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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Engaging Parents in School

By Peter DeWitt — January 27, 2012 5 min read
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“We cannot have an impact on educational issues if teachers are the only ones who feel that the good ole days were in fact good at all.”

Over the past couple of decades students sat in classrooms feeling unengaged or disrespected. They may have had combative relationships with their teachers, struggled with academics, or may have been gifted and ultimately bored with their state of affairs.
Perhaps their parents did not have a great deal of respect for school, so they grew up hearing how bad school was for their parents and were disengaged by the time they hit middle school.

Some students hated going to school because they were bullied, long before the internet was available as the tool to harass and abuse students like it is today. Back then not only were students bullied, many were told to live with it because it built character. That had devastating effects on the student’s perception of school.

These students left high school vowing never to return to their alma mater, if they were fortunate enough to get out of the school in the first place. Regardless of the reasons why they felt disengaged they knew that school was not a place where they could be nurtured or find their path into college or the workplace and may have left with a negative attitude.

The Cycle Continues
These young adults grew up to be full fledged adults and many of them had children. Educators are now seeing these children in their classrooms and are paying for the sins of the past, regardless of whether they were responsible or not. These students have parents who ignore phone calls, do not attend parent conferences, and never sign notes saying how bad their children behaved during the day. A visit to a school brings back bad memories and most of those forms of communication are just reminders of their days in the school system. It was a system that did not understand them as children; much less learners and they’re concerned their children will meet the same fate.

As a teacher, I found it frustrating at the end of the evening after an open house because students who needed parental involvement the most, lacked parents who made time to be involved. I did what most teachers do, I offered food, tried to make the evenings engaging, but some parents did not want to come to see me and hear about their child.

Their experience is that any communication from the school system was going to be negative, and although it may not be the fault of the present educator, it is their job to help change it. From time to time teachers complain that the parents are disengaged and do not respect what happens in the classroom. Some of that may be true, but it doesn’t have to happen. Teachers and principals have the power to change that sad reality, and it doesn’t always take a lot of work to get there.

Sometimes parents do not attend events because they are working or do not respond to notes because they do not read them or they are busy doing other things at home. Other times parents do not engage with teachers and administrators because they do not like school personnel, and they may not have had much contact with them. To some parents, teachers and administrators are all alike. They are just another group of school adults who will find something wrong with their children.

Teachers, staff and administrators may not be able to change the minds of all parents disgruntled with the education system but they can certainly make a dent in the number. It happens through positive interactions, engaging conversations, and helping parents understand what the school wants from parents.

Parents do not always know where they fit into the school community, and sometimes educators send mixed messages about that role. Are parents supposed to support teachers by helping with their children’s homework at home? Are they supposed to find time in their busy schedules to volunteer in the classroom? Educators often have one hand up inviting parents into the classroom and another hand up stopping them at the door.

In the End
This time of year is difficult. Most schools are right in the middle of the school year, it’s becoming increasingly cold and gray, and the honeymoon period in classes is now over. Schools have handed out at least one report card, have done a great deal of progress monitoring, and students are beginning to show behavior issues. The promises made at open house may be long gone, and teachers and students have spent many months together.

A long time ago I heard a quotation, which is, “I’m 100% responsible for my 50%.” I may not be the reason why some parents dislike school systems but it is my job to try to change that attitude. It’s especially important during a time when we have seen increased mandates and extended testing time on high stakes tests but we cannot have an impact on those educational issues if teachers are the only ones who feel that the good ole days were in fact good at all.

There are a variety of reasons why parents are disengaged with the school system and just as many excuses as to why students are not doing well in school. Some parents are too busy and others do not know how to help. Some parents had a horrible school experience and are afraid to enter a school while other parents treat teachers like babysitters for the day and don’t take the time to find out what is going on in school until something goes wrong. Regardless of the reasons why parents may not be engaged in school, the relationship between home and school needs to change and it takes all the adults to make that happen.

Things schools can do to engage parents:

  • Send home positive notes
  • Make positive phone calls
  • Send home weekly newsletters
  • Have school events that include all parents
  • Have proper communication tools that will engage parents, such as school websites and the ability to send out mass e-mails to parents
  • Principals and teachers need to communicate how school has changed over the past ten years
  • The main office staff are the ambassadors of the school. A great school secretary can make everyone feel welcome.
  • Encourage parents to join the PTA or PTO
  • Sponsor a few PTA/PTO events over the school year
  • Help parents understand that you care about their child. Parent engagement needs to happen all year long, including some communication during the summer (i.e. PTA/PTO events, administrative e-mails)

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.