What You Do In September Can Affect Spring


HarrisMany teachers complain that by the beginning of May the students have already mentally shut down

and the school year has anywhere from 4-8 weeks left in it. What can you do to keep them motivated?  I submit that May is the wrong time to be asking that question.  I believe what a teacher does in August and September will help to assure that May and June will go smoothly.

I’ve always been a firm believer in involving parents in my class.  I had an orientation for two nights in my studio for all parents of students in September.  Parents were asked to attend at least one of the 90 minute meetings.  I usually spoke for about 30 minutes and answered questions (90% about possible colleges offering media degrees) for the rest of the time.  I specifically choose dates that no other school in my district is having a “back to school” night for parents so there is less room for conflicts for the parents’ time.  In addition, I made a personal phone call to every single parent to invite them.  Yes, this takes a lot of time but it is worth the time spent in headaches avoided.

Face it:  Parents have no real clue about what goes on in our classes.  If we’re teaching broadcast journalism, the best we can hope for is they have an idea of what journalism is but the broadcast part?  Forget it.  They simply do not have a personal background to draw from.  If we’re teaching a CTE television production or broadcast journalism course then the problem is magnified – the course is more credits/more time.  Moreover, when they realize that CTE is the new name for vocational education, all the old stigmas and prejudices about vo-tech being the last stop before juvenile delinquency can rise to the surface.  It’s really hard to re-educate someone who has those prejudices.

That’s why I started the year out by educating the parents and doing it in the environment where their son or daughter was going to spend a great deal of time for the next year.  Parents were often amazed when they saw the equipment and the space because I spent a lot of time with the students prior to the orientation meeting preparing the space for the greatest “shock and awe” effect possible.  To enlist student help in preparing for the orientation meeting I explained to the students that how much freedom they have in the class is directly related to how positive their parents feel about the experience they’re getting in the class.  The parents have complete control on whether the students will be allowed to check out gear for projects to be shot off school grounds, whether the students can actually work for the production company run by the students in the classroom for paying clients, and many other perks of being a student in good standing in the class.

Parents were able to meet me and put a face to the name they would be hearing upon occasion during the year.  They heard my goals about teaching responsibility by demanding responsibility.  Attendance is critical, deadlines mean deadlines, procrastination can destroy grades and careers, and a whole slew of other things that most adults know are “facts of life” in the real world.  Parents loved the clarity of these few points and often said that they were trying to teach their kids this very same thing.  I did as much as I could to get them to state that I was doing what they were doing.  The more they realized that, the more they supported me throughout the year.   I told parents that if I had a problem with little Johnny or Susie, they could expect me to contact them, but I would also be contacting them with the good things as well.  I definitely encouraged them to tell their students what was discussed at the orientation when they get home (students weren’t invited to the orientation – there just wasn’t room for students and parents; I usually had 80 parents or so).  It always seemed to work well, because I usually only had to mention once to a student to get his act together or I would have to call and make trouble at home.  I rarely did referrals for discipline and students were rarely absent.  I just went straight to the parents.  It worked beautifully.  Parents thanked me for it. 

I ended the orientation meeting with something along the lines of the following:  “In a class like this, I get to know the students pretty well and I overhear them talking to each other.  I promise you that I won’t believe everything I hear about you.  I hope you can promise not to believe everything you hear about me in return.  I’m not crazy and have been teaching this for a long time.  I do know what I’m doing.  If you hear something that sounds like I’ve lost my mind – pick up the phone and give me a call before you react.  I’ll do the same for you.”

I also did a monthly newsletter to the emails of all the parents.  I did not pass around cards or a pad of paper asking them to write their names and email addresses, etc on it.  Who can actually read their handwriting?  It was so easy to get all their email addresses, I merely give them my email at school by handing out my business card and ask them to send me an email with their contact information on it.  Correct email addresses were right there and a few clicks easily put it into my address book. 

In the newsletters, I talked about what we were doing and what we’d done and were going to do, I mentioned names of students who had done something good, interesting projects or programs being worked on, etc.  Parents loved this stuff.  Where I taught newsletters are common practice for elementary school teachers but no one does newsletters in intermediate or high schools.  Parents really liked the newsletter.  Again, this takes some time, but the first draft can be done by a student and just needed me to tweak it a bit.  Meanwhile, the frequent contact with the parents paid huge dividends in the support parents gave in return.  In addition students knew that their parents knew what was going on so the tall tales students sometimes tell parents to get parents on their side in a conflict never worked.  The parents weren’t fooled.

In my grading syllabus at the beginning of the year, I had a paragraph about how the final grade would be determined.  If there were relatively even grades then the final would be a simple average of the 4 quarterly grades.  However, if there was wild fluctuation then the grades would be “trended.”  If the trend was downward indicating that classroom participation dropped off in a PRODUCTION class, the final grade and the last quarter grade would be the same.   If the trend was upward, the same result could occur.

Trending is a perfectly valid grading scheme as long as it’s fully explained at the beginning of the year to parents and students.  Parents have no problem understanding it when you show them that if you don’t have the option of trending a 4 quarter year a student could technically make an A (4 points) in one quarter and then quit.  The A added to 3 F’s (0 points) and then averaged would elicit a 4 divided by 4 = 1 which is a D.  Parents at the beginning of the year will whole-heartedly support you if you lay this out for them to see.  It would be rare to find a parent who would want their kid to get credit for doing nothing.  However, if you don’t mention it to them until the end of the year and then spring it on them, you can rightfully expect World War III.

Keeping kids motivated through the end:  continue to give them due dates as long as possible.  As long as you have the “trend” to hold over them, and you provide them with opportunities (due dates) to earn points, I think you’ll keep them motivated, perhaps reluctantly, but motivated none the less.  Keep in constant contact with parents during this time to let them know if kids are slipping before it’s too late for them to support you by pushing their kids on the home front.

I’m a firm believer in keeping in contact with parents a lot throughout the year.  I believe that a well-nurtured partnership with the parents is key to a successful program.