Good teachers recognize that families are important, and they know that if we want more students to succeed academically, we need to help more teachers understand how to engage all families.
The process of involving families substantively in education starts with helping teachers realize that efforts to engage families may include developing relationships not just with their students’ parents, but also with siblings, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and any other important adult in a child’s community.
Most of the time, to boost student learning, districts and policymakers rely on strategies such as aligning curricula to standardized testing, instituting frequent benchmark testing, or even closing schools altogether. But as the researcher Anthony Bryk and his colleagues show in their 2010 book Organizing Schools for Improvement: Lessons From Chicago, sustained school improvement requires attention to classroom curriculum and instruction in combination with strong collaboration among schools, families, and communities.
Content knowledge and pedagogical knowledge are essential elements of good teaching, but being a good teacher involves more than just delivering good classroom instruction. In trying to provide every student with good teachers, our current education policies tend to focus on classroom instruction and management. These systems, however, do not prepare teachers to work with families or reward them when they do so. The result is that many teachers view families as an additional variable, barrier, or nuisance to overcome when trying to educate children; family engagement becomes just “another thing” we are asking teachers to do. This must change.
There are two important ways we can begin to support an expanded definition of a “good teacher.” One strategy is to improve teacher preparation by giving more attention to the ways in which teachers incorporate family-engagement practices into their teaching. Another is for district and school leaders to support and reward teachers for implementing strong family-engagement practices.
First, students in traditional or alternative teacher-preparation programs need more guidance on how to work with families. In the 2004-2005 MetLife Survey of the American Teacher, new educators ranked interacting with and engaging families as the most challenging aspect of their job.
Being underprepared to develop relationships with families is not surprising, given the findings of a 2006 study by Joyce Epstein and Mavis Sanders showing that, although university deans and department chairs believe that family engagement is an important skill for teachers to have, schools of education tend to devote only a portion of one course to the topic.
Preservice and alternative teacher-preparation programs should also help their students understand the important part families play in student achievement and how to incorporate work to support and encourage family engagement into their teaching practices.
At Johns Hopkins University, we have developed the Teachers Involve Parents in Schoolwork, or TIPS, interactive-homework program. TIPS homework requires students to interact with a family member or close mentor on the concepts they are learning about in the classroom. Each assignment is short and includes a section in which students practice a skill being taught at school. TIPS assignments must also allow students to lead interactions with a family member or mentor, and must enable homework partners to provide feedback to the teacher about how the assignment went and how well the student understands the material.
Before teachers ever enter a classroom, they need to consider how practices like homework can be used to build strong teacher-student-family relationships. In her studies of TIPS, Frances L. Van Voorhis, a principal investigator with the program, found that families reported more enjoyment around homework, and students earned higher grades and test scores in the subject for which TIPS was assigned.
Second, practicing teachers need support and encouragement to meaningfully engage families in their children’s education. District and school leaders can support such teacher practices in two ways. For one, teacher evaluations should formally recognize and hold teachers accountable for strong, ongoing communication and engagement of families.
Expectations for teachers to involve students’ relatives in their education need to be explicit and rewarded by school systems. In addition, principals and other school leaders (such as mentor-teachers) need to encourage and model strong family- and community-engagement practices.
This recognition and modeling of community engagement shows that families are valued as partners in the education of students, rather than looked to merely to support school efforts. Professional learning communities can be formed around family and community engagement, with teachers helping one another understand how to draw in families as important allies in learning.
By incorporating family engagement into the way prospective and veteran teachers view student learning and development, our definition of a “good teacher” can evolve.
Good teachers do more than excel at instructional delivery. Good teachers are those who are able to connect with students’ families, helping those families see what their children are learning at school, what the children need to learn, and how they can help students excel through high school.
All parents want their children to do well academically; good teachers provide families the knowledge and opportunities to help make this goal a reality.
This Commentary is part of a special section supported by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation, at www.waltonfamilyfoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the November 07, 2013 edition of Education Week as High-Quality Teaching Draws in Families