40. School-Home Communication Tips with Patricia Weinzapfel

Joined with Patricia Weinzapfel, communications consultant and author of, “Closing the Loop: A Powerful and Practical Guide to School-Home Communication.” Patricia bridges the gap between parents and the classroom with her top school-home communication tips, helping us build meaningful connections and embrace our humanity.

About Patricia Weinzapfel:

Patricia travels the nation helping school districts improve their communication practices. Patricia served 10 years as the Executive Director of Family Engagement for the third largest school district in Indiana. She holds two degrees in journalism from Northwestern University and spent 15 years in television news. Patricia has combined her two careers, education and journalism, to bring a fresh, unique perspective to the intersection of family engagement and school-home communications.

Find Patricia Weinzapfel:

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Show Transcript

Aubrey: Welcome to Mindful School Marketing. I’m Aubrey Bursch. 

Tara: And I’m Tara Claeys. Today we’re joined by Patricia Weinzapful. Patricia travels the nation helping school districts improve their communication practices. She served 10 years as the executive director of family engagement for the third largest school district in Indiana. Patricia holds two [00:01:00] degrees in journalism from Northwestern University and spent 15 years in television news. She’s combined her two careers, education and journalism to bring a fresh, unique perspective to the intersection of family engagement and school home communications. Welcome Patricia. We’re so glad you’re here. 

Patricia: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me. I’m coming to you live for my basement in Evansville, Indiana. 

Aubrey: Excellent. And we are so excited to have you here because for one reason, I’ve just heard so much about you, but also communication is such an important thing. I mean, across the board, but especially for independent schools. So I’m just thrilled that you’re here, so thank you for coming on our show. Before we dive in, can you tell us a little bit more about yourself? 

Patricia: Sure. I, I would love to. As you said in the introduction, I’m a former television news reporter. And I ended up getting a job in education. I was the, as you said, the executive director of family engagement here in Evansville, Indiana. And when I started my job- it was difficult. It was like, my brain was trying to absorb. So much because I found all of the school language, the acronyms and the jargon, I couldn’t understand half of it. And in fact, I would sit in meetings and Google stuff under the table, or I’d leave that meeting and ask my boss what the heck just happened in that meeting. I was completely lost. And then along with that, people were so authoritative, and I just wasn’t really used to that sort authoritative businesslike approach. So that was pretty intimidating for me too. At the same time, I started going to education conferences and at least once during every session, and actually it still happens today, somebody would raise their hand and say, why do we speak to families the way we do? They can’t understand what we’re saying. Why do we treat them, in such a like authoritative way? And after hearing this six or seven times, I thought to myself, I really am still learning about education, but I do know how to do this because this is actually the skill of a broadcast journalist. It’s this ability to take very complicated subjects like combined sewer overflow and break them down in ways that’s clear and concise and ways that kind of resonate. And so that night, while I was still at one of the conferences, I thought let’s just start getting some stuff on paper. And six years later, I had written a book, unschool home communication. And then just a couple years ago, I left my position at the district to work with schools across the nation to help them improve school home communication. So, and to tell, I mean, if I’m gonna be honest I like resisted it, but I felt compelled to write the book. It was like this nagging little thing on my shoulder that wouldn’t go away until- until I did it. That’s my story.

Tara: What a great evolution and that’s really interesting how you saw this need and it wasn’t being filled and then you actually even wrote a book about it. And that’s really cool. Let’s talk about the beginning of the school year. It’s an important time for schools to establish communication with parents and guardians and students as whether they’re new students, new families, returning families, what are some key guidelines for school, home communication, especially out of the gate at the beginning of the year?

Patricia: Well, I think at the beginning of the year, what’s most important is to establish the relationship with families and just open those lines of communication. It seems like often we overwhelm parents with the rules and the policies and this is the uniform for the year and this is, what’s expected of you. But in fact, what’s really important is just to build that relationship and get to know the families. So one of the things that I suggest is that, teachers reach out and make phone calls to their families and just get to know them. And one of the most powerful questions they can ask, and this is from a protocol that was created by an organization called parent teacher home visits. But one of the, one of the protocols around that is just to ask, what are the hopes and dreams for your child? What a powerful question. So if we ask that as an educator, we open the lines of communication and then we can begin to give them the information they need the uniform, the school policies, how you sign up for the lunch program, that, that kind of stuff. I think that’s really important once we’ve established that relationship. It’s important then to be mindful of the words we use and making sure that those aren’t words that are gobbly gook for families. Words like fluency- words that they don’t necessarily use in their everyday life. Being aware of the acronyms, I think is really important. Throughout the year being aware of not overwhelming families with information, giving them the basic minimal information they need to participate in the learning process. I think that’s important. Sure- we’re gonna have families that are gonna wanna know more, but they can ask questions or, reach out or we can, we have families who perhaps we need to reach out in a more concerted way, we can do that, but I think it’s important to be aware of the information and then, and then last and perhaps most importantly, we need to be aware that as educators, we have an expertise, but parents also have an expertise- they are actually the experts in their children. So I’m not an expert in algebra, I’m an expert in Benjamin Wine. When we’re discussing how to keep Benjamin on task in the classroom, I need to feel comfortable bringing that expertise to the table. So just understanding that education is a partnership I think is really important. 

Aubrey: I really appreciate what you said here. It’s that you’re connecting before you communicate, you’re establishing that relationship. And I think I’m just envisioning a lot of the school communications that as I, as an independent school mom receive. But also like when I’m working with schools, like the amount of communication that we sent out about the, like the parent handbook, then there’s this, and then there’s carpool and then there’s this and people are feeling overwhelmed and that’s probably even before a connection piece has gone out like that phone call you talked about. So I really appreciate you bringing that up. Cause I think it’s important for schools to hear that we are very concerned about making sure they have the information they need to start the year, but also building that relationship. And that connection is really important. 

Patricia: Yeah, I think I think, when we want families involved because we need that expertise, education is a partnership, so really, sure- they need to know the rules and regulations and how we’re gonna operate, but it’s actually more important if they have, if families have limited bandwidth, it’s more important for them to understand what’s going on in the classroom so that they can build or extend that learning at [00:08:00] home. That’s where the real kind of student success happens. 

Aubrey: I love that. Thank you so much for sharing. I’m curious, as you’ve been working with schools and looking at communications and observing what you see out there, what are some of the biggest challenges you see when it comes to communicating with families? We talked about one of them, but I’m sure there’s more.

Patricia: I think there’s challenges on both sides. There’s challenges on the part of educators. Let’s face it. A lot of them didn’t have communication classroom training as part of their kind of introduction to the classroom. So I think that’s one thing, sometimes they just don’t necessarily know how. I think time is a big barrier. I mean, my goodness, we’re all so busy. It’s hard to think- gosh, I really need to spend time crafting this email, or I really need to spend time making sure this text message says exactly what I want it to say, because we just simply don’t. We don’t have that time. I think we all have shorter attention spans. I read something the other day that our attention span is actually shorter than a goldfish. They can hold their attention for 12 seconds. Ours is down to eight. So I think that presents, a big challenge, but what I see, and I think it’s changing as a result of the pandemic. But the biggest thing I see is when we really begin to meaningfully communicate with families, we may have to listen. We may have to change, and that can be frightening sometimes. I mean, if we’re gonna sit as equal partners and, we’ll hopefully work together to student success, then we really need to be equal partners. You know, when I do trainings and there are parents and teachers sitting side by side, what’s really powerful is the, it’s not me saying, this process doesn’t make sense or this, you know, nobody’s gonna understand what you’ve written here. It’s the parents saying I don’t get it. This process isn’t working for me. Imagine what education could look like if we really worked together. So I think it’s just getting over that idea of being a little scared of it. 

Tara: Yeah, I think, that’s a good point when we talk about being scared or being overwhelmed. I mean, as Aubrey mentioned, and especially at the beginning of the year, again, like the amount of stuff that you have to fill out as a parent and the amount of information coming into the school to be processed, all of that is overwhelming. I’m curious to know if there is- what media or platforms or methods of communication schools should be paying the most attention to? And I know different people absorb information differently. I like to have things on my phone. Some people wanna have something printed out. So do you cover all the bases or where should most of the energy be spent? What do you think schools should be paying attention to in regards to-

Patricia: It’s so interesting that you brought that up because a month or two ago, there was a study done asking parents how they wanna receive the information. And they primarily still say email. And I find that fascinating. And what’s really fascinating is the discrepancy between how, what people feel like parents are going to social media and they feel like Facebook is, and those types of things are the best way to reach parents. But when you ask them, email is still the way they wanna get it. I think moving forward that’ll change, because of the things we talked about, the attention span and all that. But yeah, that was I found that to be very interesting. School websites are good for just that kind of additional information or that check in, it’s a great resource and you have to have that. Absolutely have to have that, as far as just practical information that parents need to know. It’s still email. I just, I found that fascinating. 

Aubrey: That is fascinating. When I’ve been interviewing parents they have mentioned that they want the email. I mean, this kind of, I, I can see how this aligns. They want email, but they’re also like sometimes I can’t find that email with that thing that I was supposed to do. So I think that’s where like maybe a parent portal online or some sort piece could help facilitate that. 

Patricia: Oh, no doubt. You bring up a great point. You’ve really gotta hit people from all directions. So you’re saying, look out for a really important, you know, you’re texting look out for a really important email or you’re, putting on your Facebook or your Twitter, really important email coming home, make sure you star that email. I think that’s- you bring up another great point. You’ve gotta hit people from all sides and ideally you’re here it something that’s really important. You’re utilizing everything in your toolbox to get that message through. Yeah, that’s a great point.

Aubrey: Well, thank you. I appreciate you sharing that though, because I think people actually needed to hear about the email because, I think we hear about the email, but then all the other ways that people communicate and need to be, outreached in touch, but emails still being a primary way that people want to be contacted.

Patricia: Yeah. I think moving forward, it very well may be text message and what I like for texting is just quick snaps of this is what your kid is doing in the classroom. That’s so positive. I mean, we all wanna know what our kids are like when we’re not around. What are they doing in that classroom when I’m not around? I mean, a quick text with a picture, that is where that engagement happens. A mom can say, I saw you, working with that Lego set or whatever it might be. And then, engage around that at home. And it’s also an opportunity to share positive stuff, which again, continues to build that relationship.

Aubrey: I love that you said that. One of the things that we talk about is part of this connect four framework that I have for retention, which is, you need the connection to the classroom, you need the connection to your child’s experience. That’s a whole reason you’re outta school is cuz you wanna know and your most precious thing and the entire world is your child. You want to know. What they’re doing, how you know, socially. And I think now, especially during COVID, and I’d love to hear your take on this, like what you’re noticing, but parents are even more wanting to know, like socially, emotionally and academically, like, how is my child doing? Are they making friends? Are they having trouble adjusting? We’ve heard about, all the issues as we’re, all coming back together as a community and like the, learning delays in some areas and social issues. So I’m curious, what sort of ways have you seen schools effectively build that relationship with the classroom and then also sharing out that child’s experiences because I often hear wow, we’re so strapped. Like our poor teachers, they’re doing 50 billion things at once. How do we also help them do that- that outreach?

Patricia: I, I. I think we’re just getting, going rebuilding relationships. So I’ll say that. And I teachers have a lot on their plates and I think that needs to be acknowledged. I think one of the things to keep in mind, particularly, because COVID feels a little bit like a fresh start. Just a little bit, we had some time to think about what education looks like, and I think it’s important for educators to look at what they’re doing. And what they spend their time on when it comes to communication. And maybe that may require a bit of a pivot or a bit of a shift so that instead of sending home, the rules and the regulations we’re instead concentrating on sending home that content, which can really reassure parents, I think it probably starts with your own little individual communication audit, what do I spend my time on? And how can I make, how can I make better use of that time? It’s not necessarily about sending hope a bunch of papers. It’s about sending home one or two things, you know that a parent can engage on when they get home. If you put it that, if you really think about it, I’m going to send home one thing for three of my children. I’m gonna do that on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday. That, that would be enough to I think help parents feel more connected and give them some talking points and tools that they can use at home with their kids. And that would continue to build their relationship. So I think it’s just probably starts with reflection.

Tara: What a great segue to my question about mindfulness. I mean, this is the Mindful School Marketing podcast, so I wanna talk a little bit about mindfulness and also how it applies to small school administration and also marketing. And I think all of the things that we’re talking about here are elements of marketing in their own way, because when we’re talking about independent schools, having a good communication process with your families, is a big selling point. It’s a point of differentiation for schools. And if, when parents are talking to their peers about what they like about the private school that their child is attending. And they’re saying that they don’t like the fact that they don’t ever hear what’s going on. That’s not gonna help in your marketing no matter what you do. So having parents feel good about the relationship that they have and what they’re hearing and the information that they’re getting is a key element of marketing. And it all ties together. Not that you’re doing it just for that purpose, but certainly that’s a selling point for a school. Right?

Patricia: Right. 

Tara: Yeah. 

Patricia: I mean, it touches all of that and there is I, and you guys probably know this better than I do, but if someone’s had a positive experience with something three outta four people are gonna share that. So if you’re like, oh my goodness. I knew exactly what was going on. Love that teacher. That was just great. I really felt engaged in it. I mean, they’ll share that. You want that for sure. 

Tara: Yeah. Yeah. That’s the easiest marketing that you can do. And I think, bringing in the mindful element is it’s being mindful of that fact, right? That, that all of the communication that you’re doing with your families and the way that you’re doing it. Is is underscoring your marketing effort. So being mindful of that, but I wanted to ask, what does mindfulness mean to you and how does it apply to school communication? 

Patricia: For me personally, it’s just that kind of reflection all the time, and when it, and within the communication space, how did that, how did I handle that? How did I do, should I have taken a breath, should I have calmed down? Should I have acknowledged, that I was stressed out? I think that’s what I try to do personally. And actually, that’s what I try to talk about. I work mindfulness into all of the workshops that I do because a lot of, because being a good communicator is being aware first of all of yourself, who am I, where am I coming from? What are my emotional triggers when I’m hangry? Am I grumpy? That kind of things you, you need to check in with yourself. And then it’s this idea of being mindful of another person’s experience and how it might differ from yours. When we think about our families, what might they have on their plates? Some of our families are working two jobs, you know, just trying to make ends meet. Some of our families their families are, are in tunnel. You know, they’ve got aging parents or perhaps there’s a breakup happening. I mean, we need to be mindful of that because in order to be a good communicator, you’ve got to be able to- to have an understanding, not just of what you are communicating, but who you are communicating with. So a lot of it, it can become instinctual, but you can also practice that- you can practice that kind of mindful approach of just stopping and thinking before you’re you are communicating. You know that breath, ah, it always comes down to that. Doesn’t it? We all need to breathe. 

Tara: Absolutely. Yep. It’s a hard lesson- you can learn that lesson the hard way of not taking that time to think things through, for sure. I’ve definitely been guilty of. Knee jerk reaction. Yeah. Yeah. 

Patricia: Like firing the email right back. And then you’re like, I’ll tell you my biggest thing. I’ll start trying an email and then I’ll be like, oh, I have to go back and say, Hey, how was your weekend? Because that’s that relationship kind of-

Tara: Yep. 

Patricia: That is literally a breath on the page. 

Tara: Yep. For sure. I totally agree. I do the same thing.

Aubrey: Thank you so much for sharing that I could identify with. How are you? I’m like, oh yeah, wait, they went to this place last week. I should ask about that. I really, I forgot, it’s not just about a transactional email. It’s about the relationship piece. So I appreciate you bringing that up and really talking about mindfulness. We’re about to transition into questions. We ask all our guests. Are you ready? 

Patricia: I think I’m ready. I actually have some show and tell here. 

Aubrey: Ooh, exciting. I’m gonna kick us off with the first one. What are the most important things you do to grow personally and professionally? 

Patricia: In, so professionally listen to podcasts. I think that is just informal mentoring, really powerful. Whenever I’m presenting at a conference, I try to stay- you know, even if the session isn’t necessarily around communication, you just can learn so much by sitting and you’ll, there’ll be a little nugget that you can take. I am a journalist, it’s fundamental to who I am. So I listen to news all day long. I mean, I have to know what’s going on. So that’s my professional approach. Personally, I just seek out, to build on that journalism thing, seek out knowledge, but I really try to push outta my comfort zone. I do those breaths, but yeah, it’s scary. It’s nerve wracking, but I try to do that and then, whether, and I always keep in the back of my mind if it goes well. Great. If it doesn’t, I still pat myself on the back. 

Tara: Great. Yeah. I love that. Absorbing a lot of news can be challenging, but it’s also it’s a good practice to have to be up on the current events.

Patricia: Yeah. 

Tara: I’m gonna hop. Yeah, go ahead. 

Patricia: You do have to take a breath and step back from it every now and again, because yeah. 

Tara: It’s a lot. Yeah. Okay. I’m gonna move on to rapid fire questions. So the first one is if you could put one book as mandatory reading in the high school curriculum, what would it be?

Patricia: Okay. This is off the- off of it, but I just got this book for my kids. It’s called, Get a Financial Life, and it is by a woman named Beth Kobliner. And I remember reading this when I was, like a new adult and I thought it was really powerful, not in this idea that, gosh, we’re gonna try to, to amass a fortune, but I just think practical skills and financial literacy, that type of stuff. I think that’s invaluable for young people to understand today. And the book does a great job of simplifying. And bringing everyone into that world. I mean, think about communication, we’re bringing families into our world of education, but, for some of us stepping into a financial business, buying a home, getting an apartment, all that stuff, it can, there, there are barriers and language and jargon and acronyms all involved in that. So I think that book does a good job of kind of demystifying and decoding, all that stuff. 

Aubrey: I’m so excited you, this is one of the things I’m super passionate about. So I’m so excited you brought up that book and I will be definitely reading it. I too, feel passionate about that. And it’s interesting cuz it’s not just, I would say more and more parents, especially when we’re interviewing parents for market research or saying they want those real world skills. Like they really want their children to be able to financial literate and know exactly what to do. What is a mortgage? What is it like? Let’s not go into debt. Like how do we do this? So I’m very interested in reading that book. So thank you for sharing. 

Patricia: Yeah, it’s a good one. 

Aubrey: So I’m gonna ask you the next one. What is one app you couldn’t live without? 

Patricia: I am- I use Insight Timer, which is a meditation app. I use that every morning. I don’t know who I would be without that. It’s fantastic. There are guided meditations. I fell asleep to it last night. That is one that has become very important in my life.

Tara: I used that as well. And I was having a goal of meditating for one minute before I opened any social media. And so I used that to just do a one minute just quiet. It has a little timer on it, so with a little bell that rings that I thought was pretty neat. So I did use that. Okay. Next question. What are you reading right now? 

Patricia: So this is communication in a completely different way. During the pandemic, we adopted a little five year old dog. He’s was heartworm positive. He was so skinny. He’s a border calling mix. And along with the rescue, we nursed him back to health. And so I am reading this book called, Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know. It’s called it’s by Alexandra Horowitz. And it is fascinating because it really speaks to this idea of how communicative dogs are. And it just, it’s fascinating to see, read something and then watch my dog. So it’s, he’s very communicative and I thought this book would help me understand him better. I know! 

Tara: How cool! That’s very cool. 

Aubrey: Tara. You have a dog too, right? 

Tara: I do. He’s sleeping right over here. I wonder what’s going on inside his head right now. 

Aubrey: And I’m thinking about adopting one. So this will be a good, I’ll focus this on my reading this as well. So, final question: what is one great piece of advice you’d like to leave us with?

Patricia: I think when it comes to school-home communication, and really when it comes to communication in general, my biggest piece of advice is to be human and show that vulnerability and make those connections and show that humanity and be respectful. I think we really need to get back to that. We always feel like we have to be so business like, and so formal or so short, but at the end of the day, every interaction we have is like gold. I mean, it really is a precious opportunity, whether it’s, the woman in the checkout at the supermarket or the parent who wanders into your classroom for a second, we really need to bring that humanity and be human. That -that would be my biggest piece of advice.

Tara: Thank you so much. That’s great advice. I love that. Being human. There’s a lot that could be said about that too, in terms of also forgiving yourself and all those things that comes with being, being human too, right? 

Patricia: Yes. Showing yourself grace.

Tara: Yeah, yeah. Thank you so much, Patricia. We really loved having this conversation and we’re so grateful that you joined us to share all these great tips with our listeners. Where could they find you online? 

Patricia: So I have a website, patriciaweinzpaful.com. My book is on Amazon. It’s called, Closing the Loop, a Powerful and Practical Guide to School-Home Communication. So those are probably the best ways to reach me. I’m also on Twitter @pfwindy. P and then F like Frank windy, like windy city.

Tara: Great. Thank you. 

Aubrey: Thank so much. 

Tara: Thanks so much. You take care. 

Patricia: Thank you. You guys stay safe. 

Tara: Bye bye. 

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