Start by Picking Up the Phone

pick-up-the-phoneWe talk (and complain) a lot about parent engagement and parent involvement or the lack of it in our schools and districts.  In my experience our default is to blame the parents for the lack of engagement – it’s easier than taking a look at the practices and policies we have in place at our schools. Does what we have in place actually make parents feel welcome? valued? important? I have had a few experiences over the last couple of months as a parent that make we wonder about the environment we are creating in our schools for parents.  I’m sharing them with you below, and I would love to hear your thoughts!

I actually just spent about twenty minutes of my morning trying to get the answer to one simple question at my daughter’s school. “What is the state testing window for the school this spring?”  My mom wants to take our daughter on a quick trip in May which would mean she might miss a day of school.  Before agreeing to the dates, I wanted to make sure that her absence wouldn’t fall during the State testing window.  As a former principal, I know what a grueling task it is to plan those schedules and the difficulty that comes with scheduling make-up tests for students who are absent.

So I started with the school calendar on the website and found nothing.  I went to the link they have on the site for testing and found nothing, so I called the school.  The first person who answered was a student, and I asked my question.  She placed me on hold and without anyone ever coming back on the phone to speak with me, I was transferred to a generic voicemail box.  I hung up and called again.  This time, instead of a person the standard recorded message giving me the school address, the school hours and the address to the website where I was told I should be able to find answers to most of my question were recited to me.  I was then told I could “press 1” for this office and “press 2” for that office… I think there were nine choices all together, so I started with the school counselor for students with last names “A-M”.  The phone rang four or five times and I was sent to voicemail.  I hung up, called back heard the address, school hours, website information and number options again.  I pressed the button for the second counselor “N-Z” as I just had a generic question anyone should be able to answer. I was sent to voicemail.  I hung up and called back.  I tried the attendance office, both assistant principals, the principal’s assistant and every other extension except for the cafeteria.  Every attempt was sent to voicemail. I kept trying as my mom was sitting with me and hoping to confirm the dates.  Eventually on one of my calls another person answered instead of the machine.  I asked my question and was placed on hold for a few minutes.  The gentleman who had answered came back on the phone and told me testing was “during the month of May”. When I explained my situation and asked if he knew when in May, he didn’t know and told me I should check the website.  I let him know I had done that and nothing was posted.  He told me I should call back later, “like maybe after 2:00”. He didn’t offer to take a message and have someone call me back.  So I will try to call again in another 3 or 4 hours.

I’m not sure I would be writing this post if it were just this one instance, but it comes pretty quickly on the heels of an experience I had with my son’s school a few weeks ago.  I had received a “robocall” and an email from them reminding me about my son’s absence the day before and informing me I needed to clear the absence. I appreciated the reminder.  The email was one that did not allow replies, so at about 1:00 that afternoon I called the school to let them know my son had been sick. The phone rang seven or eight times, and no one picked up, not even a machine directing me to “press 1”, so I waited a few minutes and called again – the phone just continued to ring – no answer and no machine for me to just leave a message about the absence. So I went to the website to see if there was either a direct number for the attendance office or an email for the attendance secretary.  Neither were listed on the site.  I called the school again, and still no answer.  I tried a few more times over the course of the afternoon to reach someone on the phone.  I never was able to get ahold of anyone nor could I leave a message.

Eventually that evening, I made a decision that I would email one of the assistant principals… I honestly wasn’t contacting her to complain.  I have met her a few times, she has always been very responsive, she is a PIRATE fan, and I know she cares about the school. I reached out because if it were my school and a parent had been trying to call all afternoon without getting through, I would want to know.  So I went on the school website, clicked on the link for the assistant principal’s email and shared the experience I had just had.  Later that night, I received a response to my email from a principal at another school in the district… she was very nice, but also let me know that I had the wrong email address and that for whatever reason the link on the website for the assistant principal at my son’s school went to her inbox at another school, so my initial email to the assistant principal never went through to her.

The next morning,  I tried to call the school again and I still had no answer and no machine.  I live very close to the school, so I ultimately just decided to drive down to the school and go to the office to clear my son’s absence since I was having no luck calling or emailing.

While I have others I could share, the final incident I will highlight is one that also happened at my son’s high school.  He is typically a straight “A” student with excellent citizenship grades, so calls from his teachers are rare (those phone calls home to share something good your child has done haven’t really caught on in our neighborhood). So I was surprised when he shared with me that we might be getting a phone call from one of his teachers.  We were in the car with my son and a few of his friends who all happen to be in this same class.  We asked them what happened and they proceeded to share their version of the story which apparently involved all three of them, so I was well prepared to talk with the teacher.  The phone call did in fact come that night, but to my surprise, it was not the teacher on the other end of the line when I picked up the phone.  It was a call that his teacher apparently scheduled through the automated system.  In a robotic voice I was told, “This is Ms. _____. Your child was (pause) disrespectful in class”.  That was the extent of my parent phone call home.  No teacher, no description of what happened, no opportunity for me to hear her version of what happened (as I’m almost certain it would have differed from the one three teenage boys told us), no opportunity to discuss consequences or for me to offer support.  Just a “robocall”.

I’m sharing these stories not to blast the schools that my own children attend… they actually have wonderful people who work in their schools, but I’m sharing them because I think they really highlight a problem that we as school and district leaders need to be cognizant of when we are establishing policies, procedures and practices in our schools. Situations like the ones I described above don’t make me want to be more involved as a parent… they actually do just the opposite and have caused me to believe that communicating with the schools my children attend is actually a rather frustrating experience.  They don’t leave me feeling that the schools actually want to talk to me or want to engage me… they feel instead like there is a firewall system designed to keep me out.  I understand that schools are hectic places and people are busy doing their work, but isn’t being responsive to parents part of that work? We say we want more involvement, more engagement, but I wonder if what we really mean is that we want parents to do what we tell them to do according to our rules at a time that’s convenient for us.

I am certain that the installation of all of the robotic message systems have been put in place with the intent of communicating more and with the intent of being helpful to both staff and parents, but the reality is that I wonder if we have taken them too far.  Rather than helping, they have created extremely frustrating situations and in these instances at least, I have felt like communication has gotten worse rather than better… more impersonal rather than personal.

Dave and I talk about  the importance of creating experiences for students and staff in our classrooms and schools, but shouldn’t we be creating them for our parents too?  And while I would LOVE for our neighborhood schools to embrace the use of social media, create YouTube Channels and share video newsletters and so many other wonderful strategies we know some schools are using to engage parents… Maybe it starts with simply picking up the phone.

Some questions to consider:

  • Do you know the user experience for phone calls coming into your school?
  • If you have students answering phones, have they been trained in customer service techniques?
  • Does the experience parents get when they visit or call your school make them feel welcome and more comfortable doing so again?
  • Is contact information easily accessible and updated regularly on your website?
  • Do contact links go to the right places?
  • Are important dates easily accessible?
  • How many robocalls go out from your school each week? day? hour?
  • Do you know how teachers use the robocall system in your school? Have you communicated expectations about use?
  • Is the way you use your robocall system making communication better or worse? Have you asked your parents?
  • What’s one step you could take to ensure customer service for parents gets better at your school next week?