Changing the World Through a Few Simple Emails

Win-Win: Developing real-world skills in students and keeping families involved in their kids' education

Photo of Andrea Orluski

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If I got paid for the hours and hours I spend writing emails and making phone calls to my students' families, I would be filthy rich. With 120+ students, it takes a lot of time and effort to keep families updated on their students' progress. The bare minimum is that I make parent contact when students are failing at progress reports and at the end of the marking period. Multiply that by six marking periods a year and factor in the additional emails and phone calls for behavior problems, achievements in class, Remind 101 messages about upcoming due dates, and the positive note home every now and then, and it's a miracle that any of us high school teachers sleep. There has to be a more efficient and effective way. 

I recently read an article from The Atlantic that detailed how one New Hampshire school is turning over the responsibility for parent-teacher conferences to students. In short, the students are responsible for scheduling the conference, preparing a showcase of their work, reflecting on their strengths and weaknesses, and presenting all of this to their parents and teachers. If you're interested, the article is linked at the end. I love the idea of giving students more ownership in their learning while also teaching them the real-world skills of organizing, presenting, and leading a discussion. Yet the skeptic in me still has to wonder how this can be done with 120+ students' schedules (how do so many of my freshmen have jobs already?) let alone the other commitments of their teachers and parents. 

In typical millennial fashion, I have to look to technology as a possible solution as I simultaneously question my pedagogy and practices. 

Our state standards and the district's curriculum require that our students produce an informational or work-related document. Why not have our students email their parents about how they are progressing in class and copy their teachers into the email, too? My emails home may get sent to the "trash" folder, but what parent would ignore an email from their child? My common woes with parent communication can easily be tackled by putting students in the driver's seat. I want my kids to know I am consistently monitoring their progress, but more importantly, I want them to monitor their own successes in my class. They should be held accountable both when they succeed and when they struggle. The world isn't always easy, and I want my kids to leave my classroom in June knowing, if nothing else, how to help themselves succeed in this world. 

We already use technology daily to update grades, take attendance, present lessons, and collect students' work. I think teachers can take a lot of work off themselves if we turn some things over to our students. This isn't just about the kids who are failing my class at progress reports and report cards. I've found that my all-star students rarely get positive feedback from their teachers and their parents. I'd love to see my all A students email home to share their success with mom and dad- who often don't know just how much work has gone into achieving that grade. When kids are asked to reflect on why they ultimately received a certain grade, they are grappling with a big idea: my actions can have positive or negative consequences. Perhaps if more adults understood that concept, we would live in a more pleasant world. Call me crazy, but I got into teaching so that I could change the world. I think my 9th graders are a phenomenal place to start. 

If you'd like to read the article referenced from The Atlantic, you can check it out here:

[Optional] Synthesize a little! In one sentence, describe something you learned from your empathy exercises or analogous research.

Teachers can decrease the amount of time they spend contacting parents and increase students' ownership of their learning.


Join the conversation:

Photo of Clint Heitz

Andrea - Your idea fits so nicely into the Guideposts to Success idea as I've evolved as another great/easy way to connect, and I would love your support. If you have the time, could you please join the selection process and support Guideposts to Success? Thanks!

Photo of Lisa Yokana

Hi Andrea:
So agreed that there simply isn't time in the day for a teacher to do all the communicating! How might we change that up to create a system, or other product that helps or does this for teachers? Would love to see you post in the ideate phase: throw an idea out there and better yet, first pitch an idea to a parent and/or teacher, get their feedback and then post it! Let me know if I can help by answering any questions you might have...

Photo of Andrea Orluski


It's funny that you comment today as I was just reading about some basics of DT last night. I understand that a big piece of the puzzle is using technology to our advantage. I was talking to a friend earlier this year and started thinking about services like Mail Chimp that allow users to manipulate information in spreadsheets and then send personalized emails with a few formulas and clicks. I believe my grade book can be downloaded into a spreadsheet along with our standardized testing data. I need someone a bit more tech savvy to help me figure it out! 

Photo of Lisa Yokana

So you don't really need to be so tech savvy at this stage of the game-only open to designing the idea. But you could spend a bit of time looking at other people's ideas and invite people to be on your team and begin to flesh out your idea. Why don't you post in this phase-ideate-and/or see if there are others with similar ideas whom you might work with. Invite them to your team after you've posted to ideate and then start a google doc. 

Photo of Margaret Powers

Yes! I'd love to see your idea in Ideate Andrea Orluski so we can get a team together and start building it out!

Photo of Kathryn Whitley

Andrea Orluski I appreciate your honesty in pointing out the mathematical impossibility of talking, emailing and meeting with every parent individually on a frequent basis. Solutions and improvements suggestions in education often fail to account for the precious resource that is teacher time. Teaching the student how to properly communicate with their parents is not only time saving, but a great lesson in responsibility and helps to forge strong parent-child bonds.

Photo of Andrea Orluski

I couldn't agree more, Kathryn! I think a lot of parents struggle to find the balance, too, as they release a lot of responsibility and freedom to their students. Sometimes we forget that they're still just kids who need that family support. I'm excited to try this out next year. I see this serving as an accountability system for both students' academic performance and behavior. 

Photo of Paul

I like this notion of the student being an equal party to the exchange.  By empowering them to be active in the family/school relationship they gain an important sense of agency.

Photo of Andrea Orluski

Thanks, Paul! I am constantly learning how to become a better educator, and one of the biggest things I've learned is how important the three-way exchange between parent, student, and teacher really is.

Photo of Ellen Deutscher

Thanks for posting. This is a cool idea!  Do you provide "training" for the students. Can you tell a little more about how you prepare students for this. Also, how do they incorporate the non-academic piece?   I can see how this could be a great tool for learning and using reflection as part of regular learning.

Photo of Andrea Orluski

We spend a lot of time talking throughout the year about the appropriate way to send an email. That seems to be the first big hurdle; many of my kids don't realize slang is for text messages only. In terms of the reflection piece, that is definitely an ongoing process. Those who struggle because they just don't try are pretty honest about it. The kids in the middle who try a bit but could be doing more can usually accomplish their reflections with a bit of guidance. The biggest struggle is actually my kids who are top achievers. They are so used to doing well that they often don't even know how they help themselves when they struggle. I  like them to identify that because there will come a day when they do struggle, and I want them to be conscious of how they can help themselves. I model a lot of this reflection by showing them reflections I write each semester in regards to my own practices. It's a great time for us to discuss how I can do my job better, too. By allowing them to see that, we build a classroom where mistakes are okay as long as we learn from them. I haven't actually tried all this via email yet; I've had them complete reflections in writing a few times this year, and I love having that to go back to. I'm looking forward to seeing them include their families in this next year, though!