Parents as Active Partners: Reaching All Parents Is the Challenge
Educators are both teachers and learners. Educational researchers have discovered new and more effective ways of teaching reading or mathematics, new scientific discoveries have changed or added to science curriculum, history and politics change each present day, and national standards are instituted. Teachers must learn and change and so must their leaders. So on one hand, we assert the structure of schools must change, but on the other hand, change has taken place within the old structure to the point of bursting. As the old structure retains its hold, within it there is movement happening. As a society, our trust is eroding. Investigations uncover hidden behaviors of police, politicians, educators, athletes, coaches, and now even FIFA Officials. Pulling in the opposite direction is the knowledge that trust and strong relationships are essential for student success in schools.
Communication Builds Relationships
Many schools have worked hard to establish communication and maintain transparency with parents. Many are turning to technology for help with this goal. Schools' missions, visions, codes of conduct, curriculum, requirements, contact information, emergency communications, and budget information have become standard information shared on websites and social media. Using social media to communicate about athletic events, emergencies, school closings, good news, homework and meetings have become the norm. Webpages, Facebook, and Twitter are among the most popular. All are vehicles for sending information out. Using these vehicles to communicate is important. It is also important to note it is mostly a one-way communication, sharing information and an attempt at transparency. What about relationships?
Relationships are built through communication between people. And, a most important relationship is between parents and schools. It has always been so, and is now more than ever. "As standards for student performance have risen and the stakes for school have increased, educators need and want more support from parents" (Horvat & Baugh, 2015). As we call for parents to participate in decisions about how schools are managed, safety councils, hiring committees, curriculum councils, and opting out of testing, we have a responsibility to develop relationships that engage parents as more than recipients of information.
The Common Core and the use of standardized tests are two examples. As the world inside of schools worked to understand and implement them, parents had to be brought into the process. Schools held informational sessions in an attempt to share with parents what these changes meant and how they were changing things within the school. But, like most events and meetings, not all parents could be present, and, with that, not all children will have informed parents.
So three issues emerge. First,one or two sessions for parents may not be enough given the controversy about the changes. Second, the gap between those parents who are connected to the changes in the education of their child and ability to support them in their education widens. A third issue arises when the school professionals are, themselves, in conflict about the changes.
What value is added when the relationship between schools and parents is tainted from the beginning? The relationship between schools and parents are essential for the positive impact it will have on the children. We are not suggesting that standing up and speaking out is a detriment. We are suggesting that there be clear and understood communications between schools and parents that allow for expression of doubt or opposition and assure that the children will be ok.
This is a different time than the days when Back to School Night, attendance at games and performances, and checking children's homework indicated an engaged parent (Horvat & Baugh 2015). Increasingly, parents indicate they can't help with homework for multiple reasons. Teachers and leaders alike can reach out and invite more parents to become aware and engaged. An example is the difference between the parents who sit on committees and enter the school with comfort, and those who are called in to speak with a teacher or guidance counselor or school leader about their child not doing well, or misbehaving. It is an opportunity for relationship building; to bridge the gap from a parent who dreads hearing from school and a parent who understands and supports the school engaged in educating their child.
Take Every Opportunity
Whenever a parent enters the school there is an opportunity to nurture a relationship by listening to the perspective that parent brings. Even in the meeting about a suspension, there is opportunity for a shift in the conversation to show the way expectations have changed. Explaining even a simple concept, or the difference in the way we are asking students to think, can help a parent to feel included and, hopefully, empowered to remain open to understanding the changes we are making. Leave them with an open invitation to call or come back to talk about their student's schoolwork; as we learn more, we can share more.
More than ever we, and the students in our charge, need parents as informed and active partners. Developing understandings and creating real relationships are important for the success of schools. The more we invite parents into the process, the more informed they become. The more we invite parents into the process, the more widely issued our invitations need to be; we cannot be content with just those who step forward with comfort. Those who do not step forward need us to go to them. No matter the consideration or accommodation, the key is to use every opportunity to build relationships. Our goal to reach every student is more likely to be met, if we accompany that goal with reaching every parent.
Horvat, E. M. & Baugh, D.E. (2015) Not All Parents Make The Grade in Today's Schools. Phi Delta Kapan V96 N7, 8-13