Published Online: February 23, 2011

What 'Star Wars' Can Teach Educators About Parent Engagement

Meetings between parents and teachers—whether they happen at home or at school, individually or with multiple teachers present—always hold the potential for great success or great disaster.

Teachers and parents can end our time together with some certainty that our relationship has been strengthened and the next steps are clear—or we can leave feeling distrustful, with little sense of forward momentum. I've been present at both kinds of meetings.

The likelihood of a positive outcome, I think, will be maximized if teachers keep in mind what I call the Princess Leia approach to teacher-parent conversations. (I indulged myself over a recent school break by watching the "Star Wars" trilogy, so please bear with me. ...)

"L" is for listening. In "Return of the Jedi," the princess follows Luke when he leaves the gathering of Ewoks, who are awed by C-3PO’s stories of adventure. When Leia catches up, she is clearly present and attentive as Luke reveals their true relationship—as brother and sister. She doesn’t jump in or interrupt. She understands his need to say what’s on his mind, and she knows there will be time to ask questions later.

When we teachers are meeting with parents, we may feel the urge to fill up the conversational space with our thoughts and concerns; but if we are talking more than 50 percent of the time, we're leading with our "mouths" instead of our "ears." That's not the way genuine and fruitful relationships are built. Conversations need to be an exchange of views and information, not a one-sided lecture. Knowing what is going on in the lives of students and families is critical to us becoming more effective teachers.

"E" is for empathy. In "Star Wars," Leia understands Luke's grief after Darth Vader kills his mentor, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and she knows what he needs to hear—words she likely draws from her own experience of grief. "There was nothing you could have done," she says. She doesn’t immediately tell him to just get over it and start planning what to do next.

When teachers are meeting with parents, we often come with an action agenda: specific ideas of what we believe should happen—now! Because we are so busy, these meetings often don't occur until problems have reached a critical point. But showing our empathy can go a long way in demonstrating our own humanity and, subsequently, making parents more open to hearing our ideas about what might be done. All of us have been children ourselves. Some of us have children of our own, or we’re close to children in our extended families. Certainly, out of that wealth of "background knowledge," we can share a story or two that shows we understand the challenges parents face everyday.

"I" is for imagining. When the Admiral of the Death Star in "Star Wars" threatens to destroy Leia’s home world if she doesn’t tell him where the rebel base is hidden, it’s clear that the princess is vividly imagining the pain and loss her people will experience if she fails to reveal the information.

When we meet with parents, we need to use our own imaginations to put ourselves in their position—to imagine their hopes and their vulnerability. We need to visualize ourselves sitting there, waiting to hear what the teacher is about to say about our child. What words can we choose—what attitude can we take—to strengthen the sense that we’re in this together and will join forces to help this young person succeed?

"A" is for asking. In "Star Wars," the princess is often seen guiding action by asking the right questions. Think back again to the scene with Luke—he would never have volunteered the truth about Vadar if Leia hadn’t asked, gently but directly, what was bothering him.

When we teachers are meeting with parents, asking the right questions can be our most effective tool. Not only can we learn what is going on in the home, but we can also hear about the times when their child has been most successful—in school or out. What energizes them at home? What teachers in the past did their child like the best and why? What, if anything, do they come home from school excited about?

In the classroom, many of us teach our students the usefulness of mnemonic devices as a technique to enhance memory. L-E-I-A. Before our next parent meeting we might want to recall Princess Leia and her gifts for listening, empathizing, imagining, and asking good questions.

May the Force of genuine parent engagement be with you.

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