Is Your School in Sync with Parents and Families?

Cathy GassenheimerListening to conversations at our recent Skillful Team Leader Institute, I overheard several principals and instructional partners discuss the need to better engage parents in their children’s education. It’s a perennial conversation in schools – how do we strengthen these connections?

When I returned to our office after the institute, I discovered a timely resource that addresses this challenge: The September issue of Educational Leadership with its theme: In Sync With Families.

I’ve finally been able to sit down and read through this issue and I want to share some of what I found. I’ll give attention to articles that are free to access at the ASCD webite and also some that are “locked” (available only to subscribers). Let me say that this issue is a great resource for school and teacher leaders to share around and discuss. If you don’t have an EL subscription, it’s a wise investment! You can also buy this issue.

Those tough calls from home

Those of you who read this blog might guess where I turned to first. Educational Leadership is lucky to have Carol Ann Tomlinson, teacher educator and author, as a regular writer, and she began her September column with a story from her twenty-year K-12 teaching career.

She remembers receiving a tough call from a parent who claimed Tomlinson had “permanently extinguished” her son’s interest in writing because of the low grade he received.

Ouch! Not to be daunted, Tomlinson prepared for the parent conference to be held the following week. During the conference, she received an unexpected response from the affected student. The student told his mother that he deserved the grade given because he hadn’t put much effort into writing it.

The bridge that the student built by being honest enabled a healthy conversation between the three – teacher, parent, and student – and provided a key insight for Tomlinson:

I came to see parents as my partners in teaching and I learned to build trust with them. I realized that parents needed from me what their children needed: affirmation, goals we could share, and support for achieving them.

When I could convey to parents my desire to serve their child effectively, my sense of gratitude for the opportunity to both teach and learn from their child, and my optimism about working with them to support their child’s growth, we could listen to one another, learn together, and genuinely look forward to the next opportunity to talk together.

Making Open Houses More Meaningful and Engaging

Two articles provide alternative ways to engage parents both digitally and in person. Catlin Tucker, a teacher, professional developer, and author of several books included Blended Learning in Action, suggests flipping the back-to-school night.

Most of my parents ‘meet’ me for the first time online. I record a short video introduction so they can learn about my experience and teaching philosophy, then I record a screencast taking them on a virtual tour of our class website. I highlight the resources available on our website, such as the daily agenda, a list of frequently used online resources, and a link to my YouTube playlists, where all my vocabulary, writing, and grammar videos live.

In an interview (this one’s locked), Harvard educator and family engagement expert Karen Mapp suggests a new twist on the traditional open house. One school changed the name to “Family Fun Night” and had students prepare a hand-written invitation for their parents. Teachers personally called parents, promising the event would live up to its new name! When parents arrived, a band was playing and refreshments were served.

When families went into the auditorium, instead of the principal talking about the rules of the school or curriculum, the principal and staff members shared three specific goals they’d decided on, after looking at achievement data, for what all students should know and be able to do by the end of the year…

When the families went into the classrooms, they participated in activities teachers had designed, things that could be done at home and in the community that would support one of those goals…The school took everyday things that families do and showed how these activities could get kids to practice important learning skills that the teachers would be going over in the classrooms.

“Onboarding” New Students

In their article, Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey share the process they use at the school where they teach to help students acclimate. The first day a student arrives at Health Sciences High and Middle College, s/he spends the day learning about the school, rather than being thrown into classrooms with little or no knowledge of what is expected or about the culture of the school.

Why is this important? John Hattie’s research found that the effect size of mobility on student achievement is a NEGATIVE .34—and, in Alabama, we have a lot of kids who frequently change schools.

Watch this six-minute video by Frey and Fisher that illustrates the onboarding process through the eyes of a new student.

The Importance of Home Visits

I was inspired and moved by the (locked) article written by Louise El Yaafouri-Kreuzer titled “How Home Visits Transformed My Teaching.” Given the opportunity to teach students from a variety of nationalities, who spoke different languages and had different cultures, the author learned that home visits helped her understand and better address the needs of each student. She noted:

Sometimes I realized a family’s traditions about learning were already helping a student and saw how I could coordinate instruction with those contributions. Other times, I perceived practices in a family’s culture that might have worked out fine for school in the heritage country, but presented challenges—usually resolvable ones—within a U.S. school.

In the article, the author tells the stories of four different students. In addition to feeling like you are there with her as she describes each students’ circumstances, you learn that home visits build that important bridge and parents from other cultures want and need.

Engagement Is More Powerful Than ‘Involvement’

Other articles in this issue address overcoming the fear of students at risk of deportation, dealing with parents who have students in the autism spectrum, the changing demographics of families, and working with marginalized parents. As Anthony Rebora, EL’s editor in chief, writes in his introduction to the “In Sync with Families” issue:

(M)any of the pieces make a strong case that, to make a difference in 21st-century America, school family-engagement efforts have to go well beyond pro forma back-to-school nights and parent-teacher conferences—or what Karen L. Mapp calls “random acts of parent involvement.” Instead, such efforts must take on more of the character of immersive projects aimed at building cultural understanding and developing relationships.

I’m reminded of teacher and noted EdWeek columnist Larry Ferlazzo’s admonition that there’s a significant difference between involving and engaging parents and families. The first often keeps schools firmly in control. The second invites those who have responsibility for students day in and day out to be partners in the learning process.

The many ideas found in September’s EL can help us with the challenging but rewarding work of building those kinds of genuine partnerships.