Lessons Learned from Missing the Mark

Parent teacher conferences are right around the corner.  It’s the time of year when connecting with our families is the school-wide priority. As we prepare for the busy days and long nights, I’ve been thinking about the home/school connection.

One of my school’s goals for continuous improvement is building stronger relationships with our families. It’s a worthy goal with nothing but upside. We know strong school/home connections lead to improved student outcomes: greater student achievement, better attendance, and improved social skills in students.

It’s an area on which my school needs to focus. If I had to evaluate our effectiveness I would say we are inconsistent. We have times of success and moments of complacency. We are not yet great, but we aren’t ignoring our families either. Given that, we have lots of room for improvement.

One of our action steps for improvement is requiring teachers to make a minimum of two positive phone calls home per week throughout the school year. The requirement is grounded in the positive impact we know these contacts can produce.

As the instructional coach, one of my responsibilities is to encourage and remind teachers about their weekly contacts. I usually do this during coaching conversations or through email reminders. While I’ve helped motivate teachers to make these vital family connections, my participation has definitely been peripheral.

As I thought about my limited role in this particular action step of our school goal, I didn’t feel right. I didn’t feel right at all. If I’m asking teachers to do something, I should be willing to do it myself. My definition of leadership requires that. I was violating my own code of leadership.

Armed with my new self-awareness and determination to do better, I set a personal goal. I decided I would make one positive phone call per day for the entire school year. That’s 180 positive phone calls I would make. I felt excited! Not only would I be making critical connections with our families, I would be showing teachers I was in this game with them. I was ready!

I failed on Day 2. No problem, everyone has a bad day. I planned to atone by making two calls the next day.

I failed on Days 3 and 4 as well. I redeemed myself on Day 5. I called the mom of a 4th grader to let her know her son is a leader and a role model and we are lucky to have him at our school. She was so happy she cried. She said she knew he was smart, but knowing we valued his character meant a lot to her.

That call inspired me to be more dedicated with my phone calls. But despite my motivation I have failed many days since then. Those days of failure sparked some major self-reflection. The goal I set for myself seemed simple enough and I know its value. Why was I failing? After some careful thought and analysis of the situation I came up with a few ideas about why this goal was proving to be harder to accomplish than I anticipated.

The first reason is pretty straightforward and obvious – time. There were days when I simply ran out of time. Between teacher coaching, classroom walkthroughs, formal evaluations, professional development planning, PLC meetings, etc., the time got away from me. The dismissal bell would ring and I would look at the clock in complete disbelief that the school day was over.

In those hectic hours, I forgot to look for a student doing something to inspire my daily call. It’s not an excuse, just a reason and an obstacle to overcome. But, it helped me remember that classroom teachers face the same obstacle. Classroom teachers in the U.S. spend most of their day in front of students (far more than the global average). This leaves very little time for non-instructional tasks like making phone calls. Sometimes, the day just gets away from you.

I was slower to recognize the second reason for my lack of success. It stayed just below the surface of my consciousness and took a while to reveal itself. Once it surfaced, it made me uncomfortable. It was emotionally jarring. It’s difficult to even admit it. However, in the interest of self-growth and personal accountability, I’m acknowledging it. I flat out notice when students are doing things wrong more often than I notice them quietly doing what is right. I know the human brain is wired this way. Our ability to notice what is not right and pick out the negative is what helped us survive and evolve as a species.

However, the knowledge of how the human brain works didn’t make it any easier to admit I was guilty of noticing the bad more than the good. In moments of haste and stress, I let my primal brain override my teacher brain. I realize this happens with classroom teachers too; probably more because the stress of their responsibilities can be so overwhelming.

So, here I am. I know I haven’t met my goal of strengthening our family relations through daily positive contacts. But more importantly, now I know why. I’ve put strategies in place to help me be more successful. I added a daily calendar event to remind me to make the call each day. I also set a phone reminder to look for the good. The reminder goes off hourly and cues me to use my teacher brain.

I thought about modifying my goal to make it more attainable, but I decided against it. Now that I know better, I believe I’ll do better. Building the connection between our school and our families is truly important to me. I’m sure I’ll fail several more times. But when the end of the year arrives, even if I’ve only made 50 positive phone calls, it is 50 more than I would have made. That’s a win.
















Nicole Wolff

I’m a California native. However, I’ve spent my entire career teaching in Arizona public schools, as well as instructing at the university level. My passion for teacher advocacy and support led me to become an Instructional Coach in 2013. I am currently a coach at a K-8 school in Goodyear and love the students and teachers I get to work with every day. I have spent my career actively involved in instructional improvement, chairing many committees including Response to Intervention, Academic Accountability, and Professional Development Committees. I was named Dysart Hero (teacher of the year) in 2012. I was honored to serve as a 2017-18 Arizona Hope Street Teacher Fellow. I earned a Bachelor’s in Elementary Education and a Master’s in Education/ESL from Ottawa University. I am a National Board Certified Teacher. I’m also endorsed as an Early Childhood Specialist, Reading Specialist, and Gifted Specialist. In my free time, I enjoy reading, camping, and spending time with my family.

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