(This is the final post in a two-part series. You can see Part One here.)
The new question-of-the-week is:
What are the most important lessons you have learned from the families of your students?
In Part One, Sarah Cooper, Rocio del Castillo, and Don Vu shared their experiences.
Today, Hilary Kreisberg, Jeremy Hyler, and Amanda Kipnis wrap up this series.
‘The Four Core Wants’
Hilary Kreisberg is the director of the Center for Mathematics Achievement at Lesley University and the co-author of the books Partnering with Parents in Elementary Math: A Guide for Teachers and Leaders (2021) and Adding Parents to the Equation: Understanding Your Child’s Elementary School Math (2019):
I have had the privilege of spending the past four years interviewing families of elementary students, as well as teachers and school leaders at the elementary level, as I try to deepen my understanding of how educators can help parents, guardians, and caregivers better support their children’s mathematics learning. During this time, I’ve learned many important lessons from the families of these students.
Below I share the three most important lessons I believe impact our ability as educators to partner effectively with parents, caregivers, and families. Note: Moving forward, I use the word “parents” on its own for ease. Please know this term includes caregivers, guardians, and families in its use.
Lesson #1: Parents are assets to our work.
Each and every parent, no matter their situation, wants the best for their children. Yet, sometimes educators view parents as obstacles, rather than valuable partners who can help get their child to where they need to be. Take a moment and reflect on your personal core beliefs: (1) Do you believe all families want what is best for their children? (2) Do you believe all families have the capacity to support their children’s learning? (3) Do you believe that families and school staff are equal partners? (4) Do you believe that the responsibility for cultivating (and sustaining) partnerships between school, home, and community belongs primarily to school staff, especially leaders? These four core beliefs, originally identified by Henderson, Mapp, Johnson, and Davies (2007), help educators consider whether they truly believe a child’s family is essential to the child’s success.
In order for us to view parents as partners and as assets to our work, especially in mathematics, we need to recognize the strengths, knowledge, and skills they bring. Yet, there are times in which parents have felt that educators have “written them off” or made inaccurate assumptions leading themto feel like they are not able to help support their own child’s learning journey. While it may be easier to write parents off as obstacles, taking a deficit approach to partnering with parents can limit your communication and ultimately impact your relationships. Thus, Lesson #1: View parents as assets and find ways to partner with them.
Lesson #2: The more the knowledge, the lesser the ego.
Throughout my interviews with parents, one thing became obviously clear: The more understanding they had, the more at ease they were about their child’s mathematics learning and less defensive and argumentative about the way we teach math today.
After I finished asking my set of questions, I always gave parents a chance to ask any questions they had. Almost every single time I was asked, “Why are they doing math this way? Why did it change?” with the occasional addendum that they turned out just fine the way they learned math. Within minutes of giving them a very abbreviated history and justification, I immediately heard sighs of relief with one parent even stating, “Just this conversation alone has been so helpful. It’s more than I received from the school.” Parents don’t want to replace the teacher; they simply want to be informed. Thus, Lesson #2: Provide parents enough information to make them feel knowledgeable.
Lesson #3: Parents want to feel helpful, intelligent, confident, and familiar.
Feeling knowledgeable is important but isn’t the only thing parents want. Ultimately, parents also want to be able to: (1) help their child, (2) look intelligent in front of their child, (3) feel confident that they are steering their child in the right direction, and (4) communicate with their child about their learning.
These are what my co-author and I call “The Four Core Wants.” As educators, we must find ways to ensure parents are getting their four core wants met—whether that be by providing a survey at the beginning of the year asking parents what questions they have about the content you will teach so you can proactively support them or by sending home unit previews where you outline the content and jargon parents will face. Thus,Lesson #3: Communicate enough so parents can confidently talk with their child about their learning.
Henderson, A., Mapp, K., Johnson, V., & Davies, D. (2007). Beyond the bake sale: The essential guide to family-school partnerships. New York, NY: The New Press.
Pass on the Emails
Jeremy Hyler is a middle school English and media-literacy teacher in Michigan. He has co-authored Create, Compose, Connect! Reading, Writing, and Learning with Digital Tools (Routledge/Eye on Education) and From Texting to Teaching: Grammar Instruction in a Digital Age, as well as Ask, Explore, Write. Jeremy blogs at MiddleWeb and hosts his own podcast Middle School Hallways. He can be found on Twitter @jeremybballer and at his website jeremyhyler40.com:
Over the past 20 years, I have learned many lessons from the families that have come through my classroom.
One lesson I have learned is that every family has a story, and as educators, we need to take that into consideration when dealing with students, parents, and guardians. Unfortunately, we never learn about every aspect of our families or our students. However, when we do learn about a student’s unique situation and have empathy toward it, we have a greater chance of reaching that student’s potential and helping them to see the value in receiving a valuable education. Too many times, I have encountered students who have bigger responsibilities at home than completing their homework for me. Often, they have siblings to care for, a house to clean, and they are expected to get dinner on the table. Education, believe it or not, is not a high priority in the home, and we need to understand what families are going through. We can help them by showing them how to find resources that could improve their situation, if they are willing.
Another lesson I have learned during my time as a teacher from families is how best to communicate with them. It is so easy to send out an email in our busy teaching lives and it is very convenient to do so between classes, grading papers, and staff meetings. However, I have learned that sending emails is not always the best way to communicate with families. Too many times, my emails have been misinterpreted.
On the flip side, I have also misinterpreted parents and the emails they have sent as well. It is easy to do, and yes, though tone can be established in an email, it is hard to understand someone’s tone if you don’t communicate with them regularly. I can’t always imagine what a parent is saying compared with a text my son may send me. What this has taught me is to take the time to pick up the phone and call parents/guardians. Yes, it means taking more time, but it is worth it. If you don’t get through the first time, simply leave a message. If you don’t ever hear back from the individual, simply send an email requesting a phone call or even a face-to-face meeting. Making a simple request for a phone call does not allow for misinterpretation, and it also shows the parent you respect the fact you would rather talk to them instead of sending an email. The more we communicate with parents effectively, the better the educational process can be for everyone involved.
These two areas are just a few of the things I have learned in my 20 years of teaching.
Amanda Kipnis is a passionate educator who teaches a 3rd-5th grade special day class for students with moderate to severe disabilities in Lemon Grove, Calif. She enjoys finding new ways to incorporate social-emotional learning into curriculum and spends her little free time coaching softball and Girls On The Run. Amanda was named to the 2020 class of Curriculum Associates Extraordinary Educators:
Teaching students with special needs virtually this past year provided me with a unique opportunity to have my students’ parents intimately involved in literally every aspect of their child’s education. While intimidating and at times frustrating, this also presented a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to observe family dynamics and engage in daily discourse with my students’ families. My takeaways from talking to parents this year are:
- Stop talking and listen! This was the most important lesson. This year, I wrote some of my best IEPs by combining my educational expertise with parents’ expert knowledge of their child. Increased communication allowed me to better understand where parents are coming from and what their goals and dreams for their child are. For example, I would not typically include a name-writing goal in a 5th grader’s IEP (at this point, we’d move to typing or other accommodations), but when a mom told me about her big Hispanic family and how they’re always signing cards for birthdays, showers, and weddings, it made sense. I also knew I had family buy-in, which increases the child’s chances of success.
Parents need and want training. Watching families “help” their children during distance learning made it glaringly obvious just how unprepared many parents were for working with their children. Many wonderful parents were caught in the trap of overprompting and/or repeating the same verbal cues over and over and then becoming frustrated when their child’s work didn’t improve. They would also do the work for their child as if I were expecting a perfect product. Parents need to be taught that the uncomfortable thinking time their child engages in is when learning happens. That’s the power of wait time.
Training parents on the least-to-most prompt hierarchy (providing verbal, gestural, model, and, lastly, physical prompts) transferred ownership of learning to the students while promoting independence. Providing a short and very basic training on principles of behavior helped increase on-task behaviors while decreasing attention-seeking ones. This training “simply” focused on the functions of behavior (attention, access, escape, and sensory) and on the importance of providing/ withholding reinforcement. The parents I worked with were highly receptive to these training sessions. Many showed up to these optional “coffee with the teacher” trainings, and I saw immediate improvement in their confidence and their ability to facilitate their child’s learning.
Shared resources need to meet each family’s individual needs. The final lesson I learned from my families this year is that you can provide all the resources in the world, but if they don’t meet a family’s needs, they won’t be used. Things to consider include access to technology and the internet, access to books, amount of time supportive adults can spend with their child, and preferred language of materials (and instructions).
Thanks to my school district providing laptops and hot spots, all of my students had access to Google Classroom and YouTube, and thus, access to thousands of learning videos and read alouds. For families without many books at home, this was life changing! For busy or working families, websites (such as ABCYa!, Starfall, Boom Cards, and Dance Mat Typing) and online curricula (i-Ready, ST Math) were our favorite go-to resources. For other families, old-fashioned flashcards and worksheets were preferred, but the instructions on how to interact with said materials were provided in their home language. All families want to support their child’s education. It’s up to us as educators to listen and to empower parents by providing the resources they need to be successful.
Thanks to Hilary, Jeremy, and Amanda for contributing their thoughts.
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