Will Rogers once said, “You never get a second chance to make a good first impression.” As an educator with more than forty years of experience as a teacher and principal, this seminal phrase should be emphasized by school leaders, especially when communicating with parents.
Parents are so often intimidated by schools and avoid coming to school to advocate for their children. Do most parents really know if teachers are doing a good job or have the skills necessary to ensure their children are successful in a given subject or at a specific grade level? They judge a teacher based on the feedback they receive from their children every day or on their own interactions with the teacher. Taking time on the front end to build trustful relationships with parents will yield big payoffs later. When teachers take time to listen, parents feel valued and gain greater comfort with their ability to communicate. Steven Covey encouraged us to “seek first to understand, then to be understood.”
Karen Mapp (2015) suggests we shift the language we use from parent involvement to family engagement. Family engagement is defined as the various ways that a child’s adult caretaker (biological parents, foster parents, siblings, grandparents, etc.), at home, school or in the community, effectively support children’s learning and healthy development. The Latin root of the word “involvement” is “involvere,” which means to wrap around, cover or envelop; roll, cause to roll. The Latin root of the word “engagement” is “engare,” which means to make a formal agreement, to contract with; to pledge; an obligation to do something. Mapp has done extensive research regarding the impact on students with engaged families:
John Hopkins did an evaluation in 2015 and shared these results at the Family Engagement Partnership (FEP) in Washington, D.C.:
One more interesting bit of research: The Consortium on Chicago School Research (2005) on teacher mobility discovered, “In elementary schools, teachers’ perceptions of parents as partners in students’ education are strongly related to their decisions to remain in their school. Teacher-parent relationships account for much of the difference in stability rates between low-income African-American schools and other schools, and all of the differences are explained when we consider parent relationships along with other workforce conditions, including students’ behavior.”
I recently learned about a non-profit organization called EdNavigator that offers working parents an ally to offer expert advice and hands-on educational support. This transformational resource is provided through employers and is now operating in New Orleans and Boston.
I am quite encouraged by advances in the field of family engagement. There is much work to be accomplished on both sides of the aisle, first by having district/school and staff develop the knowledge and skills or capacity to engage with families. University programs must begin, including family engagement within their syllabi. Principals must set the tone and set the bar high for the ways they expect parents to be treated, included for input on decisions, and time spent coaching parents on effective ways to interact with staff. Imagine if families could attend a school activity and leave knowing more about what their child should know and be able to do at their grade/age level? Imagine if they were taught how to employ a new tool or activity at home to support their child’s learning? More and more schools across the country are trying to reverse the patterns of behavior that have become commonplace. I long for the day, perhaps for my grandchildren, when there is a shift in the mindset from seeing family engagement as an add-on or burden to a fundamental component of proficient, effective, and learning practice (Mapp, 2015).