By Susan Stone Kessler, Ed. D., coauthor of The Principal’s Survival Guide
As a principal of a large high school, I needed to figure out how I would develop connections with my students when there were so many of them—nearly 1,700—and only one of me. Like many educators, I work full time as a principal and a parent. One thing I’ve noticed with my own children is that communication via text message elicits an almost immediate response. It occurred to me that if this is how teenagers communicate then I need to communicate with them this way.
I publish my texting phone number on a banner in the school lobby and promote the number on our school website and in publications. It is a dedicated number, used just for texting with my school community.
The topics students text me about are as varied as my students are. I receive questions about policies and procedures, suggestions for things students want to do, concerns about grades, and so on. Occasionally students contact me about serious issues. For example, school was out for a holiday and a student texted me about her classmate being “thrown out of her house by her parents.” It was snowing that day and her friend had nowhere to go. Through texting back and forth with the students that day, we were able to find alternate living arrangements before the day was over.
Students have texted to tell me about rumors about a fight. Warnings like this help me plan to prevent disruptions. I have also been able to get students in touch with resources to help them if they need clothing, healthcare, and so forth. Although I receive an occasional complaint about a teacher, I get far more “my teacher really helped me” messages from students. Many students text to praise the school for the improvements we have made at the school. The day after the first homecoming dance we had had in years, a student texted, “Thanks for letting us have a dance last night. I had a lot of fun.” That message made my day.
It’s a challenge to feel close to students as the principal of a large high school; however, texting with students has enabled me to begin relationships. Every day, students come up and say, “I am the one who texted you about . . .” I always ask: “Did I text you back?”
They smile and respond affirmatively, knowing that they have access to me if they need me.
With 1,700 students texting me, there is no way I can keep track of who owns which number, and I have never tried. When students text me with a concern, I reply and ask them to identify themselves so I can help them. I have referred students to resources for depression, pregnancy, homelessness, families needing basic necessities, etc. I have never had a student refuse to identify himself or herself when I asked. The trust that texting has helped build has been significant because students know if they ask for help, they will get it.
When I announced my texting plan, it was a surprise to the teachers. Some worried that students would get mad during class, take out their phones, and demand to text me on the spot. I assured them this wouldn’t happen, and in the 7+ years I have been texting students, it hasn’t happened even once.
The parents of my students have been very supportive. They appreciate that their child can contact the principal anytime. Many parents text me, and I frequently get messages from students asking that I call their parent. Parents value the communication and the access that text messaging provides.
Occasionally, a student reports a problem to a parent in the evening. It could be a disruption on the school bus or an issue with a student bothering them, etc. These can be emotional issues, but instead of the family reeling and being upset all night, they can text me. Usually I cannot do anything until the next morning, but texting allows them to “hit the pause button” on the upsetting incident and wait for me to investigate and contact them the next day. For that parent, being able to reach me matters.
Texting is quicker than a phone call, an email, or an appointment. If I did not text, I would still need to answer all the questions I receive. Since texting is faster, it is not another thing to do; it is a smarter thing to do.
Dr. Susan Stone Kessler is an award-winning educator who has spent the past 21 years working in schools with Middle Tennessee teenagers. She has been a teacher, an assistant principal, and a high school principal in two Tennessee school districts. She is coauthor of The Principal’s Survival Guide: Where Do I Start? How Do I Succeed? When Do I Sleep?
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