Katie Welch, Ph.D.
How to make "Meet the Teacher" both professional and personable
Two Strategies for Making a First Impression that Communicates "I'm competent" & "I care"
As teachers begin gearing up for back to school, one of the first touch points they may have with their new batch of students and those students' families is at Meet the Teacher night. At my kids' elementary school, this event happens a few days before school starts and is the first time that a child learns which class they have been placed in for the upcoming year, who their classmates will be, and which classroom(s) will soon become their "home away from home".
For teachers, this event is a multi-tasking extravaganza that involves introducing themselves to families, getting appropriate paperwork distributed and filled out, organizing school supplies that are being dropped off, and trying to act personable and professional after spending what was no doubt a frantic week or two decorating their classroom, attending PD sessions, and easing (or more likely crashing) back into the hustle and bustle of the school year.
As a teacher, while the hamster wheel inside your head is likely spinning a million miles an hour as you think about all that has to be done, your goal for this event is to communicate two main messages to families: 1) I'm competent, and 2) I care. If you can strike this balance of professionalism and warmth, then you're setting yourself up for success . . . even if the bulletin boards and lesson plans are still in less-than-perfect shape.
Below, I give a two easy-to-implement suggestions on how to present yourself as both professional and personable when you meet families for the first time -- the teacher bio and the name pronunciation recording.
Strategy #1 : Write and distribute a high-quality teacher bio.
Just as students feel safe and comfortable when a teacher has clearly defined procedures, parents likewise feel more confident when they see that their child is in capable hands. While there are a variety of ways you can demonstrate your competence, one way to do this is to provide a well-written teacher bio highlighting your education and experience.
Recently on twitter, the debate about whether teachers should wear jeans was reignited yet again. While I certainly understand both sides of the argument, I would submit that clothes aren't nearly as important as credentials. One of the most impressive teachers my child has had dressed pretty darn casually but nevertheless knocked my socks off with her teacher bio.
TeachersPayTeachers has plenty of "about me" templates, but I've noticed that while many of them are down right adorable, they don't necessarily communicate competence. While students may want to know your favorite color and names of your pets, parents will be more interested in those details come Teacher Appreciation week. When I first meet my child's teacher, I want to know who you are as an educator.
That's not to say that you can't include personal details about your family or favorites or even emotive statements about your excitement about the new school year. Those things are good. But make sure you also include some more substantive info too. As a parent, I would much rather have a simple piece of paper with your photo and a quality bio than something cute that tells me a lot about you but not a lot about why you're qualified to teach my child.
Whether you go fancy or basic, I recommend that your bio should at minimum include the following:
your education (where? what degree(s)?)
the certifications you hold
how long you have been teaching at your current school and in total years
what grades you have taught
a nice picture of you looking "teacher-y"
A quick note about that last one. For years, I worked with first-time authors as they designed their book covers. The headshot was always one of the sticking points, as people weren't sure what type of photo to submit. We always advised them that they needed to look the part, that the picture needed to make back-cover browsers believe that the person in the photo would write a book on their particular topic. In other words, they needed to look authentic.
When you choose a picture for your teacher bio, it doesn't necessarily need to be a photo of you in a three piece suit or in your Sunday finest. And it certainly doesn't need to be something you would use on Tinder or another dating site. (I mention this because I've seen it happen. Several times. Ugh.) Instead, it needs to be a picture that makes you look like a teacher. That will look different for each person depending on grade, subject, and personality, so browse your phone's photo album and choose the one that you think best communicates your teacher self.
If you are currently self-conscious about your looks for whatever reason, consider having a teacher friend take an action shot of you reading a book to your class or collaborating with a small group. Or just skip the photo altogether if it's going to be the only thing that holds you back.
Speaking of being hesitant, sometimes new teachers worry about revealing their novice status. Even if you're a first year teacher and are worried about making known your limited experience, you can list where you did your student teaching or any volunteer or tutoring experience you have. Or you can list the tests that you needed to pass to qualify to be certified. Sometimes I think if the public only knew the rigorous process that teachers go through to get certified, it would dispel the myth that teaching is easy and anyone can do it. Look at your resume and list some of that content because clearly your principal thought those details communicated competence or you wouldn't be where you are now!
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, after you find that perfect photo and craft a bio statement that highlights your expertise, find a trusted colleague to proofread it for you. It's not fair, and I wish it didn't work this way, but one poorly placed typo can undo all the good work you've done in establishing yourself as a competent professional. Everyone needs an editor. Even editors. So please have someone double check your work before you head to the copier.
Oh, and consider copy-pasting your teacher bio to your webpage on your school's website so that parents who missed Meet the Teacher can still read about your awesomeness.
Tip #2: Utilize name pronunciation recordings (NPR) to learn student names.
As unnatural as it feels to toot your own horn in a teacher bio, for most teachers, it's the most natural thing in the world to show kids and families how excited they are to have students joining their classrooms Communicating care is right in a teacher's wheelhouse. So, keep up those smiles and high fives and rapport-building questions such as "What are you looking forward to this year?" and whatever else you do to establish a culture of care from the outset. But, consider adding one additional strategy to your arsenal: name pronunciation recordings (NPR).
An important EdWeek article from 2017 made a case for why pronouncing student names correctly should be top priority for teachers. In this article, they argue that correct name pronunciation communicates to families that you value their cultural backgrounds and identities, but that it can significantly negatively impact a child's socio-emotional well-being by pronouncing it incorrectly. Not exactly the message you want to be sending in those critical first moments when you are establishing trust with new families.
While the EdWeek article makes many great suggestions about how to both learn and fine-tune names on your roster, many of the suggestions involve writing down the pronunciation or studying name pronunciation guides. While these are a good start, I have noticed in my own practice that even though I have every possible advantage, including knowing how to transcribe names quickly and accurately in the International Phonetic Alphabet, making notes to myself just doesn't cut it.
For one, I often simply don't have the time to write down everyone's name. Or if I do, I may not be able to find the roster where I took my notes at a later date. Sometimes I only write down the ones I know for sure I'm going to have a difficult time remembering, but then even on the "easy" names I question myself later. Is Ana pronounced Ah-na or Ae-na? I taught three Ana's one semester with different pronunciations and it was so hard to remember who was who. And, lastly, sometimes the way someone pronounces their name includes subtle nuances that I may not catch the first time around, so even if I transcribe every name, the transcriptions could still be a little skewed.
Take it from a linguist, your best bet is to have the person say their name and record it so you can review it later. This can be as simple as whipping out your iPhone to make a quick voice recording or could be more elaborate such as making a video recording at a FlipGrid station. If you plan on using some type of parent communication software that has a recording function, such as SeeSaw, this is a great opportunity to get families logged into the app and comfortable working with it. You definitely want to get the child's name, but it wouldn't hurt to get the parents' names too, especially their last name. I can't tell you how often I am called Dr. Welsh instead of Welch.
I would also like to suggest that you go one step further and "make the covert overt" by explicitly stating how important it is that you pronounce names correctly so that students know that this is a priority for you. Because Meet the Teacher is often a come-and-go event, you may not have time to explain individually to each family why you are asking them to record their names, but that doesn't make it any less important. You can simply build in a recording station into the traffic flow for the event with a sign explaining why this activity matters.
Even if you think a child's name is goofy or unusual or hard-to-say, the child's parents likely put a lot of thought and love into selecting that name. So, in showing parents your willingness to go the extra mile to make sure that you are using it correctly, you are communicating to parents that you value them, their child, and their culture.
The next step, of course, is to review the videos and practice saying the names. When using them in class the first time, ask the students if you are saying it accurately and invite them to correct you if it's not quite right. I once had a Jorge who pronounced his name "George". I did it right the first few times but then forgot and reverted back to saying "HOR-hay". He never corrected me, and I didn't find out until months later that I had been doing it wrong. I was horrified. Make sure students know that their name is important enough for them to speak up when it's used incorrectly.
As you think about gearing up for back-to-school, what are some other ways you can communicate your competence and care to families? I'd love to hear your strategies and/or feedback on how these two work out for you.