Just as I finished a heartfelt, much-practised speech about the poor quality of James' behaviour, the woman on the phone interrupted to tell me that she was terribly sorry, but she wasn't actually his mother. In fact, her son - Harry, not James - had not been at the school for 12 years. She sounded apologetic. She wanted to help, she said. As it happened, she did know the boy I was talking about. Did I want her to have a word? Needless to say, I did not.
Thankfully, the majority of calls home have more productive (and less embarrassing) conclusions. Indeed, phoning home is one of the most effective tools of behaviour management: creating a strong link between parents and teachers breaks down students' potential for misbehaviour and their ability to wriggle out of punishments.
I find that the majority of parents are very supportive when I ring home, but you need to get the phone call right to make it effective - and I don't just mean ensuring that you have the right number. Here are some top tips for avoiding common mistakes and mastering the art of the phone call home.
Prepare, prepare, prepare
As per my terrible experience, a hastily made phone call will rarely yield positive results. Prepare the facts (and phone numbers) and know what you are going to say: write down important points, such as key incidents that need to be addressed and cross-reference all details to make sure that they are accurate before ringing. With trickier parents, it is a good idea to note down when you last spoke to them.
Ring at a reasonable time when you, and they, are likely to be awake and receptive to a potentially difficult discussion. Be polite: say where you are ringing from, who you are and ask if it is a good time to talk. Most importantly, don't leave messages. Voicemails on home phone numbers will inevitably be intercepted by students before parents have a chance to hear them. Also, mobile phones often have generic message services so you can't actually be sure that you have called the right person.
Get the order right
If it is possible to start with something positive, even if it is small, then do so. Once you have their attention (and hopefully support) you can follow up with the issue in question, and examples and outcomes.
For example: "While it is fantastic that your son has been attending school more regularly recently, his behaviour has been challenging. Sadly, out of the last five classes that he has attended, I have had to ask him to leave four times as a result of poor behaviour. As a result, I am afraid that he is being given an after-school detention."
Finally, the solution: "It would be really helpful if you could talk to him about expectations in lessons. We can speak again in a week to see if this has improved and, if it hasn't, we can discuss further approaches together."
There comes a time, maybe once a year, when a student walks straight into their own trap and you can break the rule about preparation. A student I taught a while ago was tripped up in this way. They claimed they had not completed their homework because they had been nursing an ill grandparent. In fact, I had spotted them hanging out in the local town on both days of the weekend. I had caught this child red-handed but they refused to back down.
I rang home immediately and played along. I said how sorry I was to hear about the ill grandparent and that I understood why it was that the homework had not been completed. The parent sounded confused. I feigned bemusement and suggested that they might want to speak to their child to clarify. The shouting from the other end of the phone could be heard across the office. A beautiful piece of homework and a lengthy letter about the problems of lying arrived on my desk before 8am the next day.
The pre-emptive positive strike
The power of phoning home is priceless. However, as well as negative calls, consider making some positive ones. If you know you are taking on a difficult student, an early phone call to commend good behaviour (before it has had a chance to turn bad) can be as effective as a complaining call later on.
Teachers are very busy people. It is unlikely that there will be moments when you are sitting around looking for something to do. There are always things that stay at the bottom of the never-ending to-do list. However, I would say that phoning home should never be one of them. The benefits outweigh the costs every time.