By Andrew Hawk
When it is time to prepare for a new school year, teachers have many things they must accomplish. In the rush of lesson planning and room arranging, we sometimes overlook small details. One useful strategy that many teachers do not take full advantage of is a well-written back-to-school letter.
When I say “full advantage,” I acknowledge that a letter is produced and distributed. However, too often these are generic form letters that do little more than describe procedures and supply lists. A well-thought-out back-to-school letter offers teachers a chance to start building a relationship with both students and parents. These relationships are vital to the success of a classroom. I recommend that teachers waste no time kicking off the relationship-building process and get started with a great back-to-school letter. Here are some tips I hope you will try when you write your letter this fall.
- Length. How long to make your letter is a tricky question. If you make it too long, you reduce the chances of people reading most or all of it. If you make it too short, you do not necessarily include all the information that will help parents and students get to know you. I suggest a single-spaced letter that is organized into paragraphs. Personally, I keep my letter between one page and one and a half pages. I like to print my letters double-sided to save paper.
- Handwritten. I must admit that I have never handwritten my back-to-school letters. I prefer typing to writing in general. If you have the time and like your handwriting, a handwritten letter does provide a much more personal feeling.
- Personal Information. Many teachers leave out this section, but it is very important. Sharing personal information with students helps them see you as a person. Try answering some of these questions: Do you have children? Do you have siblings? Do you have pets? What are your hobbies? What are your favorite movies? If you play video games, which games do you play? If you like sports, which teams do you root for? When sharing about topics such as movies, television shows, and video games, only include items that are school appropriate. If your students are too young to watch it, you do not need to tell them that you watch it.
- Classroom Information. Most teachers are good at writing this section. Include any class supplies students need to bring and the field trips your grade level is planning to take during the upcoming school year. Some teachers include items about behavior expectations and grading. I would only include these items if you do something far outside the norm for your building. Most parents and students have a general idea of behavior expectations.
- How You Make Learning Fun. Do you use learning games? Do you teach STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) lessons? Give your students something to look forward to when the school year begins. The year I taught fifth grade, I described taking apart owl pellets as part of a science unit. Students started asking me on the first day of school when we would get to complete that lesson.
- Why Do You Teach. You do not have to retype a philosophy of education paper. Parents and students naturally worry about what kind of teacher they’re getting. Put their minds at ease with one or two intelligent sentences. For me: I love teaching because I find children entertaining and I like learning and sharing knowledge.
- Experience. No one teaches for thirty years without teaching for one year first. If you are a first- or second-year teacher, own it. My younger colleagues are often self-conscious about their ages and experience levels. I say, don’t worry about it. Your principal hired you because he or she thought you are a fantastic teacher. Use a sentence or two to describe how long you have taught. If you are a veteran teacher, share some of your past experiences. If this is your first year at a school, you are likely to be asked this question at back-to-school night anyway.
- One Letter or Two. When I taught first grade, I wrote two letters (one for the parents and one for the students) and mailed them both in the same envelope. I wanted to sound professional to the parents but also use kid-friendly language. Writing two letters does take a little more time, but if you teach younger grades, it is the best way to go about starting a relationship with students and parents.
Here’s something I have not tried yet but am considering for the upcoming school year. I am thinking about including a self-addressed stamped envelope and asking students to write a return letter to me. I am interested to see how many responses I get. Also, I think this would be a great way to start the communication flowing in both directions.
Andrew Hawk has worked in public education for sixteen years, starting as a teaching assistant in a special education classroom. He has taught first, second, and fifth grades as a classroom teacher, and for the past five years, has worked as a resource room teacher, providing services for fourth and fifth graders. Working as a special education teacher has given him the opportunity to work with a variety of age groups and exceptionalities. Andrew earned a bachelor’s degree in elementary education at Indiana University East in Richmond, Indiana. In 2011, he earned his master’s degree in special education from Western Governor’s University, and in 2016, he completed a second master’s degree in educational leadership, also from WGU. When Andrew is not preparing for school, he enjoys spending time with his wife and daughter.
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