How do you establish and maintain a good working relationship with your students' parents? The Education World Teacher Team shares their strategies for increasing parent involvement and ensuring parental support.
"The school's best ally in the task of nurturing a student's innate 'urge to learn' is, first and foremost, the parents," says Bernie Poole in his online book Education for an Information Age. "A Nation at Risk (1984) paints a sobering picture when the report states that while parents do have 'an undiminished concern for the well-being of their children,' for the most part they are not culturally encouraged by the education system to intervene in their children's education. Unfortunately, this distancing has not improved in the last 20 years. Working parents, language differences, economic and cultural divisions, and a history of schools regarding parents as intruders and critics rather than partners have built walls.
"The responsibility for changing this state of affairs must lie with the schools," Poole adds. But what can educators do to draw parents in, to make them welcome in their children's education? We asked members of the Education World Teacher Team to tell us what they do to involve parents in their classrooms.COMMUNICATION IS THE KEY
"Our school's philosophy is that you never can communicate too much," Kathleen Cave told Education World. "We send home grade-level newsletters of upcoming events. We publish a monthly school-wide calendar. A principal's newsletter and a PTA newsletter also go out every month.
"I also do a great deal to keep parents of the students in my class informed of what we're doing," Cave added. "I begin the year by conducting an interest survey about each child that I ask both students and parents to fill out. It's interesting to see how the parents' perceptions of their child differ from the child's perception of himself or herself.
"I maintain a Web site of important information and resources," Cave noted, "and I obtain the e-mail addresses of all my kids' parents and use those for the majority of my communication. Although I do still use the telephone, I prefer to make contact via e-mail, at least initially. That allows me to carefully compose what I want to say; it also lets me keep a written record of the contact. In that way, I have notes for conferences and ideas to help me plan better ways to meet a particular child's needs. I also make certain to send a complimentary message about each student at least once a quarter.
"Our grade level made it a team goal last year to meet face-to-face with every child's parent before the end of the second quarter. We made 98 percent of that goal!" Cave said.
"Communication is an essential ingredient in parent involvement," agreed Linda Villadniga, "and I think we do a pretty good job of keeping our parents in the loop. Our school holds at least three open houses a year: one for incoming freshmen and students new to the school just before school starts; one in mid-September to distribute progress reports; and another in late January or early February, again to distribute progress reports. The school also puts out a newsletter about six times a year, which is full of all kinds of information for students and their families.
"I have e-mail addresses for all students and their parents, separated by class," Villadniga added. "That way, I can send out information to group(s) or individuals as necessary. It's much more efficient than phone calls, and more immediate too. I also put together and send out quarterly newsletters. Included in the newsletters is information about upcoming events, testing schedules, good news about the students, news from teachers -- anything that might be of interest. Phone calls, of course, also are an essential part of teaching, and many times the only way to ensure that you're talking to the right person."
"I establish open communication with parents early on in the school year," noted Camille Napier. "I ask students to have their parents sign the opening letter I write for students. It's a chatty letter that I love writing each summer in the days before school begins. I always introduce my cats (and describe what they've been doing that summer), and I share my philosophy of education and the English classroom.
"At open house," Napier added, "I provide my home e-mail and phone number, and I invite parents to complete a writing assignment: 'In one million words or less, tell me about your child.' I've had hilarious and touching, informative, and crucial information shared.
"I also call parents for good reasons -- just to tell them their kids did something well, that they have a polite and considerate child, that their kid is improving.Some parents," Napier noted, "have returned my calls in fear, and then cried when I said, 'I'm just calling to say how great she is.' "NO MATTER HOW OLD THEY GET
"I've mostly taught 9th graders," noted Marcella Ruland. "The transition to high school can be difficult for many, so I try to give parents all the information they need or want to help them help their children. I have a Web page that I advertise to parents as well as to students. On the site is a section for assignments. I have a long-term planning calendar and an assignment log that provides a rather detailed day-by-day listing of what was done in class, what work was collected, and what homework was assigned. I make sure I post instructions for class work, so absent students can make up assignments while they're out. I also post instruction sheets for all projects. Students lose things and, this way, the instructions are still available. Many parents have said how helpful the Web page is, particularly because students sometimes say they don't have any homework."
"Parents want to do the best by their children and most want to be involved," added Bob Sharp. "Whether teaching high school or middle school, I find that contacting parents early in the year with either positive comments or requests for help increases their buy-in to what I'm doing. I also find it helpful to send home weekly grade reports."
"As a secondary teacher, I've found that many parents feel there's not a need to be as involved in their child's school life," Robin Smith told Education World. "Actually, the exact opposite is true.
"During open house, I've always tried to have on the computers an interactive project in which students do presentations for their parents to view; then I assist the parents in responding. One year, I had students write letters to their parents telling them how important their support was in the classroom, and why even though they were teenagers, they still needed and wanted their parents guidance. Most of the students had a lot of fun with that and left wonderful messages. I had parents crying in my class. One said that she and her son no longer communicate much and when they do, it's fighting. Reading his message -- realizing that even though they had lots of arguments, he loved her and didn't want her to stop looking out for him -- made her cry. She said it was the first positive feedback she'd had from him in about a year. The parents really enjoyed reading those letters and many printed them out and kept them.
"I also contact parents by phone or e-mail when I think there might be a problem of some type. I do that before the student's grades hit the worry area," Smith added.
"Our district has a wonderful online gradebook and communication system," Smith noted. "When parents leave their e-mail in the system, we can contact them at any time. If I know a student has been struggling, I can e-mail the parent when he or she has a great project or grade. Parents can log into the system and check the child's grades in real time as often as they wish. They also can e-mail the teacher, guidance counselor or administrator through the system. That has made the home/school connection much easier and gotten a lot more parents involved. We no longer need to play phone tag to discuss a child's progress!
"I try to make sure that parents and students both know that I'm on their side and want to do what is best for the student," Smith said. "I respond to all e-mails within 24 hours. "A little work on the teacher's part makes the whole relationship much easier and more beneficial for all."INVITE PARENTS IN
"More than anything I just remind people that they're always welcome to come in and be part of what's going on," said Stew Pruslin. "I include that invitation in most newsletters.
Marsha Ratzel has help getting parents in to her classroom. "Our school has two parent-volunteer coordinators who work with the 90 kids on our team," Ratzel told Education World. "Those coordinators help get out the word as to what volunteer help I need. In math class, I need extra help to support both ends of the learning spectrum. In science class, I use parent volunteers to do collaborative projects and complex experimental projects, and to make sure things remain safe. I also use parent volunteers as guest speakers ...sometimes their work expertise can be shared with students and serve as conduits for relating math to real life.
"Every Friday, I send out a voice mail to every parent," Ratzel said. "It's short -- about 2 minutes -- and it summarizes what we've accomplished in class that week, and the major goals we'll be tackling during the upcoming week. Parents can press "8" to immediately respond to the voice mail if they have questions or concerns. Every day I update my class Web pages with daily homework assignments, add useful hyperlinks, and/or upload files that are needed for projects. Because I run some interactive projects, parents also might be asked to add comments to student ideas. That allows parents who can't come into the classroom to stay involved and contribute from their home or office.
"Throughout the year, I send home parent letters that explain the major objectives of what we're about to study," Ratzel added. "I offer parent-tips packets, which they can get by tearing off and returning a small form at the bottom of the parent letter. I offer sample problems and solutions, so parents can see what a typical student response would be. I've offered parent nights, when parents come in to do sample math lessons or science labs. That gives them a chance to see what class is like, to ask questions, and to see what I am like as a teacher. I also use SurveyKey, which is an online survey tool, to measure how parents feel about different topics. I don't always get a huge return, but I usually get about half the families to respond. It helps me know if parents want fieldtrips, if they want more tip sheets, if they feel comfortable helping their student, and so on.
"Because I work on a team, we have conferencing time available every week. If an issue arises, we don't have to wait for parent/teacher conference time to begin a home/school dialogue. That has been effective for heading off problems and establishing good communication," Ratzel said.
"I work with my struggling students in a Guided Study or Lunch Bunch environment. I utilize e-mail to maintain contact with their parents and to give "insider" information they might need to help their students complete homework, break down long-term projects, or study for tests. Parents e-mail me questions and 'insider' information too. Kids really know they have support that is coordinated, and they usually settle down and work hard. I think it's because they feel successful and get so much positive attention.
"Finally, I write thank you notes," Ratzel concluded. "I make up a bunch, using Publisher, customize them, and send them as frequently as possible. I also always try to mention my appreciation for their involvement in my weekly e-mails and in the announcement sections of my class Web pages. A thank you goes a long way to continued parental support."OFTEN A STRUGGLE
"Parent involvement is an issue I've had to struggle with myself in the past couple of years," said Jennifer Denslow. "As I was working on the national board certification process, it became really clear to me that I wasn't doing a great job of keeping in touch with the parents of my students. I think parent communication is a problem for secondary teachers because we walk a fine line -- students are old enough to take responsibility for themselves, but they don't always communicate with their parents about what's going on at school. Parents do not want to be blindsided when a problem crops up, so it pays to make the effort to stay in contact.
"I send home a letter at the beginning of each year, soliciting contact information and asking parents to share something about their children," Denslow added. "I use the e-mail addresses I harvest from that letter to set up mail groups for each class so I can do mass mailings about assignments and events. I find e-mail is the most convenient way to stay in touch with parents, and I use it a lot!"
"As a classroom that's the hub of the elementary school, the Library Media Center often finds it difficult to get volunteers to support our daily programs," said Midge Liggan. "That's understandable; parents are already involved in their children's homeroom.
"One thing I have found that works very well," Liggan notes, "is to have a parent act as room parent for the library. Parents are used to that type of organization and feel comfortable with the process. The room parent recruits other parents for daily assistance and/or special activities. Also, I make myself available at all special outside-of-school activities to promote our 'Information Science Instruction Program.' Parents are not always aware of the need for assistance in the library. When the parent volunteers are in place, I make sure they get to do jobs they enjoy, jobs that provide some creativity. During April, (National School Library Media Month,) I have an appreciation tea for all of the parent volunteers."TECHNOLOGY SOLUTIONS
"One of the tasks I took on as technology integration specialist was to help increase communication between school and parents," Dan Swadley said. "I felt that parents would be more involved if they were more aware of the activities occurring in our schools, so I set up a parents' listserv for the district. Parents subscribe; about once a week, they receive e-mail messages to keep them informed. The listserv has worked wonderfully well and become an accepted part of communication in our district. Parents expect to get it, and administrators immediately get feedback. Last year, one of our principals needed parent volunteers for a particular project, and within a few hours of sending out the request on the listserv, she had 15 volunteers. We use the listserv for one-way announcements, including school calendar reminders, news from each building, lunch menus, grade card notification, immediate inclement weather closing information, and Web sites of interest to parents."
"I can't say what I do", Bernie Poole told Education World, "because I work with college students, so interaction with parents is rare. I do tell my education majors, though, that technology offers wonderful opportunities to bring parents from the home into the classroom, and to bring the classroom into the home."
"New technologies and the faster networks provide the school with new strategies for communicating with and involving parents," Poole points out in Chapter 7 of Education for an Information Age. "Because just about every parent has access to the telephonevoice mail implementation should remain a choice for communication. However, telecommunications is moving in new directions, directions that many parents will find more attractiveHere is a run-down of what is now possible:
Keeping parents informed and involved is easier -- and more important -- now than ever before.
Article by Linda Starr
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