What Ive Learned About Cultivating Parent Involvement
Educator Max Fischer has found that successful teaching often hinges on employing a wide variety of instructional methods to meet student needs. In this Voice of Experience essay, Fischer reflects on how getting parents involved in their students education also requires a variety of approaches. Included: Eight things Fischer has learned about working with parents!
Last winter, I read a newspaper editorial by columnist George Will that almost made me do back flips like those John Beluschi did in The Blue Brothers. Will, a champion of vouchers and a frequent critic of public education, seemed to have seen the light in a column in which he decried the 9/91 factor. Simply put, in the first eighteen years of life, students spend a mere nine percent of their time in school; the other ninety-one percent represents the extraordinary influence that the home and outside environment exerts on a students engagement with learning.
Finally, I cheered, the press -- a conservative commentator at that -- had caught on to the reality that most educators live with each day: We cant educate students in a vacuum; education must be a collaborative effort between home and school.
SCHOOLS SOMETIMES SEND A POTENT SUBLIMINAL MESSAGEBefore the back flips could do irreparable damage to my spine, I was reminded that schools often do a poor job of reaching out to parents. The yellow smiley face at the school entrance reminds visitors to register at the office; the implicit message is, in many cases, You are now entering The System. Dont interfere with our business (and well try not to interfere with yours).
In A New Generation of Evidence: the Family is Critical to Student Achievement, (National Committee for Citizens in Education, 1994), Anne T. Henderson and Nancy Berla located critical evidence that family involvement, not social status or income, is the vital component in student success. Unfortunately, they found the opposite to be true as well. If schools disparage parents or treat them as negative influences, or cut them out of their childrens education, they promote attitudes in the family that prohibit achievement in school. Parents who stay out, or drop out, of their childrens school experience send a potent, subliminal message to their offspring: This institution isnt worthy of my time, therefore why waste your time.
Middle schools and high schools are extremely vulnerable to this phnomena as many parents are prone to disengage from the educational process by the end of their childrens elementary progress. Some studies report that in suburban communities, where education is usually highly valued, as many as forty percent of parents never visit their child's middle or high school.
HERES WHAT IVE LEARNEDEducators, especially those at the secondary level, cant expect the obligatory open house and parent conferences to suffice when trying to connect with parents. They must be proactive in launching a counteroffensive that targets parents as essential partners in the education of their sons and daughters.
With that in mind, I have developed some basic Dos and Donts for increasing parental engagement. Maybe some of these techniques have been successful for you too!
- Do make an initial call home within the first two weeks of school. Generally speaking, a call home very early in the year to check with parents on their childs adjustment to your (elementary) classroom or secondary school program sends a powerful message: I want your involvement in your childs education, and I need to collaborate with you for the benefit of your child. This non-threatening communication also lays a groundwork that makes subsequent discussion of delicate issues of discipline or homework easier to broach.
- Do communicate whats going on within your classroom on a regular basis. Monthly (at least quarterly) newsletters are appreciated by involved parents, especially as students tend to clam up as they matriculate into middle school.
- Dont be wordy or condescending in your written communication with parents. For some parents, letters full of educationese reaffirm a sense of intimidation or distrust of schools that may have developed over years of negative personal experiences -- either as students or as parents.
- Do utilize modern technology -- e-mail, voice mail, Web pages --wherever is available to help get your message out. With so many two-paycheck families, phone tag via answering machines can be a very inefficient method of communication. Delicate messages should not ever be placed on a familys answering machine when it is unclear who will listen to them first. Impress upon parents that e-mail is often the most direct communication route. For secondary teachers with 100 or more students, online communication is especially advantageous.
- Do be sensitive to the characteristics of your community of parents. Depending upon the community, schools may have to think outside the box -- holding parent conferences away from school; making home visits; and hosting First Day programs to celebrate the beginning of a new school year -- to increase involvement among parents who might be uncomfortable making a personal appearance at school.