Parent Communication Tips for Educators

Written by Behrman House Staff, 01 of August, 2017

Last summer, Samara Schwartz took the helm as principal of the Miriam Browning Jewish Learning Center at Congregation Beth Israel in Houston. Her predecessor, now the executive director, had longstanding ties to the community. She did not, having moved from Georgia to take the post.

She quickly realized that in addition to focusing on what her more than 250 students needed, she had to invest in connecting with the parents to gain their trust and confidence in order to be a successful school leader and community member.

“It was surprising for me,” she says. “We’re so used to making sure that our classroom is successful, we rarely worry about selling our school outside. It was a good challenge, and what I found by focusing hard on communications over a full year means that every piece I do well makes it easier to do other things well.”

Here are four tips to improve communications with families:

Make time for face time.

Attend family events, Shabbat services, or programs to speak to parents – not as a pitch for the school, but rather an opportunity for them to get to know you as part of the community. This can mean simply being in the room during an event, even if it’s not “your event” and you’re not speaking.

“My predecessor grew up in this community and everyone knew him,” Schwartz says. “Everybody didn’t know me. I spent a lot of time getting my face out there, not just at the beginning, but it continued all year. It shows people that joining the community is something you care about.”

Cultivating relationships with parents can also mean sitting and talking with parents who are hanging out in the lobby or library on Sunday because they don’t feel like going home when their children are busy learning.

“It’s a chance to speak to a parent about nothing,” Schwartz says. “So when I need to speak to a parent about something, it’s easier because we’ve already created a connection.”

Rethink your newsletter.

Prior to Schwartz’s arrival at Beth Israel, a weekly newsletter went out to families on Thursday nights; she found a number of parents didn’t read it. Rather than revamp that newsletter, however, she created a second one – with a different feel and intention.

Every Sunday when school is in session, she now has volunteers (a grandparent who works as a professional photographer, a madrich, or some tech-savvy teachers) take photos of children engaged in learning and activities. Sunday evening, right before dinner, a newsletter lands in family inboxes with pictures from that morning, as a wrap up and review of what occurred in school that day.

“It’s a window into the classroom to see what their kids are learning. It can be the basis of a conversation – ‘I hear you made this or sang this. Tell me about it,’” says Schwartz. She makes sure to include shout-outs to the children, such as “Emily’s Hebrew was clear when she sang Adon Olam today” or “Great job Jacob and Ezra on your skit about Purim today.”

“The parents and kids are so excited to see the pictures on Sunday,” Schwartz says. “The reason I do it is because it creates warmer feelings toward the school and helps parents feel more engaged.”

She’s found that the value of the Sunday photographic recap lies in parents now regularly reading the Thursday night communication. That newsletter is more practical, and contains the schedule and announcements for the coming week, as well as information about upcoming programming, both for adults and children.  It also might include a visual resource for the whole family, such as a YouTube video or some lines of Hebrew, such as the Mah Nishtana, to practice reading.

“All of a sudden, people knew what was happening. And you can’t underestimate pictures of adorable children,” Schwartz says. “It has made a huge difference to some parents, who see their kid happily engaged in Jewish material. It’s marketing, pure and simple.”

Say something nice to parents before you say anything else.

“Let the first conversation with families be, ‘Hi, I’m so excited to see you today.’ Make it a pleasant interaction,” Schwartz advises. Sunday mornings are frenetic, and it’s easy to forget to pay attention to kids as they come into class. “Come in 10 minutes earlier to get ready, so you can be out in carpool lanes to say hi to the kids and parents. It’s a small thing, but goes a long way to creating goodwill.”

Don’t be afraid to ask parents for help.

Too often, educators shoulder the full burden of organizing programs and other events and then grumble that they have no volunteers. “Just ask for help,” Schwartz counsels. “If you’ve done the work of talking to parents, being part of the community, inviting them to know what happens during school time, then you’re not asking for a favor in an adversarial way. It’s communal, it’s building this together with you as my partner. Parents will gladly help.”