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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

Letting Parents in on the Secret of School

By Peter DeWitt — February 22, 2015 4 min read
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Let’s get two of the most common obstacles out of the way first.

Some parents don’t want to engage - Perhaps they had a tough school experience when they were growing up. Maybe, they feel intimidated that we engage in educational talk and they don’t always know the acronyms. What if we tried just one more conversation? What if we channeled Covey and tried to understand a little bit more?

Some treat us like childcare - This absolutely happens but perhaps they are just recycling the same roll they lived with their own parents. Maybe they don’t see the importance of education, or they don’t show it, because they lost hope along the way.

School staff have always had an interesting relationship with parents. We can’t love all parents, right? BUT, there have been times when school teachers and leaders seem to hold up one hand inviting parents into the school for open house, parent-teacher conferences, concerts and PTA nights, but hold the other hand up when a parent has a difficult topic they would like to have a conversation about.

Most teachers and parents have a positive relationship, and we need to find innovative ways to keep fostering that. Flipping leadership and holding stakeholder meetings are a couple of ways to do that. But we also have parents who are disengaged and we need to do something about that. Too many walk away feeling as though we don’t care about them or their children.

When we send mixed messages we are often missing a great opportunity.

Popular parents

We can deny that this happens but throughout schools we have parents who are popular, or at least that is the way other parents see them. Let’s face it, when it comes to parents who support us on an ongoing basis, or those who make our lives easier, we treat them differently.

When I was a principal I always had an awesome PTA. We were small but mighty. Unfortunately, some parents wouldn’t attend the meetings because we seemed like a closed group. One inside joke or the way the parents who consistently attended sat with each other...we sent a message that we were an elite group who didn’t want help.

It’s not who we were but that is what parents thought. Like a high school clique the parents who were always able to attend events, or those who strived extra hard to attend, were seen as the parents who were popular. It took a lot of work to change that perception.

It meant that I had to spend extra time at bus arrival to go out of my way to talk with parents I didn’t know well. It meant that Donna, our school secretary had to go the extra mile to make sure those parents who were not regular visitors felt welcome in the school. It means that the great principals and teachers I know through my Twitter PLN have to put in extra effort to engage with those parents who don’t seem to want to engage, which they do on a daily basis.

It means that we have to suspend judgment on the parents who don’t engage like we want to because we don’t always know what they have going on at home.

The Secret of School

School leaders and teachers do their best to engage parents in the fun events or the ones that focus on report cards and grades like parent-teacher conferences. But we don’t always engage parents when it comes to those things that focus on learning. It’s a balance because we don’t want to always use educational language but we also don’t want to patronize them by using non-educational language either.

The bottom line is that when we are initiating changes within our classrooms and schools we have to make sure we don’t leave parents out of the equation. For example, a few of us who train schools around the use of Visible Learning (John Hattie) were working with a great group of educators from Kentucky. As we met in a convention center in Bowling Green we began having dialogue around a few important elements of VL.

As we discussed how to move forward, we needed to focus on how important parents were to the process. For example, when it comes to the use of Learning intentions and success criteria, it’s important that parents know what those look like in order to support the work at home.

If schools engage in instructional coaching, it’s important that parents know what that looks like. How great would it be for parents to know that teachers are really opening up their practices in the classroom and working in collaboration with other professionals? Explaining IC would help parents understand how school has changed and that teachers are always working to improve practice.

We are fighting a media who seems to focus on how lazy we are when that couldn’t be any further from the truth!

Starr Sackstein and Mark Barnes focus on throwing out grades in an effort to really concentrate on providing effective feedback to students. Effective feedback focuses on growth and not just achievement. Parents need to understand why grades are disappearing in these classrooms. They need to know what effective feedback looks like and why providing feedback is more important than grades.

My friend Christina Luce, a third grade teacher in Liverpool, NY has a Twitter page and she Tweets out pictures of her students learning throughout the day. The parents in the classroom know what is going on and are better able to talk about learning with their children at the dinner table.

Like Christina Luce, we need to let parents in on the secret of school.

In the End

We assume there are topics that parents don’t need to know about when we engage in new initiatives or changes, when the reality is that they are the very topics that parents need to know about. They can be our biggest advocates with their very own children, and letting them in on the secret of school will help them understand that some of what we do may have changed from when they were students.

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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.