When it comes to parents being included in educational discussions or decision making processes, I’ve repeatedly heard two themes emerge:
1) “We ASKED and no one responded!” Teachers/administrators send out emails, ask for feedback, send surveys, host parent ed or parent-teacher interview times – and few (if any) parents respond. So why do it? Why bother trying? The frustration during these conversations has been palpable. And this has come from educators that I know well – and I know they honestly WANT parent input.
2) “But parents don’t understand – uninformed voices don’t BELONG in these discussions. You need to earn your right to be involved in decision making…” I admit – I’ve seen parents or parent groups “demand” things that are short sighted or misguided. For example, parent groups in my Province demanded more information about how their kids are doing, and government responded by making it mandatory that Grade 4 & 7 standardized test results be provided to each student/family – yet these tests are political, should really be a sampling (IMO) that gives a read on how the overall system is doing, and don’t give an accurate view of how any individual student is doing anyhow!
- schools have our children five days a week, ten months of the year. Parents want and should have a voice in how their children are being educated! Some parents are also trying to deal with sobbing, anxious, underperforming, or otherwise unhappy children at home – unequipped and unsure how to “get” them to go to school, let alone LIKE it!
- learning doesn’t happen only within the classroom or school walls. Learning continues at home and parents can support (or be barriers to) the learning that teachers are trying to impart.
- in the absence of communication, someone or something will fill the void. So, either parents will tell each other (and often be incorrect or misinformed) or parents will make assumptions (again, most often incorrect) or fear and distrust will spawn all manner of “worst case” scenarios (teachers are being racist, unkind, uncaring, incompetent, etc…)
- parents will hear only what the popular media/news agencies say about education and teachers – which is often adversarial, confrontational, extreme, etc…
- if parents don’t believe or understand how their input will make any difference, they won’t make the effort to provide it. They might not even understand the questions they’ve been asked or why they’re important. Or they don’t trust – the system, the school, the people, society.
And MOST IMPORTANT:
- parents and teachers both want the same ultimate goals! We should be natural allies, since both groups (with very few exceptions, in my experience) passionately want what’s best for our children.
- the “system” sets us up as adversaries instead, and that’s the worst possible thing for the very students that we passionately want to help grow into healthy, happy, mature, contributing citizens!
From the outside, I sometimes get the sense that there’s a bit of that “leave it to the professionals” attitude. I also think it serves the political will of Government to maintain/legislate/sustain a system that keeps us fractured and fighting – since a united voice would be extremely powerful!
I firmly believe that building relationships, trust and understanding between parents and teachers is incredibly subversive, in the best possible meaning of the word. It doesn’t take a new policy or legislation. It doesn’t require agreement from unions or the Ministry. There should be no pre-requisite for any particular understanding or knowledge – only a common purpose and passion for raising our children.
So, how do we do that?
In a video I created for parents a few years ago, I challenged parents to:
To apply these same ideas to teachers, I would challenge you to:
1) Believe in parents and their desire to do what’s best for their kids. Believe in yourself too! Remind yourself of this everyday and before every discussion with a parent. Even put a post-it note somewhere you’ll always see it! Understand the fears and worries that parents have about themselves, about their kids, about school, about the world. When we believe in each other, our attitudes soften – we’re more willing/able to see the other’s perspective and to come together around our shared hopes and dreams for our children. Then we have the needed foundation for the details, complexities and realities of raising human beings to be discussed and negotiated.
2) Get involved and be proactive in anticipating what parents may misunderstand or need to know. If parents need to ask what’s going on in a classroom, they probably won’t – because they don’t want to look stupid or uneducated. And so they’ll assume (probably incorrectly). Or they won’t even know what they don’t know or what questions to ask! It makes a HUGE difference to parents when teachers share what’s going on in their classrooms, links to more information, projects being planned or even topics being covered. Don’t just complain how parents “don’t get it” – create resources that can be used over and over, as your parent group changes or as issues arise with different students. Don’t underestimate the easy solutions – a simple “homework” page (available on the internet somehow) helps parents begin to feel connected and to trust. I’d love to see Districts be even more proactive and share videos about commonly asked questions or pedagogy or topics like changes to assessment, use of technology, 21st Century skills, personalization vs. differentiation vs. individualizing, or inquiry based learning. Then ALL teachers could use these resources to educate the parents they deal with.
3) Ask questions of parents – ask them how they’re feeling, how their kids are feeling about school, what they’re worried about. Use some appreciative inquiry and ask parents to describe how their children best learn OUTSIDE of school – because that can tell you so much about a child’s learning styles, abilities, passions. Ask parents to be IN your classroom somehow – whether that’s virtually, by blogging about what you’re doing or by actually inviting them in, to participate. Ask, don’t assume – whenever something isn’t working or doesn’t seem right.
4) Listen to parents and listen to what they DON’T say. They may not articulate their concerns very well because fears and insecurities cloud their words/thinking. But whenever a parent is sharing something with you, look for the underlying concern or question. Look for the unspoken. Read between the lines. But don’t assume – revert to asking questions again, if needed!
5) Be curious and open to new ways of thinking. Parents have a different experience and different point of view from the other teachers you spend most of your time with. They will see things differently, and that may be beneficial! Even when you think they “don’t understand” so would have nothing to add…
“How can it be that the collective decision making ability of a diverse group of people, including those that might not have any special knowledge or understanding of a topic, is consistently betterthan that of the smartest individuals in the group?”
Author James Surowiecki explains this phenomenon in his keynote speech at an ISTE conference:
I often wonder:
What if, instead of “presenting” the school goals or pro-d goals to parents, they were included in the discussion in the planning phase?
What if a principal invited some parents to the next staff meeting?
What if teachers explained something (the six traits of writing, Bloom’s Taxonomy, numeracy activities, digital footprint, etc…) at every PAC meeting?
What if parents were included in the next school planning meeting?
What if a school sent out a survey to ask all parents and/or students if they like their school – and what (specifically) do they/don’t they like?
These might be hard things to do, in real life. They might make us uncomfortable. And nervous. They might be hard to deal with – since it will take time to get people on board. Or it might take many tries (and failures) before we start to see the results we want. We may struggle.
It’s really hard to have completely open conversations – because that might expose our weaknesses, or open things up for criticism. We are, often by nature, defensive – we want to put our best foot forward, not parade our challenges and weaknesses out for all to see! Do we really want the world to know that we don’t know how to solve a problem or need help? That we aren’t always the people we wish we could be? Doesn’t everyone expect the “experts” to have all the answers? And really, doesn’t everyone have enough to do without having to explain everything to parents too?
It’s not easy, by any means. We have so many barriers to overcome – we are truly trying to move mountains! I don’t, for a moment, want anyone to believe I see this as a quick or simple path!
But how much effort is it worth if we could “subvert” the system, in spite of politics or standardized tests or labour disputes or an unsupportive public?
What if parents felt involved and knowledgeable about what was going on in classrooms? What if they were passionate about supporting their children’s teachers? What if they could support, reinforce and even expand at home what their kids are learning in school?
What if teachers felt trusted and safe to make mistakes in their own learning and change efforts? What if they felt supported and valued by the parents instead of judged and attacked? What if they already had relationships with all the parents in their class and could easily call one up to discuss their child’s learning – without it feeling like “cold calling” someone you don’t even know (and who doesn’t want to hear from you!)?
What if Principals had time to build the team and the learning community relationships instead of being overwhelmed by the myriad of administrative tasks that swamp their days? What if they could do the same thing at the school level that they used to do with their classrooms (encourage, support each child’s learning, coach, bring out the best in everyone)?
What if we could work together, from the ground up, to get the funding, resources and supports needed to help EVERY student to thrive and feel successful?
How much more powerful would that make our education system? And how would that change our entire society?