education system.  As a school we spend a lot of time looking after our students but we also have to make sure we look after our staff.  On our inset day before the Christmas break we bought in the Nottinghamshire Educational Psychology Service (EPS) to run a session on staff wellbeing and resilience.

Whilst I don’t want to repeat all their content here (that wouldn’t be fair to the EPS) I have summarised some of the key messages in the hope that they will be of use to others.

If you don’t look after yourself you won’t be able to look after others.

In air safety drills you are always told to put your own oxygen mask on first – the same applies with mental health.  We get so wrapped up with the problems of others we can neglect ourselves.

Find strategies that work for you

Not everyone is the same.  Different people find different strategies work for them – be prepared to try more than one.

Diagram of emotional intelligence

 

Emotional intelligence – know your emotions and how to manage them. Strong emotions are very powerful – recognise the stages in your emotions – the assault cycle provides a useful structure/explanation of what is happening.

Learn relaxation strategies 

Find time to unwind and relax.  I find that a long drive to work coupled with an audiobook or music (depending on my mood and energy levels) works for me. Some people do yoga or meditation – find something that helps you to unwind.

Challenge unhelpful thoughts (Cognitive behavioural therapy)

Try to change your default thinking (for those that read my post on The Chimp Paradox this is a similar idea to reprogramming the computer in the model by Steve Peters). Ask yourself questions like “is it really that important?” or “what would happen if I didn’t let this thought bother me?”.  You then try to replace the negative thoughts with more positive ones.  There are plenty of sites on the internet with more details – google is your friend here!

Find outside interests- FLOW

Immersive hobbies (like sports, cross stitch or even candy crush soda saga in my case!).  From Wikipedia:

Schaffer (2013) proposed 7 flow conditions:

  1. Knowing what to do
  2. Knowing how to do it
  3. Knowing how well you are doing
  4. Knowing where to go (if navigation is involved)
  5. High perceived challenges
  6. High perceived skills
  7. Freedom from distractions

Peer supervision – looking for solutions (focus based circles)

We were shown a technique for looking for solutions to problems that you can work through as a group.  Searching the internet reveals many variations on this technique – this is most similar to the version we tested. The version we tried had someone present about a problem for six minutes – during which only the presenter can speak (even if they run out of ideas the six minutes keeps running).  In our first run we discussed the problem of getting staff to put their pots in the dishwasher (photo above). The second step sees the presenter being silent for six minutes while ideas are brainstormed.  There is then another six minutes of dialogue and the final stage is to discuss the first steps for another six minutes (you are able to sum up or seek clarification outside the six minute windows).

This is a really useful technique and provides a very useful structure for discussing a problem.

Don’t give up

Remember that each time you face a problem, it will be easier to face a similar problem in future.  After twenty years in special education I subconsciously use several of these strategies and they do work.

Further reading

Look on the internet for Martin Seligman (video below)