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Ask the Mentor

Building the Parent-Teacher Relationship: Part I

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The Mentors
Co-authors of Beyond the Bake Sale: The Essential Guide to Family-School Partnerships (with Vivian R. Johnson and Don Davies), Anne T. Henderson and Karen L. Mapp offer advice and dozens of practical solutions for building strong family-school-community relationships to benefit student learning.

A senior consultant to the Community Involvement Program at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, Henderson has written a small library of reader-friendly reports, guides, articles, and books. After serving as Boston Public School’s Deputy Superintendent for Family and Community Engagement, Mapp joined Harvard’s Graduate School of Education as a Lecturer on Education in 2005.

Parent involvement—or lack thereof—can be a source of frustration for families, teachers, administrators, and districts. Language barriers, cultural nuances, and perceptual differences can bring tension to the delicate parent-teacher dynamic, which is a two-way street. How can you, as an educator, bridge the divide? What role does an administrator play in engaging parents and families? Henderson and Mapp respond to your questions on breaking the cycle of frustration and poor communication in order to foster a healthier, happier, and more productive classroom. In Part II, look for more discussion of family-school partnerships, in addition to teacher outreach strategies from veteran educator and family outreach specialist, Ilene Carver.

See Also
See a review of Beyond the Bake Sale by Amy Bailey of Teacher Leaders Network here.

Who are considered "problem parents" and what are strategies for parents in coping with "problem teachers"?

Good question. We’ve all seen the articles about "helicopter parents"—those who hover over teachers demanding special treatment for their kids and telling them how to do their job better. Then there are the "hard to reach parents" who don't seem to respond or be interested in activities at school. Sometimes parents can be "hostile and angry," even physically threatening. These are just labels, of course, which obscure the actual people involved.

Anne T. Henderson
Anne T. Henderson

Parents have similar complaints about teachers—they don’t listen, they don’t respect parents’ points of view, they’re "hard to reach."

There is one way that all parents are the same: They want to help, protect, and get a better deal for their children. They are trying to be advocates, but they may not know how to act constructively. And all teachers care about their students and want them to do well, but they may not know how to work with parents of different backgrounds and cultures, or even a different perspective on education.

Every school should work with families, teachers, and other staff to develop a problem-solving or complaint-resolution process. We think this is an excellent project for an action team. A problem-solving process should answer these questions:

1. What is the chain of command? What person should parents contact if there is a difficulty or issue?

2. Where do they go next if the problem can’t be settled at that level?

3. How can parents work with teachers to define and solve problems and make sure that students’ rights, values, and opinions are respected?

Both parents and teachers may need professional development to build their knowledge and relationship skills. Information about community resources and what they can offer will help – tutoring, mentoring, recreation, foster care, counseling, and health care. High school students often prefer to work on behavior issues directly with teachers or counselors before their families are called in.

Of course, a process alone won’t settle a problem. Taking the time to talk an issue through and listen to all sides, perhaps outside the school environment, is what really counts. As Karen Parker Thompson, family and community involvement coordinator for the Alexandria, Va. public schools advises, "One way to build trust is to talk to parents about their experiences, what they remember, and what they and their families have been through. Use their stories as part of the learning experience—theirs and yours. Find out what they think about your school’s climate, policies, and curriculum. Discover their strengths and interests, and use them to develop strategies for improving student achievement. Create parent leaders working with your school, instead of standing outside." AH

How do you deal with parents that never respond to your requests for a conference, especially when their child is failing and you desperately need them to come in? One parent complains that they work all the time and states they will make sure the homework gets done and they are cracking the whip, but nothing changes. Talking on the phone or via e-mail does not seem to be cutting it.

It may be that there are other issues that these families are dealing with that make it difficult for them to respond to your requests. If parents have several children, the numerous e-mails and phone calls coming from school staff can be overwhelming. The first step in working with families is to establish a trusting and respectful relationship with them, so if this hasn't been cultivated, it will be difficult for you to work well with these parents.

Karen L. Mapp
Karen L. Mapp

Many teachers around the country are opting to conduct off-site visits with families at either a convenient location for both parties or even at the home of the parents. These meetings center on parents and teachers making a personal connection and getting to know each other. This is often easier to do away from the school building, which can be an intimidating location for some families.

If your only options are phone calls and e-mails, we suggest calling with the intention of connecting with the parent in some meaningful way. For example, you can start off the call with some positive news about their child’s performance in your classroom. As the conversation moves towards homework or some other issue, ask how you can be helpful to the parents in getting the work completed. Share a story with the parents about your own struggles to either complete homework or to have children finish their work, and ask if the parents need assistance. The goal is to try to create a better working relationship with the family. KM

I work at a school with a large population of non-English speakers. We are implementing a 9th grade academy next year and I am trying to find ways to get these parents more involved in their children's education. How do we bridge the racial gap, as I and most of my colleagues are white females?

We notice that you ask about finding ways to "get these parents more involved in their children’s education." We believe it’s better to assume that these parents are involved in their children’s education in meaningful ways. We find that many parents, especially those new to this country, are eager to have their children excel in school.

One of the main factors that prevent the cultivation of partnerships between school staff and families are the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) assumptions that school staff make about families’ engagement in their children’s education. Many families work two jobs, are taking care of other children or older family members, or, especially if they are new to this country, are just plain scared and intimidated by school staff. These reasons and others prevent parents from participating in more standard, traditional forms of family involvement such as open houses, parent-teacher conferences, and PTA or PTO meetings.

Mary Lou Amato, a middle school principal from Los Angeles who we feature in Beyond the Bake Sale, states that "Often our parents did not get a good education in their country or here, but they want their children to do well in school. They’re just as hungry for education as their kids are." Start with activities that allow you and your colleagues to build relationships with families:

• Sponsor "9th grade academy" barbecues and family breakfasts where school staff cook and meet and greet families. Make the events celebratory and social in nature, while also connecting families to the goals of the program.

• Conduct small "focus group" meetings with families where school staff and families can share ideas for how to build stronger partnerships between school and home gather and ideas for other academy events

• Conduct off-site visits designed to build relationships with families. Many schools have adopted "parent/teacher" home visit programs designed to build relationships of trust and respect between school staff and families. Teachers and other school staff should be trained to conduct visits that focus on relationship building with families.

• Open a "family center" at your school that serves as a place for families to meet and have access to information and resources. We’ve seen many examples of successful family centers at secondary schools across the country.

• Make every attempt possible to provide translation for your families at all events and to translate materials sent home. KM

I've read research saying that some parents who themselves had a difficult time in school—felt overlooked, weren't successful, may have dropped out, etc.—are very reluctant to engage with teachers. They might feel intimidated or suspicious of teachers' intentions. It might even lead to an aggressive approach to parent-teacher meetings and other contact. Have you seen schools where these kinds of issues are recognized? Are there examples of effective strategies to approach this kind of situation?

Parents tell us that feeling welcome and being treated with respect by school staff is key to building relationships between home and school. Our finds indicate that when school staff take the time to welcome families into the school, honor families’ diverse ways of participating in their children’s education, and connect with families through a focus on their children’s learning, that these staff are able to cultivate trusting and respectful relationships with families that culminate in meaningful partnerships between home and school. School staff that commit to this "joining process" (Mapp, 2003) find that they are able to reach most of the families who send children to their school.

By welcoming parents and listening and responding to their concerns and requests for help in supporting their children’s learning, school staff are able to break down barriers between home and school. Here are some key first steps in connecting with families in ways that will cultivate relationships and build partnerships that support children’s learning:

• Pull together a family engagement committee or "action team" that plans your schools’ family outreach initiatives. The best action teams include a diverse group of stakeholders (parents, teachers, a school leader, a community member) but if you can only start with a few members, that’s fine.

• Have the action team conduct a "Welcoming School Walk-through" (to assess how welcoming your school is to families).

• Ask families for advice on how school staff can better connect with parents and respond to their needs. Adopt a "meet our parents where they’re at" attitude, rather than designing programs and activities designed to meet the needs of school staff. KM

Where do administrators most often err in hindering the teacher-parent relationship?

Administrators must "walk-the walk" and not just "talk-the-talk" about the importance of partnerships between school and home. School leaders have to model the type of relationship they want to see between staff and families. For example, several principals we’ve met set up "meet the principal" events in the neighborhoods of the families that send the children to their schools. These events are scheduled at times that are convenient to parents.

One principal schedules parent meetings at the housing developments in the fall and spring to answer questions that families have about the school. Another principal collaborates with families to hold "coffees" for small groups of parents in order to provide a smaller, less intimidating setting to meet and talk to the school principal. These school leaders also actively encourage families to be involved in decision making at the school by encouraging families’ participation in the development of school policy and in action-research projects with school staff and students.

Many school districts are providing professional development training for school administrators and staff to learn how to partner with families in ways that build partnerships between home and school that support learning. For example, in San Diego, former superintendent Carl Cohn implemented a "Family Friendly Schools" initiative where school teams, after completing a series of professional development workshops and activities, could be certified as "family friendly" by the district. KM

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