Instant Outreach or Considered Conversation?

With the school year gearing up for some families and underway for others, parents and teachers have an expanding array of ways to communicate. Choosing the best way to contact one another — whether to praise or roblem solve — is important, and those conversations don’t need to wait until the first round of regularly scheduled conferences.

But even though your child’s teacher might be just a mouse click away, that doesn’t mean e-mail is always the best way to reach out. And although some topics are perfect for the anytime flexibility of e-mail, others are best handled with an old-fashioned phone call or face-to-face meeting.

Choose the Appropriate Medium

“I think for any child to have a good school year, the partnership between teacher and parent needs to go beyond e-mails and Web sites,” says Shirley Pyon, a third-grade teacher at Mary Scroggs Elementary School and teacher of the year for the Chapel Hill-Carrboro School District.

Pyon says e-mail is great for tidbits of information, and that ease and speed make it convenient. But for anything detailed or serious, whether academic or social, a more direct conversation is the way to go.

“Sometimes meaning gets lost in e-mail,” she says. “Sometimes a tone gets confused.”

Find a Balance

Jordan Adair, an English teacher at Durham Academy’s upper school, lets the parents of his students know at the beginning of the school year that he can be reached at work or at home. Students can call him, as well.

“I don’t have a problem getting phone calls in the evening before 10 o’clock, and I tell students that,” he says.

Before coming to Durham, Adair and his wife were house counselors for a dorm at Phillips Academy, Andover, a boarding school. There, they were on call 24 hours a day, an experience that gives a different perspective on accessibility, he says.

Parents at the high school level struggle to find a balance between being involved in their child’s life and letting the student, as an individual, be responsible for his own schoolwork. In his role as an advisor, Adair encourages high school students to try different avenues to resolve issues with their teachers. When that doesn’t work, it’s absolutely appropriate for parents to become involved, Adair says. And if it’s serious, that involvement needs to extend beyond the computer.

Consider the Content

“E-mail certainly has simplified communication and has opened it up in largely positive ways,” he says. “(But) e-mail certainly is not conducive to long, intricate conversations as it relates to people. It’s certainly good for ideas, but maybe not as it relates to the lives of your students.”

Betsy Bennett, a Raleigh mother of two, said she tries to send compliments by e-mail, but for more difficult discussions she only uses it to schedule a meeting.

“It’s so difficult to put the subtleties in an e-mail form,” she says. Bennett, whose children attend Follow the Child Montessori and Exploris Middle schools, says she also tries to give teachers more than one option for a time and date when arranging meetings.

“I just feel sensitive to the fact that these teachers are busy,” she says. “At both schools…teachers are very generous about being in contact.”

For many parents, communication with the school only grows tougher as students grow older. Information posted on school Web sites and individual teachers’ Web pages can help. The old-fashioned exchange of notes may be gone forever, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Michelle Graham-Freeman, a middle school Spanish teacher at Durham Academy, appreciates knowing early in the day via e-mail if one of her students will be absent and wants to know what work they’ll need to make up. E-mails also serve as reminders to her of things that need to be done.

But, like some of her colleagues, she prefers a call or meeting for more sensitive matters.

“No one can hear how you feel [with e-mail]. That’s something I don’t like about e-mail. I don’t ever want to be misunderstood by a parent,” she says. “You want parents to know how much you care. How we sound when we talk with each other cannot be replaced by e-mail.”

Tips for Communicating with Teachers

•Find out early in the school year how the teacher prefers to communicate with parents. At back-to-school nights instructors often tell parents how best to get in contact and how quickly you can expect a response.

•Contact teachers before the scheduled parent-teacher conference day, particularly if you have concerns.

•Respect each other’s time and schedule. Repeated calls at home from a parent after 9:30 p.m. over trivial matters won’t help a teacher take it more seriously when something urgent comes up, and not responding to parent e-mails in a timely manner won’t help a teacher seem accessible.

•Use e-mail appropriately: to alert teachers to absences, request make-up work, ask brief factual questions, pass along words of praise, or schedule phone or face-to-face meetings. But remember, nuance and tone are lost in e-mail.

•Make a phone call to discuss more complicated topics or to clarify or follow-up on e-mails.

•Schedule a face-to-face meeting for serious concerns about a child’s academic or social progress. If it would take paragraphs to explain via e-mail, a meeting with the teacher is a better way to go.

Aleta Payne is the associate editor of Carolina Parent magazine.