To many parents, especially those of poorly behaved pupils, the sound of a teacher's voice on the other end of a phone means one thing: bad news.
But it is precisely because many parents see teachers as harbingers of doom that phoning with praise can be such a useful technique. "For some parents it is likely to be the only positive communication they have had with teachers about their child," says Marina Angadi, education director at Twist Partnership, an education consultancy.
At first it may seem time-consuming and uncomfortable, but it should quickly help to get parents onboard when dealing with their children, especially those who have bad memories of school and teachers themselves, says Rob Plevin, author of Magic Classroom Management.
"The more we called parents, the more the negative perceptions they had of school decreased," he explains. "When we needed an issue resolved they would be more willing to help."
Sir Alan Steer's report on school discipline, published last year, supported this argument - teachers should tell parents when their offspring are doing well in order to build lasting relationships.
The technique reinforces good behaviour among pupils better than any other kind of reward, says Paul Dix, managing director of Pivotal Education, a behaviour consultancy.
"When we survey pupils about the rewards they actually want, it's not money, sweets or iPods, but in both primaries and secondaries the number one reward is consistently a positive phone call to parents," he says.
But before you pick up the phone, think about how you approach the call. Try not to catch parents at busy times, such as early in the morning during the school run, at work, or during meal times. Ask them if you are calling at a convenient time and, if not, call back later. Mr Dix recommends Friday evenings for maximum impact because this allows parents to reward their children over the weekend.
Also check the child's circumstances, advises Ms Angadi, to avoid walking into an uncomfortable situation. Find out if they are at the centre of a custody battle or about to be permanently excluded for another incident before calling.
When making the call, the key is to be "respectful, friendly and warm," says Ms Angadi. After letting the parent know that you are bearing good news Mr Dix adds that you should make it clear that it is a quick call about a specific incident. You should not try to deal with any other issues.
If you feel awkward to begin with, try the first few conversations with an experienced caller - for example, a head of year - on hand for advice.
You can try to reinforce the call by having a private word with the pupil the following day, but beware of being overly friendly towards pupils and parents too soon. "Don't go over the top. If you try to go too fast you can damage the relationship," says Mr Plevin.
Phoning an unknown household is bound to be daunting, particularly if you have had difficulties with that pupil in the past. But experienced callers say that the majority of parents are happy to speak to teachers and are grateful for news of their children's good behaviour.
One poster on The TES forum deliberately calls when he knows both parents will be at work, so both can listen to a positive message on the answerphone when they get home.
If you feel isolated when dealing with unruly students, forging links with home can be invaluable. As Mr Plevin concludes, "You will have an ally on your side."
Next week mixed-ability class
- Try to call when parents are least likely to be busy.
- Check whether the child is at the centre of a custody battle or being excluded for another incident.
- Make it clear from the beginning that the call is about good news.
- Keep the call focused on the good behaviour rather than school in general.
- Criticise a fellow teacher: maintain a united front.
- Try to be too friendly before a relationship with a parent and pupil has properly developed.