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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Is Your Parent Engagement Authentic or Compliant?

By Peter DeWitt — June 14, 2016 5 min read
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Open House...check

Parent-teacher conferences...check

Flipping parent communication...check


School leaders and teachers often try very often to building parental involvement. They make pretty newsletters, flip their communication, and brand their message out to parents so that parents know what’s going on in their child’s school. These approaches, all of which I did as a school principal, are a much better way to communicate with families than what our parents had when we were students.

Unfortunately, how those tools are used is an important part of whether the parental involvement we are trying to increase is authentic or compliant. Yes, there is a difference. Authentic engagement happens when parents can have real dialogue with teachers and leaders, even if that dialogue means that all parties don’t start the conversation off agreeing.

Compliant engagement means that school leaders and teachers send the message, and parents have to support those two parties at home. It means that parents, teachers and leaders form a unified front to the students when they’re in school and when they’re home. Which is another way of expecting compliance from children at school and at home.

I remember a parent told me that when her children were giving her a hard time at Wal-Mart, she would say “Was that Dr. DeWitt I saw around the corner? You don’t want him to see you acting like this do you?” I laughed, and then I found myself instantly mortified because I didn’t want the children to think I played the part of disciplinarian in all parts of my job. I felt a bit like I played second fiddle to Elf on the Shelf.

We all have our roles in the school community, but we should be allowed to update those roles.

Engage Every Parent?
In Engage Every Family: Five Simple Principles (Corwin Press. 2016), superintendent and consultant Steve Constantino outlines 5 principles every school adhere to where family engagement is concerned. Those five principles are:

A culture that engages every family - Constantino writes, “The collective beliefs, attitudes, norms, values, actions, and assumptions of the school organization explicitly embrace and are committed to the notion of families as a foundational core component to improvement.” He delves into the cultures and subcultures that exist within schools. Constantino says that we all have certain cycles within our schools that need to be broken because they affect our cultures negatively.

Communicate effectively and build relationships - Constantino starts out with suggestions such as staff trainings, community outreach programs and family week. We know that communicating effectively and building relationships is important, but Constantino points out that sometimes the first messages that our parents see when they arrive at school aren’t all that friendly. Think about it...they see signs like “Faculty/Staff Parking Only,” and “Warning! Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted!” In these days of increased security we have to find a way to soften our message a little.

Empower every family - In order to empower every family, Constantino writes that we should believe that, “Families are recognized as essential members of the learning team for each student-their participation is welcomed, valued, and encouraged by the school.”

Engage every family in decision making - We need to include parents in the decision-making process at school. Through stakeholder groups, where the decision isn’t already made before the group is formed is one of the most effective ways to include parents in the decision making process. Parents must have an authentic voice in the school community.

Engage the greater community - Constantino focuses on community schools. In the book, he writes, “A community school is both a place and a set of partnerships where an integrated focus on academics, services, supports, and opportunities leads to improved student learning, stronger families, and healthier communities.”

Many Hands Make Light Work
When I began my principalship in 2006 I was charged with working with a large group of parents to design and build the playground for our school. Sound easy? It’s a playground, right? Not really. Our school was on 26 acres, and the structure that was wanted was somewhere between something small that would blend into the natural setting and a 6 Flags for the community. After all, in a rural community, the school is the center where everyone comes together.

Over the next few months we all worked together to design a structure that was a good balance between blending in and the 6 Flags some wanted. As much as there was a great deal of back and forth between parents and committee members, the best part of designing the playground was when we came together over a weekend to build it together.

There were a few parents who were engineers and business owners that took the lead, and the rest of us did the grunt work, and it was one of the best experiences I have as a principal. The playground structure was a symbol of the importance of school staff and families working together.

In the End
Parents are important. We know that. Not just because they send their children to us on a daily basis, but because many of them become friends, and provide us with important insight. We have gone through happy times with them and held their hands during very tough times. A lot of life happens in our time in schools, and parents are right there with us when it all takes place.

Give Constantino’s book a deep read, because he offers some important tips that you, as leaders and teachers, may not be doing yet. Steve has been at the forefront of parent engagement for many decades, and his words may just help you bond a little more with those parents you’ve been having a difficult time reaching.

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D. is the author of several books including Dignity for All: Safeguarding LGBT Students (2012. Corwin Press), Flipping Leadership Doesn’t Mean Reinventing the Wheel (2014. Corwin Press), School Climate Change (2014. ASCD) and the forthcoming Collaborative Leadership: 6 Influences That Matter Most (2016. Corwin Press). Connect with Peter on Twitter.

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.