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What I've Learned About Cultivating Parent Involvement

Voice of Experience

Educator Max Fischer has found that successful teaching often hinges on employing a wide variety of instructional methods to meet student needs. In this Voice of Experience essay, Fischer reflects on how getting parents involved in students' education also requires a variety of approaches. Included: Eight things Fischer has learned about working with parents!


leftLast winter, I read a newspaper editorial by columnist George Will that almost made me do back flips like those John Belushi did in The Blue Brothers. Will, a champion of vouchers and a frequent critic of public education, seemed to have seen the light in a column in which he decried the 9/91 factor. Simply put, in the first eighteen years of life, students spend a mere nine percent of their time in school; the other ninety-one percent represents the extraordinary influence that the home and outside environment exert on a student's engagement with learning.

Finally, I cheered, the press -- a conservative commentator at that -- had caught on to the reality that most educators live with each day: We can't educate students in a vacuum; education must be a collaborative effort between home and school.

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SCHOOLS SOMETIMES SEND A POTENT SUBLIMINAL MESSAGE

Before the back flips could do irreparable damage to my spine, I was reminded that schools often do a poor job of reaching out to parents. The yellow smiley face at the school entrance reminds visitors to register at the office; the implicit message is, in many cases, You are now entering The System. Don't interfere with our business (and we'll try not to interfere with yours).

In A New Generation of Evidence: the Family is Critical to Student Achievement, (National Committee for Citizens in Education, 1994), Anne T. Henderson and Nancy Berla located critical evidence that family involvement, not social status or income, is the vital component in student success. Unfortunately, they found the opposite to be true as well. If schools disparage parents or treat them as negative influences, or cut them out of their children's education, they promote attitudes in the family that prohibit achievement in school. Parents who stay out, or drop out, of their children's school experience send a potent, subliminal message to their offspring: This institution isn't worthy of my time, therefore, why waste your time?

Middle schools and high schools are extremely vulnerable to this phnomena, as many parents are prone to disengage from the educational process by the end of their children's elementary progress. Some studies report that in suburban communities, where education is usually highly valued, as many as forty percent of parents never visit their child's middle or high school.

HERE'S WHAT I'VE LEARNED

Educators, especially those at the secondary level, can't expect the obligatory open house and parent conferences to suffice when trying to connect with parents. They must be proactive in launching a counteroffensive that targets parents as essential partners in the education of their sons and daughters.

With that in mind, I have developed some basic Dos and Don'ts for increasing parental engagement. Maybe some of these techniques have been successful for you, too!

  • Do make an initial call home within the first two weeks of school. Generally speaking, a call home very early in the year to check with parents on their child's adjustment to your (elementary) classroom or secondary school program sends a powerful message: I want your involvement in your child's education, and I need to collaborate with you for the benefit of your child. This non-threatening communication also lays a groundwork that makes subsequent discussion of delicate issues of discipline or homework easier to broach.
  • Do communicate what's going on within your classroom on a regular basis. Monthly (at least quarterly) newsletters are appreciated by involved parents, especially as students tend to clam up as they matriculate into middle school.
  • Don't be wordy or condescending in your written communication with parents. For some parents, letters full of educationese reaffirm a sense of intimidation or distrust of schools that may have developed over years of negative personal experiences -- either as students or as parents.
  • Do utilize modern technology -- e-mail, voice mail, Web pages --whatever is available to help get your message out. With so many two-paycheck families, phone tag via answering machines can be a very inefficient method of communication. Delicate messages should not ever be placed on a family's answering machine when it is unclear who will listen to them first. Impress upon parents that e-mail is often the most direct communication route. For secondary teachers with 100 or more students, online communication is especially advantageous.
  • Do be sensitive to the characteristics of your community of parents. Depending upon the community, schools may have to think outside the box -- holding parent conferences away from school; making home visits; and hosting First Day programs to celebrate the beginning of a new school year -- to increase involvement among parents who might be uncomfortable making a personal appearance at school.
  • Do give parents opportunities to visit school unencumbered by the often-daunting prospect of parent conferences. Again, some creative thinking can lead to highly successful events. Having students display thematic expositions of their work that parents are invited to browse (possibly while enjoying light refreshments!) or holding a Back to School program can provide enjoyable experiences while promoting your school's academic programs.
  • Don't stereotype parents by socio-economic background. Involved parents and uninvolved parents can be found at all income levels. Take a one-parent-at-a-time approach.
  • Do transmit messages of genuine praise about students. Whether they're accomplished through a phone call to a parent or a Good News postcard to a student, such communications send a strong signal that you care, and help dispel the idea that any communication from school should be avoided.

I have found that successful teaching often hinges on employing a variety of instructional methods to meet the varied learning styles of my students. I also have discovered that my methods of dealing with parents must be just as diverse. Some parents expect me to satisfy their curiosity with the most minute details of my training and experience, while others could care less about my resume. Some want to be informed about every bump in their child's academic road, while others sweat only the major setbacks. Finally, there is that segment of parents who, because of unknown educational experiences in the past, must be nurtured into establishing even an initial relationship with school personnel.

One common denominator does link the great majority of parents, however -- the need for personal attention and a sense of caring from those who work with their children on a daily basis.

A teacher for nearly three decades, Max Fischer currently teaches seventh-graders the marvels of ancient history. A National Board certified teacher in the area of early adolescence social studies/history, Max has authored nine resource books for teachers in the fields of social studies, health, and math. You can read a previously published article about Fischer: Simulations Engage Students in Active Learning.

 


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