The family and community outreach component in the various evaluation models rarely garners the attention that it should. Most of the energy and focus has been on the interaction between the teacher and the students with less on parents, families and communities. When respected and honored partnerships are formed, students achieve at a much higher level and are better armed for life-long successes. Isn’t that the goal of everyone involved? Educators have everything to gain by forming connections to the family and community. Some of these positive outcomes, just to name a few, are:
- Better grades and test scores
- Fewer behavior problems
- Improved attendance
- More positive attitudes towards learning and increased classroom participation
Years ago, inviting families and community to visit the school was a “nice thing to do.” Parents attended Back-to-School night and parent-teacher conferences and assisted with field trips, field days and other activities. This school-home connection was considered an add-on rather than part of the teaching and learning practice. Today, parental and community involvement encompasses so much more than that. The relationship is vital to bring about positive, favorable results.
The knowledge, wisdom and support parents and the community can offer the teacher make them integral parts of the educational community. Who knows the student better than the parent: their likes, dislikes, their preferred way of learning and interacting with others and what makes them tick? Positive working relationships are fostered when educators begin to accommodate parents by meeting them where they are, not where educators think parents should be. All judgments have to be put on hold and a conscious effort made to understand the family’s perspective. Educators must be sensitive to the demands put on the families and families must understand the demands put on the educators.
JUST GET STARTED
When I was in elementary school, my teacher asked me questions about my likes and dislikes. I remember thinking, “Why is she so nosy? Why does she want to know what I did over the summer?” Fast forward to when I became a teacher and it finally made sense. Now I understand she was planting the seeds of trust, acceptance and understanding in our classroom. Over time, this allowed all of us to share without the fear of being judged.
Some years back I had a phenomenal principal who instructed us not to give out text books for the better part of the first week of school. He believed this was the most important window for us to build trust, respect and community in our classroom. This was the time to get to know our students: who they were, what role(s) they played within their family structure, their likes and dislikes, and their hopes and dreams. These were the building blocks that helped us to understand how to best instruct our students. This was also the first step in bridging the gap between school, home and community. It was a big change for many of us who wanted to jump right into instruction, but he knew what he was talking about.
SUGGESTIONS FOR FOSTERING POSITIVE RELATIONSHIPS WITH PARENTS
- Make it known to parents that you want to partner with them and appreciate their support.
- Develop frequent, two-way communication between home and school. Find out which format they prefer: phone call, email, text, face-to-face, or mail.
- Make your introductory interactions positive.
- When you do have to connect with parents about something negative, make every effort to lead with good news first.
- Survey parents to better understand their needs when it comes to supporting their child.
- Be mindful of their interests, skills and talents.
- They can support you in ways you never thought possible.
- Respect cultural differences: Spoken words are only one way to communicate. It is often difficult to understand nonverbal messages because different cultures have different expectations about eye contact, physical touch and body gestures. Facial expressions, voice tone, and overall posture tell more than words at times.
- Be open to different definitions of “family.” The conventional nuclear family is no longer the standard. Family is defined differently by different cultures.
As with any relationship or partnership, there will be obstacles and challenges. They are not necessarily negative. These episodes can present an opportunity to change practices in ways that bring about better understanding between educators and families. This might be as simple as accommodating a parent’s request to meet with you at a time that is different than what you anticipated or working with his/her child in a way you had not considered. Do your best to resolve the challenge and move on — you, your student and the parent will all be better off because of it.
Janet Royal is an NJEA associate director of professional development and instructional issues. She can be reached below.