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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

Lack of Collaboration? Maybe It’s You

By Peter DeWitt — October 18, 2015 5 min read
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While running a statewide webinar the other day, I was asked how to increase student participation from students who had little parental support. Not knowing the story, and only getting the question through a Tweet; the question seemed to suggest that the child wasn’t engaged in school because the parents didn’t value education. It’s not the first time I have been asked such a question, and I have also been guilty of asking it.

Parental involvement or lack thereof, seems to be a default response by some people when looking at student engagement.

It’s an interesting question, because from an outside perspective I always wonder why a parent wouldn’t be involved in their child’s education. When I was a kid parents were not as involved at school because the school domain and the home domain seemed to have an invisible boundary-line between them.

But these days are different, right? Yes, I understand that there are parents who do not get involved in their child’s school, and sometimes it’s due to other habits that they may engage in that aren’t always good for their health. And sometimes it’s because they work at night and can’t make it to school for “events.” Additionally, there are many parents who are uninvolved because they’re not sure what to do.

Unfortunately, we as educators a lack of parental involvement happens because of a reason we like less. There are parents who aren’t engaged because they don’t trust their child’s teacher or the school.

Before we state that parents aren’t involved in a way that seems as though we are blaming them; maybe we need to look at why they aren’t engaged...and it may be because of us.

When I hear that parents are not engaged in their child’s education I wonder if there is something we are doing as teachers and principals that intimidates them to the point they don’t want to interact with us. Or...maybe it’s something we are not doing.

Before pointing one finger at parents for not engaging; maybe we need to look at the fingers pointing back at us?

We know that parental involvement is important. This is not a surprise. In this article, the National Education Association (NEA) writes,

When schools engage families in ways that improve learning and support parent involvement at home and school, students make greater gains. When schools build partnerships with families that respond to parent concerns, honor their contributions, and share decision-making responsibilities, they are able to sustain connections that are aimed at improving student achievement.

We need to flip communication, limit the 5 page newsletters to something they want to read, use social media to engage them, and simply make positive phone calls home every week. That will go a long way to building parental engagement, and maybe...just maybe...create a classroom climate where students want to be engaged as well.

But, the lack of involvement doesn’t just stop with parents.

Maybe Your Colleagues Don’t Trust You

During a workshop one time a teacher kept asking me for strategies to use to engage teachers because he was finding that his colleagues wouldn’t work with him. After offering several strategies each time we spoke (which he turned down every time), I finally looked at him and said, “Maybe it’s not them. Maybe it’s you.”

He didn’t like that response.

It’s not that I was looking to blame him because he turned down my suggestions. However, I did want him to reflect on the idea that his default response was to suggest that everyone else he tried to work with were part of the problem, and he was not taking ownership over any of it.

We are all 100% responsible for our 50%. Meaning, that we have to take some responsibility over the idea that we may have to take part of the responsibility when parents, teachers or students don’t want to work with us. However, we also have to find a balance to not think that we are 100% responsible for 100% of the problem all the time.

We need to engage as many colleagues as possible because we continue to teach and lead within silos. Engaging colleagues is important. Eells (2011. p. 36) writes that Ashton et al found,

Teachers with low teaching efficacy don't feel that teachers, in general, can make much of a difference in the lives of students, while teachers with low personal teaching efficacy don't feel that they, personally, affect the lives of the students (Ashton & Webb, 1986).

Teachers who aren’t engaged are typically the ones with low efficacy. We have to worry about the fact that they feel as though they have no positive impact on students. We need to find ways to engage everyone in the school community. If teachers have efficacy, they will contribute to stronger collective teacher efficacy. In Eells’ dissertation, which is where this information is referenced, she goes on to write,

Goddard et al wrote, To understand the influence of collective teacher efficacy in schools, it is necessary to understand that teachers' shared beliefs shape the normative environment of schools. These shared beliefs are an important aspect of the culture of a school. Collective teacher efficacy is a way of conceptualizing the normative environment of a school and its influence on both personal and organizational behavior. That is, teachers' beliefs about their faculty's capability to educate students constitute a norm that influences the actions and achievements of schools.

In spirit of Elle Woods in Legally Blonde, let’s put it all together...

Students will be more engaged in school if their parents speak more positively about school. Parents will speak more positively about school if teachers find ways to engage them. Teachers will be more likely to engage in authentic conversations with parents if they feel a sense of efficacy. A sense of individual efficacy leads to collective teacher efficacy, which will give teachers a sense that they have an impact on student learning.

It’s Not You...It’s Me!

When someone doesn’t engage with us, whether it’s a student, colleague or parent, it may be due to us and not them. So, the question is how can we engage parents (or the other stakeholders) so they want to work with us in partnership? Sometimes, it’s all in how we approach them.

Think of the following. Do you:

  • Engage in monologue or dialogue? There are many researchers who study this, but my two “go-to” people are John Hattie and Jim Knight, both of whom I work with as a trainer. Do you take up all of the conversation, even in times when you’re supposed to be listening? There are times when I wasn’t listening as intently to the person on the other side of the conversation because I was too busy thinking about what I would say next.
  • One-sided ideas - Are you more concerned about what you want someone to do, rather than listening to what they may want to do? Sometimes leaders, teachers and coaches walk into a situation with teachers, students and parents and unload everything they believe the other party should be doing instead of really listening to what the other party may want to do.
  • Are you authentic? If you seems as though you don’t care about them or their ideas, they will pull away instead of move forward. If you read this blog that I wrote in January of this year, you will see it takes 10 seconds for students to size you up. The same can be said for colleagues and parents.

It’s easy for us to look at a parent, student or colleague who doesn’t want to engage with us, and blame them for the lack of engagement. However, before we do that we need to look at how we are approaching them and see if there is something we can change within our approach.

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Creative Commons Photo courtesy of Purple Slog.

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.