As a principal of a large high school I had to figure out was how I would develop a connection with my students when there were so many of them, nearly 1700, and only one of me. Like many educators, I work full time as a principal and a parent. One thing I have noticed with my own children is that communication via text message elicits an almost immediate response. It occurred to me, 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 above the office and promote it on our school website and publications. It is a dedicated number, used just for texting from my school community.
The topics students text message me about are as varied as my students are. I get questions about policies and procedures, suggestions for things students want to do, concerns about grades, etc. Occasionally there are some very serious issues that students contact me about. School was out for a holiday when a student text messaged me about her friend being “thrown out of her house by her parents.” It was snowing that day and the friend, who was also my student, had nowhere to go. By text messaging back and forth with the students that day we were able to find alternate living arrangements before the day was over. In addition, students have text messaged me to tell me they heard a rumor about a fight that was planned. These warnings help me to plan better to prevent disruptions. I have also been able to get students in touch with resources they need to help them if they need clothing, health care, etc. Although I get an occasional complaint about a teacher, I get far more, “my teacher really helped me…” text messages from students. Many students text message me to praise the school for the improvements we have made. The day after the first homecoming dance we had scheduled in years a student text messaged me and said, “Thanks for letting us have a dance last night. I had a lot of fun.” That text message made my day.
It is a challenge to feel close to students when one is a principal of a large high school; however, texting with students has allowed me to begin a relationship. Everyday students come up and say, “I am the one who text messaged you about…” I always have one question for students when they say that. I ask, “Did I text you back?” They smile and respond affirmatively, knowing that they have access to me if they need me.
With 1700 students text messaging me, there is no way I can keep up with who owns which number, and I have never tried. When students text me with a concern about them, I always reply and ask them to identify themselves, so I can help them. Students have been referred to other resources for depression, pregnancy, homelessness, family lacking basic necessities, etc. I have never had a student refuse to identify himself or herself when I asked. The trust that texting has enabled them to build with me 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. I assured them that students would not get mad during class, take out their phones, and demand to text me on the spot. In the 7+ years that I have been texting students, that has not happened, even once.
The parents of my students have been very supportive. They appreciate that their child can get to the principal anytime. Many of my parents text me, and I frequently have text messages from students asking that I call their parent. Parents value the communication and the access that the text messaging provides. Occasionally, a student reports a problem to the parent the parent doesn’t hear about it until the evening. It could be a disruption on the school bus or an issue with a student bothering them, etc. For that parent to be able to reach me and write, “my child says this happened” and know that I am there, matters. Usually I cannot do anything until the next morning, but instead of the family reeling and being upset all night, texting allows them to “hit the pause button” on the upsetting incident and wait for me to investigate and contact them the next day.
Texting is quicker than a phone call, e-mail, or appointment. If I did not text message, I would still need to answer all the questions I answer via text messaging. Since this method is faster, it is not another thing to do; it is a smarter thing to do.