Opinion Blog

Classroom Q&A

With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Response: Seeing Families as ‘Co-Creators’ of our Schools

By Larry Ferlazzo — January 23, 2016 24 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

(This is the first post in a two-part series. This series will be followed by another one specifically focused on engaging familes of English Language Learners)

This week’s question is:

How can we best engage families?

Connecting with families of students is a necessary challenge that effective teachers must find time to do. What are the best ways we teachers can make those interactions happen?

Today, Jennifer Orr, Shane Safir, Karen L. Mapp, Allen Mendler, Mary Tedrow, and Patricia Vitale-Reilly share their suggestions. You can listen to a ten-minute conversation I had with Jennifer and Shane on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Engaging parents has been a particular interest of mine over the years, and you can see an extensive collection of related resources, including articles I’ve written on the topic, here.

You might also want to see previous posts on parent engagement that have appeared in this column: Parent Engagement In Schools

Response From Jennifer Orr

Jennifer Orr teaches kindergartners at a public, Title I school in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. She is an ASCD Emerging Leader, blogs at jenorr.com, and is @jenorr on twitter. She feels lucky to have a job she loves:

The important question here is how we can best partner with families. Our students will be most successful when teachers and schools work in true collaboration with families. Frequently, we as educators view communication with families as how we can best tell them what to do to help their children rather than as a two-way street. Families know their children better than anyone else. We can learn so much about how to support our students if we partner with families. Also, families often have many skills and a range of knowledge to offer us and our students.

Teachers and schools need to be a part of a triangle including families and students. All three are locked together, working for our students. We need to create communication that goes two-ways and is as easy as possible for families to use. There are times when one-way communication makes perfect sense (reminding parents about early dismissal days or special events) but it should not be our only or most frequently used method.

We also need to ensure that our schools are welcoming to families. We cannot partner with or engage families who feel afraid or uncomfortable coming to school. In almost two decades of working in Title I schools with a great majority of students and families learning English, this has been a challenge for me, but a critical one. Often we, as educators, feel uncomfortable contacting families who do not speak fluent English or families whose lives are so different from our own. This is yet another reason we often default to one-way communication.

In recent years I have begun inviting families into my classroom once a month throughout the school year. For the first few months these invitations are more about welcoming families into our classroom and giving them a chance to see and participate in parts of their child’s day. We, the students and teachers, invite families to join us for our morning meeting or to come and read with us. Throughout the rest of the year we invite families to learn math games with us or write with us. We take these opportunities to share our learning and hard work as well as to engage in that learning and work with our families. We plan the events at different times of the day in order to be sure as many families as possible are able to attend at some point.

Seeing families regularly has built strong relationships. Even those families who are unable to attend our monthly events, or can only attend rarely, seem to feel more comfortable approaching me or others at school with questions or concerns. These families seem to feel they have a place in our school, as they definitely do.

Families and teachers must work as team, both bringing their knowledge and strengths to support our students.

Response From Shane Safir

Shane Safir (safirassociates.org) is a leader, coach, and writer who has worked at every level of the school system toward a single goal: equity of opportunity for every student. Her experience spans 20 years in public education and includes founding June Jordan School for Equity in San Francisco, an innovative national model identified by leading scholar Linda Darling-Hammond as having “beaten the odds in supporting the success of low-income students of color.” Safir is writing a book for Jossey-Bass called The Listening Leader: Creating the Conditions for School Transformation:

To figure out how to engage families, we need to know why we are engaging them in the first place. From 2001 to 2003, I led a community organizing process that culminated in the founding of a new high school, June Jordan School for Equity (JJSE) in San Francisco. One day, during a meeting to discuss our vision for the school, a parent leader named Sandra said, “I want a school where the parents and teachers are raising the same child.”

Sandra’s words crystallize the central purpose of family engagement: to build relational capital between educators and parents. Relational capital is the quantity and quality of trust that shapes your interactions with families. It is the connective tissue that enables you to work in tandem with parents--rather than at cross-purposes, as is often the case--to “raise the same child.” And it’s not just a nicety. Relational capital gives you the platform you need to push a child to grow intellectually and emotionally.

Educators often struggle to build trust across differences in race, class, and language. Parent associations represent a small minority of our diverse communities. Families who speak other languages, working parents, or those with a history of negative school experiences live at the margins of our institutions. We wonder, with great frustration, why these families are not “engaged.”

Listening is the most powerful tool I know to promote family engagement. As co-principal of JJSE, I took Sandra’s words to heart and aspired to learn from my families’ knowledge about their children. I took the time to sit down with parents as a listener--fully present, eyes wide open, no desk or table between us. I scheduled home visits before school started with as many incoming families as possible, asking questions like:

  • What are your hopes and dreams for your child?
  • What are your expectations for their academic performance and behavior?
  • What do you expect of us?

Listening helped me to build a reserve of relational capital with some of the most marginalized families. This meant that when a student acted out or was struggling to pass their classes, I could call home without eliciting a defensive response. It also meant that I got to celebrate students’ achievements with their families. I wasn’t successful 100 percent of the time--by no means--but where relational capital grew, the child’s odds of success shot up.

Here are four ways to listen your way into engaging all families.

  1. Be mindful of power, status, and nonverbal communication.

Educators possess a high degree of cultural capital--the knowledge, skill, and education that increase a person’s status in society--that can feel intimidating to families [Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1986)] Parents watch for messages about whether you value and will listen to them. Even subtle nonverbal cues--looking away, crossing your arms, or frowning--can signal apathy or disdain to a parent.

To hone your skills as a listener, take a deep breath before each interaction. Try to hold your face and body as openly as possible. If you want to convey warmth and empathy, it’s the little things that matter. Smile, lean in, step out from behind your desk, or cup a parent’s hand as you shake it. To bridge cultural differences, practice the skill of gently mirroring the speaker’s tone, body language, and facial expressions. You can increase trust simply by noting and reflecting back a person’s communication cues.

  1. Ask families for feedback.

Many families have experienced years--even decades--of feeling alienated from schools. When facing a participation barrier like language or time, they may opt out of coming to school, rather than take a risk to show up and share their concerns with you. If you want to engage all families, you need to go the extra mile to invite and heed their feedback. While surveys can be useful, there’s no substitute for a face-to-face meeting. Reaching all families may require you to meet a parent on their terms--at home or in the community.

If a parent gives you feedback that triggers a defensive feeling, pause. Take a deep breath, and slow down your response time. Remember that feedback is just another form of data. Listen with an open heart and mind to gather important insight from each conversation.

  1. Listen more than you talk.

When speaking with a family member, try to use the “90/10 principle” that I learned as a community organizer--listen for 90 percent of the meeting, talk only for 10 percent. This simple principle will position you as a learner rather than an expert, helping to level the playing field between you and the parent.

  1. Ask meaningful questions.

Before the meeting, take time to jot down a few open-ended questions that convey genuine interest and your willingness to learn. Inquire about the parent’s experiences as a student and what they believe makes for a powerful education. If they attended school in another country, you will gain valuable cross-cultural insight. Ask, “How is this year going for your child?” or “What do I need to know about your child to best serve him?”

  1. Use active listening techniques.

Active listening allows you to paraphrase what you’ve heard and ensure that little is lost in interpretation. It conveys to parents that you have paid attention to them and value their words. As a tool, active listening helps you listen for the speaker’s implicit messages, those that lie beneath their words. Here are a few helpful phrases to draw on:

“What I hear you saying is...”

“Am I missing anything?”

“In other words...”

“As I listen to you, I’m hearing...”

“Is there anything else you feel I should know?”

If you practice these strategies and take a listening stance with families, you will begin to build real partnerships as you raise the same child together.

Response From Karen L. Mapp

Karen L. Mapp, Ed.D, is a Senior Lecturer on Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) and the Faculty Director of the Education Policy and Management Master’s Program. Karen is the author of numerous publications including Having Their Say: Parents Describe How and Why They Are Engaged in Their Children’s Learning (2002) and Title 1 and Parent Engagement: Lessons from the Past, Recommendations for the Future (2011):

Replace “parent engagement” with “family engagement.”

Our children are raised by a diverse group of adult caretakers that includes biological, grandparents, aunts and uncles, foster parents, and even older siblings. It may seem inconsequential, but I’ve interviewed many adult caretakers who say that when they hear “parent nights” and “parent-teacher’ conferences, they sometimes feel excluded by and invisible to school staff. Some schools have re-named their traditional parent-teacher nights as “family conference” events.

Embrace family and community engagement as a core ingredient to improve our schools.

My second piece of advice is for educators to embrace partnerships with families and community members as a core component of any theory of action to improve schools. I have visited several districts around the country who are making impressive progress in building and sustaining effective partnerships with families and community members that support student achievement by embracing these partnerships as a critical component of effective teaching and learning and of whole school improvement.

I recently co-authored a teaching case about the family and community engagement strategy of the Baltimore City Schools when Dr. Andres Alonso was superintendent (Mapp and Noonan, 2015). The former executive director of the Office of Partnerships, Engagement, and Community Relations, Michael Sarbanes, stated that their vision was to organize the families and communities to support the schools. They believed that there was no way that you could scale and sustain effective reform efforts without the full engagement of families and community members. This involved adopting a community organizing approach within BCPS which saw families as full partners in the design of new schools, in school-site budget decisions, and in the hiring of school leaders. By sharing district data with families and community members, BCPS also increased the capacity of a diverse group of stakeholders to work with educators on specific reform efforts.

Interrogate our core beliefs about partnerships with families and community members.

Some educators have the view that they don’t need the families or the community to educate the kids. I think this view is short sighted and in some instances, reveals a deficit view of the families and the communities that the children come from. I have heard educators say, “What could those families possibly bring to the table: they are poor, illiterate, they can’t speak English. Many of them are single moms on welfare, and the families are dysfunctional. We can’t expect much from them, so we’d rather not try to engage them.” Years back, I had a teacher from a new innovation school just outside of Boston tell my students that her role was to “inoculate the children from their families and the community.” This view, unfortunately, is more prevalent than we’d like to think, and is one of the root causes of strained relationships between educators and families.

In order to truly partner with families, educators MUST examine their core beliefs about the families of the children that they teach. If you see your families as having no assets and nothing to offer you as a practitioner, it’s going to be very difficult to engage with families in meaningful, rather than superficial ways. True partnership will require you to believe that your families and the communities in which they live are rich with the human and social capital that you need to be an effective educator.

My advice is that we see our families and community members as co-creators and co-producers of the excellent schools and learning opportunities that we want for all of our students.


Mapp, K. L. and Noonan, J. (2015). Organizing for Family and Community Engagement in the Boston Public Schools. Public Education Leadership Project

Response From Allen Mendler

Allen Mendler is an educator, school psychologist, and author who resides in Rochester, N.Y. Dr. Mendler has worked extensively with children of all ages in regular education and special education settings; and youth in juvenile detention. Mendler’s books include When Teaching Gets Tough: Smart Ways to Reclaim Your Game (ASCD, 2012) and The Resilient Teacher: How do I stay positive and effective when dealing with difficult people and policies? (ASCD, 2014). Connect with him on Twitter @allenmendler:

We engage families by appreciating what they bring to the table and understanding the many challenges they face. Do some work early to gain parental cooperation. Ideally, it is wise to call every parent shortly before the school year begins to introduce yourself. At the very least, call the parent(s) of students known to be challenging as well as parents who can be difficult. Usually, they are the same people. Tell them that you are looking forward to having their child in your class and how important it is to you that their child succeeds. Ask them to tell you a little bit about their child’s interests, past school experience, how she best learns and the best ways to communicate throughout the school year with them. Try to get at the following:

  1. Tell me three things your child likes to do.
  2. Tell me three things your child has liked best about school.
  3. What are two or three things you have noticed that best helps your child learn?
  4. What else should I know that could help me make school a successful place for your child?

Do follow-up during the first two weeks by sharing a genuine compliment about something their child accomplished either academically or behaviorally. Setting the tone in this way is likely to more quickly gain their cooperation and support if and when problems arise.

Virtually all parents, including most who border on acting irrationally will cooperate if they really believe that we care about their child, are eager to help their child achieve success and are helping their child become more responsible. Communicating these goals effectively is the key to earning their support. To be successful, kids need someone in their lives to look out for them, so even parents who can be disagreeable and demanding should be shown respect. At worst, view them as a misguided advocate for their child. When a parent initiates a complaint about some perceived wrongdoing, make your first response a statement of appreciation. For example, “Ms. Jones, I feel badly about how upset you are and I am glad you have brought this to my attention. Your strong feelings tell me that you will accept nothing less than the best from me to bring out the best in your child. Let me explain why I did what I did and then if you have a better suggestion about how to help your child be more successful (earn a higher grade, be better behaved), I’d love to hear it.”

Educators are most apt to gain the greatest support from parents when they feel our genuine concern for their child. Seek their partnership in helping your students achieve success and learn responsibility. Do what you think is right but always keep the door open to what might be better ways to achieve these goals.

Response From Mary Tedrow

Mary Tedrow is Director of the Shenandoah Writing Project housed at Shenandoah University and the Porterfield Endowed English Chair at John Handley High School . Both are located in Winchester, VA. Mary has been teaching since 1978, is National Board Certified, and blogs at //walkingtoschool.blogspot.com/:

When engaging families with schools, the temptation is to ask for parent involvement around extracurricular activities--helping the band, going on field trips, bringing in supplies. When there is low attendance at these supporting functions, school leaders often conclude that parents just don’t care.

In my experience, that is rarely the case. In spite of the many obstacles that keep busy families away from school, parents of all stripes will come to school to authentically assist their child with learning. For me, one key vehicle to accessing parent engagement has been the Student-Led Parent Conference.

Held on the same days as regularly scheduled parent conferences, my students lead their conference with a parent. This authentic activity has routinely brought 85% of my parents to school. Those who don’t come indicate that their work schedules do not allow the visit. These conferences still take place in the home at the convenience of the student and parent within a workable time frame.

Contrast this with the previously dismal parent-teacher conference attendance of only 2% mainly representing those who are already highly engaged in their child’s school life.

With few exceptions, the parents love it. Our school has over 50% free and reduced lunch and the majority of families ultimately enjoy being invited into the school to hear about their child’s work in a structured format. Even better, our non-English speaking parents participate and find joy and pride in watching their children present--in two languages.

Why do they come?

Our student-led parent conferences are not a one-time event, but an essential part of the learning process. The conference format is threaded throughout the course. Students are not just responsible for explaining a grade. Throughout the year, they set goals and collect work as exemplars of their learning. In conference, they explain these artifacts and the objectives of the class. It is a deeply reflective activity and strong support for growth in the language arts.

Not only do the parents see their child’s work, but discussions about school are modeled, a link to the school is formed, and a deep understanding of what goes on in the classroom is demystified. With the child leading the meeting, much of the fear that accompanies alienated parents is dispelled.

And food helps too. In our high school classroom the students practice introducing their parents to strangers (me), offer cookies and juice, and then lead family members to a private area of the room to talk. Quiet music plays in the background. The students follow an agenda and lead the meeting. As juniors and seniors in high school, I stress this as a time to take charge of their work as they move into the independence of adulthood. They are shifting the role within the family.

The first year my students presented their work to a parent there was a palpable change in the climate of the room. Making the home school connection immediately created a less threatening learning environment. Because the parents had a clear idea of what was happening during the day, presentation night extended the discussions at home. For our large projects, all parents began asking questions at home and assisting with resources.

Some school systems accommodate parents and their work schedules by setting aside an entire school day and evening to conduct student-led conferences. Report cards are held until the parent and child are able to come together with the teachers for the conferences. Often babysitting and transportation is provided.

Parents want to be authentically involved in their student’s success. Student-led conferences are a way to both engage families and improve student skills.

Response From Patricia Vitale-Reilly

Patricia Vitale-Reilly is a former classroom teacher and staff developer at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, and is currently an educational consultant working with schools nationwide. She is the coauthor of The Complete Year in Reading and Writing Grade 2 (Scholastic, 2008) and the author of Engaging Every Learner: Classroom Principles, Strategies and Tools, (Heinemann, 2015). Visit her at whatmattersmostinteaching.blogspot.com:

The simplest way to engage families is to understand that true family engagement is more than just parent involvement. Family and community engagement is key to student engagement and to student success as learners. For me, we best engage families when we operate under the belief that families are (and should be) true partners in educating students. Families want what we want for students - for them to have engaging learning opportunities, joyful experiences, and success as students. Therefore, we need to create structures that will cultivate not just parent and caregiver involvement, but true family engagement.

We can cultivate family engagement in three ways: by building relationships, by fostering communication, and by engaging in meaningful collaborations.

Building Relationships:

When we talk about building relationships with families, we need to understand that this means creating a real, two-way street kind of relationship - one that honors and acknowledges the input and information that families and schools each have about a child, and in turn uses that information to make decisions that impact the learner.

There are many ways to do this. When I was a classroom teacher, one way that I did this was to reach out to families before the school year began. Although I also communicated with my students before the beginning of the school year, this was a letter written just for parents and caregivers. The letter welcomed the family to our year of learning and asked each family to send me information on the student. I did this by asking parents to share any information they would like me to know about their child.

I purposefully kept it simple. The intent of this communication was to build a relationship with each family, make them feel welcomed by honoring and acknowledging the information they had about their learner, and provide them the opportunity to insert their voice into the conversation.

Of course, I didn’t hear back from each family, but that was okay. The goal was to open the door and begin building a relationship.

Fostering Communication:

After the beginning of the year communication to families, it is important to consider how to have ongoing communication. In today’s world, this is easier than ever. Communication can occur via email, note home, text message, class website, or even social media. The key is to find the method and frequency that will work best for you and for your families.

I have found that texting with parents can be the easiest way to communicate with them. In one elementary classroom that I worked in this year, the classroom teacher was struggling with how best to communicate with the family of a child who was having some challenges in school. The parent was extremely busy - she was working two jobs and had multiple family members she was caring for. I had suggested that she reach out to the parent using the contact information she had, including sending a text message. The parent responded right away and was so happy to have text messaging as a method of communication. In fact, the teacher and the parent worked out a routine that the parent would email Monday mornings to communicate any information she thought the teacher should know regarding the weekend, and in turn, the teacher would text on Fridays to communicate any information the parent should know about the week. Even just a quick line or phrase to acknowledge a good week is enough to keep communication open and continuous.

Engaging in Meaningful Collaborations:

Meaningful collaborations matter to families and are one of the best ways to cultivate true family engagement. Collaborations can be school or district-wide endeavors, or can be simple, smaller scale collaborations that individual teachers have with families. I have seen schools have family literacy nights, maker space family time, and Thanksgiving celebrations. These are larger, grand scale collaborations that bring families, and the entire school community together socially and around learning.

Yet a collaboration can be something between one teacher and the families in her classroom community. One successful yet small-scale collaboration I recently was part of was between a first grade teacher whose class I was working in and her families around nightly reading. When recognizing that the reading was not happening at home due to lack of reading materials, the class made this a true collaboration. Students took home books from the school nightly. Parents and caregivers helped to gather and organize the lending library. Students and families read nightly, reading, talking about the books, making sure the books came back to school, and thinking about ways to build the lending library. A true collaboration on all levels.

The key is to ask ourselves the following questions so that structures and interactions with families will lead to true family engagement:

  • In what ways will I seek to build a relationship with parents and caregivers?

  • How will I communicate with families? What will work, not just for me, but for families as well?

  • What meaningful collaborations exist on the school or district level? What collaborations can I foster and create?

When we consider these questions and answer them from the perspective that, “it takes a village” to raise, educate and engage a student then we are creating structures that will lead to family engagement.

Thanks to Jennifer, Shane, Karen, Allen, Mary and Patricia for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Anyone whose question is selected for weekly column can choose one free book from a number of education publishers.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog -- along with new material -- in an ebook form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

Just a reminder -- you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email or RSS Reader... And,if you missed any of the highlights from the first four years of this blog, you can see a categorized list below. They don’t include ones from this current year, but you can find them by clicking on the “answers” category found in the sidebar.

Classroom Management

Student Motivation

Implementing The Common Core

The Best Ways To Begin & End The School Year

Teaching Social Studies

Project-Based Learning

Brain-Based Learning

Using Tech In The Classroom

Parent Engagement In Schools

Teaching English Language Learners

Student Assessment

Teaching Reading & Writing

Education Policy Issues

Differentiating Instruction

Author Interviews

Teaching Math & Science

Professional Development

Teacher & Administrator Leadership

Relationships In Schools

Instructional Strategies

This Year’s Most Popular Q & A Posts!

Look for Part Two in a few days.....

The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo 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.