EdTech & Design, Leadership, School Community

A Virtual Window

Using technology to meet parents where they’re at

“Human beings were born to be in a community. We were born to create and share elements of our experience of life through art and through storytelling. We have been coming together in communities from the beginning of our existence.”

– Jamie Notter and Maddie Grant in Humanize1

When I was in elementary school (over 30 years ago), my mother would often stop by the school before or after the day to see how things were going. In our small town, the school was the hub of the neighbourhood. Parents were often physically connected to the school community, as many were able to visit; however what took place within the classrooms, aside from the monthly newsletter, was mostly kept between the teachers and students.

A new era

Fast-forward to 2014 and we see a different world. When my own children enter elementary school, my job commitments will rarely allow me to stop by their school and be a part of their life there. Due to a changed economy and social norms, most parents now work outside the home and few have the opportunity to stay home and be a consistent part of their child’s life at school.

On the other hand, parents now have an enhanced drive to “see” what is happening in their children’s classrooms and schools and they are more engaged in decisions affecting their children’s education. Although I will not physically be able to visit the classroom, I will want to stay in touch and would rather not wait to get a thick newsletter about events that occurred weeks prior.

Many parents and families strive for a strong home-school connection, but traditional structures can hinder this process. However, with the use of social media, we can not only create new avenues of connection to the school, we can actually enhance these connections in such a way that our families can have stronger relationships with the school and become more engaged and involved than ever before.

Share the stories

The stories of education in the mainstream media are often dominated by school rankings, test scores, political conflicts, and mistakes that occur in our educational organizations. Through a variety of social media tools, schools can change this lens and become the chief storytellers of the school. By providing small, frequent windows into the great things that are happening within their walls, schools can engage families and build an online community that works to enhance the physical school community. Sharing photos, videos and posts of the small stories that happen in a school can help parents and families to see and feel the culture of learning and care of the school. The photos that are taken can include students (with the proper media consent) but can also be of staff, student work, bulletin boards, reminders, and/or public events. When the school opens digital windows and becomes the chief storyteller, we can share the real culture of the school and create a sense of pride in the community.

When small events have a big impact

I have been at my current school since January and during this time, we have tried to create an online presence to help share the many positives that we are privileged to see each day. With the help of a dedicated teacher, we have created a new web page, school success blog, Facebook Page, Twitter account, and YouTube channel. Through these avenues, I am able to share with the community the learning and caring culture that I get to see as I visit classrooms.

We recently had a student who had been wearing her lost tooth on a necklace her teacher had given to her to ensure that it went home to the tooth fairy. Unfortunately, the girl fell outside, the container popped open and the tooth landed in the gravel. She was quite upset when we were unable to find it, so I suggested having the principal write a letter to the tooth fairy that could be placed under her pillow in place of the tooth. The student and I drafted a letter and before I sent it home, I took a photo of it and posted it on our Facebook Page. (The vast majority of items that we share are from the staff at James Hill Elementary, but on the rare occasion I do share something that I have done as a principal, so parents can know a bit about who I am and what I stand for.)

The crazy thing about this tooth fairy letter is that, unbeknownst to me, a Vancouver radio station saw it on our Facebook Page and reposted it on their page, which was then picked up and shared by a number of media outlets worldwide. This small moment now became a positive global story about our school. This experience emphasized for me that we need to share these stories more often. We know actions like these happen all the time, so the fact that this story spread so quickly revealed that there is a lack of public awareness of how often school staff members take the time to care for students. Social media cannot change school culture on its own; however, through a quick post or Tweet, families and community members can see some of the caring acts that so often go unnoticed. They can engage online with the school in ways that can help build important relationships.

A “window in” for new families

Many new students nervously enter our schools each year. Along with the new students, many new parents also become part of our school communities. Prior to the use of social media, new parents often had limited access to information about the school. Now, families can do virtual tours, catch up on updates, interact with other families, and begin building relationships with people within the school community. When many of the typical questions are answered on the website and through various platforms – questions around school safety procedures, codes of conduct, year and day schedules, school supply lists, or how to raise a concern regarding their child – the anxiety is lessened and the relationships are strengthened.

Trust is so important in working with our families. Families are bringing their “everything” to our schools. When we provide more transparency (including both the successes and challenges) and make information about the school accessible, we help build trust. By sharing who we are as an organization, we can create an open relationship with both our new and experienced parents.

From communication “to” to communication “with”

We can also use social media to engage in dialogue around events and issues at the school. In the past, some schools have become very effective at communicating to parents through newsletters, websites, and notices sent home. Now, we need to move to a goal of communicating with parents, through platforms that allow and encourage two-way dialogue. Social media is a great place to start, but it is important to use it to engage with readers, not just to push information (though providing information is still very important). If we post information or a link and a question arises, it is very important to respond. When we respond, we show we actually listen and are working to increase communication with parents.

A few years ago, there were concerns with students being placed in split/combined classes. In response to these private questions, I wrote a post on our Facebook Page with a few thoughts on combined classes. Parents responded with questions of their own and these led to quite a powerful dialogue on some parent anxiousness around combined classes. We were able to truly listen to concerns and respond in a meaningful way so that we helped to create better understanding of how students are placed in classes and how we can improve combined classes at the school. It would have been easy to broadcast the information on a static website, but posting it on Facebook allowed for respectful dialogue on an issue that was causing some concern in the parent community.

There is often the worry, when opening up discussion on social media, that there will be inappropriate comments posted online; however, this is rare and insignificant compared to the positives of social media. When we model an open, respectful environment, people maintain this culture during online communications.

Parents may not always comment publicly online, but by showing that we encourage feedback, we create an open environment whereby parents know that important issues can also be discussed in person, privately. By focusing on communication with parents, we not only increase our engagement online, we also foster enhanced face-to-face relationships with our families offline.

Start small

For many people, the idea of using social media is overwhelming. With so many options, it’s hard to know where to start. There is no one best way to communicate with families; we must find out where our parents are and meet them there. However, because social media is a stream, posted items can be missed and, therefore, a website and/or a blog is needed to have a home for the information we share.

In my experience, the following have been the most successful:

  1. A school success blog: On our school website, we have added a blog that we update each week. We have moved beyond the newsletter to an online blog called “10 Good Things To Talk About” in which we share ten positive stories from the classrooms at our school. This success blog helps both parents and staff to see into our classrooms and, in effect, creates a more positive school culture. In addition to the “10 Good Things,” we share upcoming events and important information on the blog. The school blog replaces the newsletter, so there is no extra time spent writing and it reaches a wider audience as it can be shared in many more places. The blog can also be printed off for those who do not have Internet access.
  2. A school Facebook Page: We are nearing the point in which the majority of our parents use Facebook. Facebook can be used to share images and videos of learning at the school as well as to post interesting links to articles and videos on educational change. As not all parents will use it (nor will all users see the posts), Facebook cannot be our sole method of communication.
  3. A school Twitter feed: Although fewer parents use Twitter, there are a growing number who do and it can be a great way to share the story of the school and interact with parents.

Some schools have also seen great success with YouTube, Flickr, Instagram and Remind101 (text messaging). The key to getting started with using social media is… to just start. Explore with the school blog and let input from the parents and community help guide the next steps.

Timesaving Tip

  • Use the IFTTT.com website to create “recipes,” so that when you post in one place, it also posts in another. For example, when we post to our school blog, it can be set up to also post to Facebook and Twitter automatically so that no extra time is required.

We are in a new era of parent communication and it is time to move beyond the newsletter to a more interactive and engaging approach. By using technology to meet parents where they are and participate in dialogue around their child’s education, we can build community and effective relationships both online and in person.

Photo: courtesy http://jameshillelementary.com

First published in Education Canada, September 2014


EN BREF – Nous vivons une nouvelle ère de communication avec les parents. Le moment est venu d’aller au-delà du bulletin de nouvelles et d’adopter une approche plus interactive et mobilisatrice. Grâce aux médias sociaux, nous pouvons non seulement établir de nouvelles avenues pour créer des liens avec l’école, mais aussi pour les rehausser de façon à ce que nos familles puissent avoir des relations plus solides avec l’école ainsi que s’engager et participer plus que jamais. Dans cet article, l’auteur examine des façons efficaces d’utiliser les technologies et les médias sociaux pour « raconter l’histoire de l’école » et tenir les parents au courant, au moyen de canaux multiples.

1 Jamie Notter and Maddie Grant, Humanize: How people-centric organizations succeed in a social world (Indianapolis: Que Publishing, 2011).

Meet the Expert(s)

Chris Wejr headshot

Chris Wejr

Principal, Shortreed Elementary School, Langley Schools

Father of twin girls and an elementary school principal in Langley, BC.  Chris is passionate about strengths-based education and leadership, assessment, family engagem...

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