Education Week: What should the role of parents be in the elementary school?
Patricia Browne: Their role has to be an integral part of the entire program. Sometimes there is a separation between parents and teachers, either because the teacher may feel intimidated by the parent or the parent may feel intimidated by the teacher, and so nobody is communicating. It is just a necessary part of educating the whole child, that the parent be involved from start to finish. But that doesn’t come easily, because you have to let the parents know that you want them to be involved in that child’s education.
I love homework. Some teachers do not. I love homework because, first of all, it lets my parents know what we are doing at school. It also creates a measure of involvement. My kids better not bring back a homework paper that is not signed by the parent. I do this to let the parent know that this is their responsibility, too. We are working on this together. And so the parents sign the paper, and it tells me that they have not only checked the homework, but that they know what that child is involved in.
Lorraine Monroe: It is the school’s responsibility to make a parent know that they are welcome in the school, that their contribution means something, and that it is honored. Because most parents, the parents that we want to reach, who are poor and of low socioeconomic status, have a feeling that the school is out there and knows everything and they can’t possibly contribute because they haven’t a degree or diploma. And teachers are so wise, how can they, the parents, possibly contribute?
So it is up to the schools to say, “Come in and give us a hand.” The schools also have the responsibility of educating parents as to how to help us make school meaningful for their children. I mean something as concrete as a parent manual that each school develops for its parents. This is a way of opening up the schools and saying that together we can move your children.
Allan Shedlin: A year or two ago, I was asked to consider writing a book for parents, and the publisher asked me to write one chapter on the parent conference as a sample of how I write. I thought about it and I thought: Some teachers call it a parent conference, and the parents call it a teacher conference. And that is really part of what the problem is. In the book, I called it the student conference, which is what it I should be called.
That experience brought home to me one of the problems of communication between home and school, namely that it is always expected that the other person is going to do the communicating. And it is important to acknowledge that the goal is the same.
There are some real “Catch 22’s” here. As parents, we would like each teacher to care most about our child. At the same time, we expect her to teach each child equally. We want her to favor our child, and at the same time we want her to be professional and to treat all children equally. We expect good parents to be passionate advocates for their children, while at the same time we expect them to realize that their son or daughter is one of 25 or so children in our class. And we become resentful when their advocacy becomes too passionate.
We also need to keep in mind that home is not school and school is not home. Although they are both primary educative forces and there is a considerable overlapping of roles, problems occur when there is confusion over roles, when too often teachers are expected to function in loco parentis. Or when parents are expected to function in loco magistri.
Joan Jeter-Slay: Parents and teachers are natural allies, but there is often resentment on both sides because the communications are unclear. It is good that a school have a parents’ manual, but I would want to be careful that that manual was written with the help of parents. The thing that educators do most often to turn parents off and to help them feel a sense of inferiority is to plan for them instead of planning together. Where it works successfully, they are partners. And the lines of communication get clarified. I actually go into supermarkets and recruit parents for schools where there are no active parent organizations. The first thing I hear is, “Lady, I am not selling any candy. Forget it!” That is the level at which parent involvement has been accepted in the school.
And people scream all the time, ''Well, I don’t mind so much selling it if that is what I have to do, but I don’t even know what they did with that money.” They don’t know the school bought a duplicator; that never gets communicated.
Open communication does so much to resolve the problem. Usually, if the organization that 1 am working for begins to work with groups of parents, the first thing we get from the schools is resistance-"they are going to take over the school.” And, you know, parents, on the other hand, need some education, too. They like to show up when there is a crisis, and then they run back home and you don’t see them again until there is another crisis.
The minute the educators see that the parents are going to be consistent, that they are going to be supportive, that they are all working for the same thing, it works. 1 have started out with educators who said, “Oh no, not in my school.” And some of them are now strong supporters. But you have to work at it.
Parent involvement is hard work. It does have to be included in teacher training. That kind of thing is almost foreign to teachers in Chicago. And if the parents are poor, teachers feel more threatened. How can parents help when they can’t read? I did a radio show and I got a call from a woman who told me that when her parents came to America, they spoke no English. They had no involvement in the schools because they couldn’t speak English. And she went all the way through graduate school and she didn’t see any need for parents to be involved. That is the attitude of a lot of people. They don’t say it because it is not popular, but that is what they feel.
Dennis Gray: It’s probably true. There is as much individual difference among parents as there is among the kids. Think about the parallels between schooling as a profession and medicine or dentistry as professions: We relate to those medical professionals in all different ways, from being compulsive about doing it right to being careless with our own well-being.
We probably have to expect that our clients are going to relate to schools with as much variation as they do to other forms of human services that are really quite important to their well-being. And just as we are not going to get a classroom full of ideal little learners or a faculty full of ideal teachers, we are not going to get a PI’ A full of ideal parents.
So we have to be prepared for involvement for different purposes at all kinds of levels of commitment, including the parents who want to do nothing more than subcontract their kid’s education to the schools and say, “Leave me out of it,” the same way they say, “Leave me out of my kid’s health. That is your problem, doctor.”
Samuel Sava: Dennis is right about the differences in parents. We need to do everything we possibly can to maintain the parent and make him or her a very key individual in the education process. In elementary schools where we have parent involvement through the children, we have more than 90 percent turn-out. We need to think of methods other than selling the candy.
If we truly believe in keeping the parent involved, then we have to use every possible method and assume that it is our responsibility as educators.
Ms. Monroe: But I have to say that there are some schools where whatever gimmicks or techniques you try, you are limited in how much parental involvement you can get. And that can lead to negative feelings in schools where, for whatever reason, you don’t get parents to come out. You have teachers who then begin to have different expectations of kids and say, ''Well, if the parents are not concerned, what am 1 going to do?”
So this is something we have to be very careful of as educators, because you cannot always conclude that because parents don’t get involved, they don’t care about their kids. They may have unbelievable pressures on them.
We have to understand that it is not going to tear up the fabric of the school if we don’t have a spectacular PTA. We have our responsibility to move those kids even if their parents never show, don’t sign report cards, don’t give them lunch money, or whatever.
Patricia Carini: We are faced with a lot of social difficulties and a lot of problems and sometimes parents are absolutely unable to help us, but that doesn’t mean that the children can’t be worked with.
But if you get parents together to talk, they talk the same way teachers do. They are so pleased to know that they know so much, because they have been quite trained by school people to think they don’t know anything. And 1 know it is difficult when we live in an economic structure where some children come to school with having had less of the material benefits.
In our school, we have kids from all walks of life. But it has never been my experience that the parents, single parents or other parents, are divisible along some line of what they give to their children. People can be in desperate poverty and give to their children an enormous sense of worth and well-being. I am not saying, however, that it is not a terribly hard job.
A version of this article appeared in the April 16, 1986 edition of Education Week