Shortening the Teacher-Parent Feedback Loop

Other than what shows up every night in the bookbag, the “feedback loop” that we’re all used to as parents of kids in elementary school mostly happens at the two parent-teacher interviews that happen each school year. We might see the teacher in between these interviews, especially if there’s something of particular concern, but for a lot of parents information about how things are going in school is packed into those often-all-too-short meetings.

At least that’s the way it used to be.

Here’s what happens these days: Oliver and I will be walking to school in the morning and he’ll mention something to me — “I lost my gymnastics sheet!” or “What’s the difference between a homophone and a homonym anyway?” If it’s something I know is going to affect his school day, or that’s going to confuse his teacher when he mentions it in class, I’ll send off an email when I get to my office 10 minutes later, and I’ll often get a reply back later in the day.

This is a feedback loop that happens 2 or 3 times a week, not 2 or 3 times a year, and I know, from talking to Oliver’s teacher this year and from our own experiences, that it’s been a big help in maximizing opportunities for learning and minimizing potentially stressful issues.

We’re lucky, of course: Oliver’s classroom teacher is open to this communication, has the tech-savviness to figure out how to handle her email efficiently, and we have the sense as parents to know where the line between “effective communication” and “teacher harrassment” lies. 

I know from talking to other parents and teachers that our experiences are by no means universal: there are teachers in the system who simply don’t know how to use email, or at don’t care to. The Groupwise email system provided to teachers by the Department of Education is generally acknowledged to be too slow to be practically useful (smart teachers route around it). There are parents whose sense of the help-harrass line is different than ours. And many families without computers or the Internet at home.

But the upsides, if we can figure out the technology, access and etiquette parts of the equation, are tremendous: parents are more engaged, teachers have a “rapid response” way of working on issues with parents, and because home and school are each more aware of what’s happening in the other, the opportunity for the curriculum to spill over into the home, and for home to spill over into the curriculum is much enhanced.

The problem is that the “technology, access and etiquette parts of the equation” aren’t something that anyone’s paying particular attention to. The capital budget for education technology for 2012-13 has been reduced to $0. Absolutely nobody is talking about how to solve the “digital divide” issue and get technology into every home. And teachers and parents are left to ourselves to work out the etiquette (which, truth be told, we might be able to do, with a few loose guidelines in place).

Technology in education is a difficult issue overwrought with funding, policy and infrastructure issues. At the very least, though, focusing on the simple ability to get email back and forth between home and school seems like a good place to focus some attention.


Lori's picture
Lori on February 16, 2012 - 04:12 Permalink

Great post. I just came from my daughter’s “meet the teacher” night (it is the beginning of a new semester and all her teachers are new ones). All of them suggested to the parents in attendance that email is the best way to contact them reminded us to ensure our emails our listed on the school’s SAS system so they could contact us, if need be. As you stated, that’s great, but not everyone has email. Personally, I’m in weekly contact with most of teachers, but wonder about families who lack internet access for whatever reason (and don’t get me started about teachers who require all assignments typewritten: not everyone has a computer at home or can stay afterschool to access the ones at school, but I digress)

I was unaware that the education capital budget had been reduced to zero. At a time when the Department’s mantra is 21st century learning skills, it would seem only appropropriate to ensure our students have 21st century tools to learn with.

Rob's picture
Rob on February 16, 2012 - 15:27 Permalink

I am stunned to hear that many teachers do not use email — now that email itself is on the decline  — it suggests that school is the last bastion of the technophobe. On PEI what few computers there are are hidden in a lab. The class room is computer free.

What other part of life today uses no computers?

Finally — we surveyed the families who use family resource centres — we too were concerned that many would not have access. This is not the case. If not a computer then a smart phone.

Peter Rukavina's picture
Peter Rukavina on February 16, 2012 - 16:06 Permalink

Rob, the situation is bad, but not quite as bad as you lay out:

In general, every classroom does have a computer, often more than one. They are often 4+ year old retired federal government computers running Windows XP. But they are there.</li>
Kids who would really benefit from a computer — and Oliver is one — are provided with a laptop. It’s not automatic, there aren’t enough laptops, and there’s not enough support. But it’s something.</li>
Yes, the majority of computers are “hidden in a lab,” and that’s probably not the right place for them (it smacks of old-school “typing class” approach), but they do get a lot of use, and they’re not really “hidden away.”</li>

Lori's picture
Lori on February 17, 2012 - 13:39 Permalink

I have to echo your sentiments, Peter. (I’m not sure what your background is, Rob, but having been on the ground floor of the FRCs on the Island, I’m glad they are being used as a resource for this type of information. I’m big on “access for all”.) We can provide all the finanical support we want, but if we’re not able to level the playing field with access to technology, we’re just creating a completely insurmontable barrier.

I’ve had one child go through the system and another in her first year of high school. I’ve only had two or three teachers in all that time NOT use email, and we were in a small, rural consolidated school. At the high school level, it’s expected that email will be used. My daughter’s high school has smart boards in every class I’ve been in—I am sure there are some without, but I haven’t seen them.

As to personal laptops, both of my daughters have needs outside the norm—one due to a hearing loss caused by chemo another due to a high functioning LD and we chose to purchase Macs for them. Often the older computers provided will not run the software needed to provide for the students’ adaptations.

The situation in the school isn’t ideal, but not much in life is. However, no amount of technology is going to take the place of skilled, concerned teachers and parents working together.
And Peter HOW do I put spaces between my paragraphs for ease of reading? Putting them in the body of the comment section isn’t working and I can’t find instructions in the “more information about formatting options”. I am html illiterate. Feel free to email with that info. Thanks.

Clark's picture
Clark on February 18, 2012 - 06:21 Permalink

Can’t use email? Only get feedback from the teachers 2-3 years a year? Unbelievable. My wife just came back from school (on a Saturday morning) after receiving a text message from a parent looking for a particular textbook. She went to the classroom to get the book for the parent. She sends out email on almost a daily basis from her personal email account. They all have her phone number and can call at any time. In person communication can happen daily. Parents sit in the classroom during instruction and are there to help — they organize all after school activities for which the teachers, if interested in teaching, get paid extra (people work late and after school instruction is necessary). Most teachers have blogs (my wife doesn’t, she’s the least comfortable). Most discussions are around the overuse or misuse of technology — like a student in grade 3 friending my wife on Facebook or a local high school grappling with the fact that the requirement of parent purchased MacBooks has meant more distractions (Facebook et al.) and less learning — an echo of the problems experienced in the workplace. My wife believes in communicating regularly with parents via whatever means necessary, but if she was hesitant she would really have no choice, as parents contact her every single day.

I’m no technophobe nor a luddite but at the elementary school level we have found that hands on instruction and parental involvement is far more valuable than sliding pictures under glass. It’s a valuable extension but not entirely necessary. If my son wants to learn about lizards, I find it better to go to the forest and catch some, than using an iPad.

Frank's picture
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