Published Online: December 7, 2011

First Person

Making Parent Involvement a Two-Way Street

Have you ever been lost in a maze of one-way streets? No map or GPS to guide you, running late, trying to avoid accidents with aggressive drivers, your eyes darting to and fro hoping to stumble upon a familiar landmark? "If only there were a two-way street around here!" you want to cry out. Maybe you finally stop and ask for directions, and are angry with yourself for not doing it sooner.

Unfortunately, we often travel with our students the same way. How can we avoid such frustration and help students to success without all the wrong turns? Here's something to consider:

We can ask parents for directions.

What is family involvement to most teachers? Susan McAllister Swap, in her book Developing Home-School Partnerships, describes the kind most teachers want as the "school-to-home transmission" model, wherein advice, logistical details, and other instructions are disseminated to parents by teachers or administrators, usually via newsletter or other memo. Parents are expected to dutifully obey in the best interest of their kids.

We know parents need to support our efforts by sending kids to school ready and willing to learn. We also know that some parents can be challenging. But parents and families usually know students best and can give valuable direction on how their children learn. So I propose a more fluid partnership model where parents are colleagues in student learning.

In my experience supporting candidates for National Board certification, two-way communication is one of the most common practices teacher candidates must either institute or refine in preparing to submit evidence of accomplished teaching. It is an area of weakness for most other teachers as well.

For instance, when calling home, how often do we ask what parents think? Probably not that often. Yet I've found it helps to ask for parents' insight and assistance, especially if the student is having a problem. Here are some tips to help make your phone conversations more productive:

• Structure calls to allow for parent feedback.

• Include a "best time to call?" question along with requests for contact information, then call during evening hours or other times when parents are at home and more relaxed.

• As with students, use "wait time," active listening, and other strategies that foster productive discussion.

• Keep a log to document contact but also to help remember details for future calls.

You can take this a step further and distribute surveys to parents asking about their kids as learners. The data collected will be surprising, illuminating, and helpful! These surveys can be distributed school-wide, by grade-level team, or by individual teachers. The surveys may ask about students' study habits, interests outside of school, hobbies, strengths, challenges, and the hopes and dreams the parents have for their children. There are several examples on the Internet. For the highest parent response rate, choose surveys that are written clearly, concisely, and simply.

Home-Like Schools for School-Like Homes

Here is a fallacy you're likely to hear in schools: Only parents who show up to parent-teacher conferences and open houses care about their kids. Ruby Payne, in Working with Parents: Building Relationships for Student Success, counters that as long as support is garnered from families, physical presence in the school is immaterial. One way to garner this support is through home visits. Successful early-childhood programs such as Head Start rely on home visits, but students of all ages benefit from them.

Some teachers may feel that their students' neighborhoods are too dangerous for home visits. But if it is dangerous for adults, is it safe for little kids to walk through the same neighborhoods to get to school every day? Yet that is exactly what we expect them to do. That said, safety is paramount and I am not suggesting that home visits are possible in all environments or that teachers should necessarily go alone.

Here are some ideas to keep in mind when conducting home visits:

• Bring information from school and questions you have.

• Use the time to gather valuable information, trust, and support from families, as well as to learn about the community and clarify misconceptions about students' lives outside of school.

• Make meaningful connections that go beyond just school work. When my own kids were younger, I would bring them along to play with my elementary students when I visited with adult family members. This created a closer personal relationship because our families know one another.

• Call first and set up appointments at reasonable hours when you know adult family members will be home. Many teachers conduct home visits in teams, with interpreters, with spouses.

• Before any home visit attempt, check with administrators about any school policies regarding home visits.

In many environments with underserved students, we need to make our schools more home-like and homes more school-like to engage parents. Home visits are key in accomplishing this. After productive home visits, families view any subsequent phone calls from visiting teachers as very important, and response rate will improve dramatically.

Two-way communication with families is critical in knowing how best to teach students. And if barriers prevent families from coming to us, we should go to them. In doing this, we pave new two-way streets to travel the quickest routes to student success.

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