Phone home

“Da-an’s in trouble!” A young girl’s voice echoed through the phone on my end; I could only imagine how it echoed through the house on the other end. There was a brief rustle as someone else picked up the receiver, and I overheard a muffled curse.

“Hello?” His mother’s voice was wary.

I launched into my spiel. I was so nervous that I talked without pausing until I finished with “…so that’s why I called.”

Silence. Then she muttered, “Well, thanks.” I hung up.

I was doing my student teaching. In our Classroom Management class – a label, by the way, which I dismissed as euphemistic. “Just call it ‘discipline,’” I groused. – one suggestion was the “positive phone call home.” I can’t remember if the professor suggested calling about the hard kids or if I dreamed that up, but that’s what I decided to do: I decided to find something good about the toughest kids in the class and call home. I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

Dan was in my French class and he had approximately zero interest in learning French. In fact, given that we were in a poor neighborhood in Portland, OR, I would guess that most of the students were in that class because Spanish didn’t fit in their timetables and the teacher was relatively new. Dan was a big, athletic kid who came to class most days sweating and heaving from his lunchtime basketball games. He could not sit still, talked constantly and was mostly a royal pain in the tuchus. On any given day, Dan could easily send the whole class sideways.

I was ridiculously young and enthusiastic, so I had made a few changes since I took over – thank you, Classroom Management class – and Dan was responding well. We’d redirected his unending comments into French and he was leading the class in actually speaking French. So, I called home.

After his mom hung up, I was stunned. That had not gone as I had planned. Chagrined, I turfed my plans to call a few more kids and reflected that not all good theories work well in practice. Boy, was I wrong.

The next day, Dan came bounding into class and gave me a big sweaty hug. “I GOT ICE CREAM!” As it turned out, no one had EVER called home to say something good about Dan. His mom had called his Dad, a trucker, on the road and had taken him and his siblings out for ice cream. He was one of my best students and a class leader right up until my student teaching ended.

And I was hooked. Since that day the “positive phone call home” has been one of my secret weapons. I use it all the time. Knowing that I want to call home and say something nice about each of my students means that I watch them differently. I actively and regularly look for what they do well. When I see it, I call. I can always find something good. Always.

Parents are regularly stunned by this call. Even parents of the best students rarely get positive feedback outside of report cards. Almost never do they get a call to tell them something kind, proactive or thoughtful that their child has done. I am regularly greeted by stunned silence, though by now I have learned to slow down while I speak. One father cried because his son – who, to be fair, was *really* struggling with all things related to school – had never heard a teacher say something nice about his child. One mother whooped and laughed, “You made my day! Heck, you’ve made my week! This is the best.” Most just say thank you.

And the kids? Well, like Dan, a few mention the call. Monday comes (because I love calling home on Fridays and making the whole weekend start well) and a quiet voice will say, “I can’t believe you called my mom. That was great.” But many – often the least engaged – never say a thing. Still, they keep coming back to class. They keep learning. And someone somewhere in their life knows that I am trying to really see their child.

We all want to be seen.

When should you call home to say something nice? Here are a few suggestions…
Call in the first few weeks.
Call when you’re upset with your class. You will remember what they do well.
Call when you see something good happen. Call that day: at lunch, right before you head out the door to go home, whenever. The calls are rarely long.
Call on a Friday. Or a Monday. Or whenever. It does not matter: just call. It might just change YOUR life.

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