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Tackling the problem of information transfer in schools

 A student e-mailed me this morning. “I don’t know when school starts,” she wrote.

There’s some good news here: This student cares, understands that I’m a resource, and takes initiative to answer her question.

But there’s so much more bad news: She didn’t receive the school mailing. Her home number has changed or doesn’t exist. Her cell number no longer works. Even though my student got the information she sought, it was only after several attempts, my wasted time, her unnecessary anxiety, and her mother’s frustration with the school and distrust in my ability to communicate.

Just to find out the first day of school.

What does this mean when I’d like to communicate something slightly more complicated — like how to improve her graduation portfolio, or how best to apply for college, or the date of the school’s scholarship and financial aid night?

One of the struggles I find in teaching now is the problem of information transfer. I have something important to share. It’s helpful to the student. There are many ways to share that important piece of information. But somehow, more often that not, students and their families do not receive the information in a simple way. It takes forever.

Back to my student. She didn’t know about the first day of school despite one school mailing, two phone calls, one text attempt, one Facebook post, one post on my class website, one online schedule on my class website, and 18 friends in her Advisory who could have given her that information.

That’s a ridiculous amount of energy that needs to stop.

Some people say that it’s the school’s job to provide the information and the student’s job to figure it out. That’s the real world, the argument goes.

For the most part, I believe in that approach. But it often preserves the status quo, where students of color don’t succeed, don’t go to college, don’t get jobs that give them a chance. If I’m a teacher to help change the pernicious inequities in our educational system, I have to do something different.

But taking three hours every time I want my students and their families to get a crucial piece of information is not my idea of the solution. Telephone calls take forever and lead me to anger and resentment.

This year, I vow to figure out a system that works. This system involves five steps:

1. I tell students and parents the various ways they can stay updated on general, non-urgent items: my class website and Facebook. I ask them which one they’ll commit to check regularly. Then I encourage them to subscribe to my website or like my Facebook page.

2. I also ask them which way they’d like to receive urgent items: email, text, or voicemail. They sign up for one of these communication methods. I push for email or text because it’s easier, and notice that I say voicemail, not phone.

3. I tell them it’s their responsibility to let me know if their contact information changes or if they’d prefer a different contact method.

4. Then I do my part. For general updates, I post them on my class website and immediately push them to Facebook. For urgent items, I write a quick email, paste it to a mass text (using Google Voice Mass SMS), and then record and send a quick voicemail (using Phonevite).

5. I trust the system, and when it doesn’t work, I put the burden of fixing the problem on the student and family.

I think I can make this work. I know that things won’t be perfect. (Example #1: A student just texted to get my confirmation that school begins on Monday when we’ve already had a five-minute conversation about it.) But as long as I feel like I’m making progress, and that my students and I are on the same page, that’s what I’m asking for.

I welcome suggestions in the comments. 

Please share your brilliant insights!