I remember my first year of public school teaching well. I was excited, thrilled—ready to meet my new families.
But alas, there was an outcry from parents about their students getting a brand new teacher. My principal calmly stood by my side and comforted parents, ensuring them about my skills as a teacher (thanks, Dr. Rosswurm).
However, I was still terrified to meet the parents—alone—at Open House a few weeks later. I was a nervous wreck. At the time, I didn’t feel prepared to build strong relationships with those parents (though eventually we did create some great partnerships).
There are probably a lot of new teachers who share my experience. So it begs the question: how can we intentionally prepare teachers to form meaningful partnerships with parents before they enter their first classroom?
I recently met with Melissa Erickson, Executive Director of the Alliance for Public Schools, about family engagement. Her organization’s mission is to “educate, engage, and inspire families and communities to collectively support high-quality public schools and the children who attend them.” Simply put, they help schools and families work meaningfully together.
Below are a few engagement strategies that came out of our conversation. These are simple tips—but they could be game changers for many teachers. (We’d also like to point out that we use the word “family” here more than “parents” since many of our students’ families look different than the “traditional” two-parent family.)
1. Talk about family engagement. Often teacher prep programs focus on preparing the teacher for what happens inside the classroom. This means possibly overlooking factors that influence a student’s success and happen beyond the classroom or school.
Primary among these outside influences is a child’s parents or caregivers. Teacher preparation programs should include effective strategies for engaging all families.
But these models of engagement should also go beyond stressing the importance of communication. Oftentimes teacher-family communication takes the form of disseminating information rather than creating a mutually supportive relationship.
Teachers must spend time exploring how to include families as partners in student learning. For example, imagine how both students and teachers would benefit if teachers created ways to support parents in continuing learning at home.
2. Set the tone. Like we do with our students, we must think about the tone we set with parents. It’s also important to maintain steady communication throughout the year—rather than letting that first positive phone call home be followed by weeks of silence followed by a sudden call about a discipline issue or academic concern.
Good teacher-family communication is quick, effective, and consistent. Some communication options include email, group texting, or weekly newsletters. For instance, writing a short text message telling a parent that his or her child seemed very prepared for a review or that they helped a classmate learn a new game can mean a lot. The parent pick-up and drop-off line for walkers and car riders is a great place to connect with families as well.
For teachers with large classes, reaching out for every student can feel overwhelming. One strategy is to work through class lists alphabetically, making a comment, text message, or email for a few students at a time. But remember that even if you’ve reached out to seven parents that day, all those parents are hearing that message for the first time—so give it the time it deserves.
3. Make it part of the lesson plan. What would happen if we included family engagement in each and every lesson plan? For example, will students be performing a task that you can capture with your smartphone? You could collect photos over time and display them at a conference night.
Other ideas include highlighting your class website or gathering student comments and reactions to include in a weekly email update to parents. Social media aficionado? Tweet a probing question parents can ask students at the dinner table. Whatever you’re working on in class, build in time to document and record students’ work so you can share it with families.
Let’s make engaging students and families beyond our classrooms a part of every lesson plan. It takes just a few extra minutes but pays off for everyone in the extra support from families.
Want to hear even more strategies for engaging families? Listen to Melissa and I talk shop in this podcast.
Megan M. Allen (@redhdteacher) is a National Board-certified teacher and is the 2010 Florida State Teacher of the Year. She is currently a program developer and instructor for the new Mount Holyoke Programs in Teacher Leadership at Mount Holyoke College, as well as a blogger on Musings of a Red Headed Teacher for the Center for Teaching Quality.
The opinions expressed in Teaching Ahead: A Roundtable 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.