How COVID Made Me a Better Communicator
March 22, 2021
March 22, 2021
By Joy Kirk
I’ve always prided myself on being an effective communicator. I reach out to the parents of my students prior to each school year, I keep an open line of communication, and I have established routines. After 26 years and teaching positions in elementary and middle school, and with gifted students and students with autism, I didn’t feel there was much more to learn on communicating with parents.
Thank you, COVID-19, for reminding me we can all learn something about everything, if we just pay attention.
I’m currently an elementary self-contained autism teacher, and I’ll spend this entire school year teaching remotely. When I learned I’d be a distance teacher in August, I had to decide what materials would work best for my students and how I could assist their parents in helping their child succeed while learning from home.
First, I weighed what I could and could not control. An internal battle ensued as I realized my students’ learning was largely outside of my reach. I was going to be a face on a screen and over half my students had never seen me in person! How would I make sure they were tuning in and learning? I needed their parents on board. I needed not just to engage my students once they logged in (something I was confident about), but their parents, too, as they’d have to do the logging in because most of my students cannot do so independently.
I decided to send home the same resources we’d use in our classroom. My teaching assistants and I worked together and apart to design visual schedules, prompting cue cards, If-Then boards, calming strategy sheets, and token boards and stars for each student. We knew we had to make learning at home as much like learning at school as we could. We needed to keep routines and practices in place, and to link the time in school last year to what we’re doing now.
So, each child’s parents received the same visual cues we would use in our classroom to use at home. I then did several 15- to 30-minute parent sessions in the fall on using these resources and a timer. I discovered that, although I am a good communicator, parents still didn’t know what happens in my brick-and-mortar classroom. The materials I sent home became a bridge to a conversation on effective instructional strategies for children with autism. Parents were excited to have the same visuals and reminders that we use all day and wanted to learn how to use the token board and the timer. We began to develop a common language.
As the year has progressed, each family has adopted what works for them from the materials and strategies I sent home, and our common language has grown stronger. We all say, “First work, then (insert preferred activity),” and everyone is seeing the benefit of less oral language and increased wait time. Each student has made progress this year although what that looks like varies from child to child. I know the communication piece has played a critical role in this progress.
How will what I’ve learned change me? Each year, I’ll offer parents of new students the visual cues I use in my classroom for them to use at home. I’ll also offer opportunities for parents to learn about what I use in the classroom and how they can adapt it for home. I’m currently creating a document that has my common classroom practices and how they can be reinforced at home, which will make the family-school- student bond even stronger.
Teaching has been a challenge since the pandemic began, but we’re all working to keep our bright shining stars shining on!
Kirk, winner of VEA’s 2019 Award for Teaching Excellence, is a member of the Loudoun Education Association.