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It’s Okay – They Come in Peace

I was recently speaking with Derek Rhodenizer on his blog “Beyond the Staffroom” about engaging families in learning. He asked me why new teachers were afraid of parents. I know many experienced teachers are leery but it was disheartening to hear the fresh ones were, too.

I don’t believe we prepare our pre-service teachers for the beneficial world of home-school partnerships. Family Engagement training is not embedded in the pedagogy of teaching, as it should be. In how many Faculties is it even mentioned? When the new teacher reaches the classroom, do they find family engagement embedded in the practice of the school? Or is it clear that a parent’s place is outside the school and beyond the reach of teaching?

I could write pages on the reasons for family engagement, proven by years of study. I could list the significant benefits for students, families and teachers. For now, here are three thoughts for new teachers (and seasoned pros) on families, students and why it’s going to be okay.

Chicken or the Egg?

When I ask educators to describe their first teacher, invariably I hear about the one in kindergarten. They sound like wonderful people but… wrong. Our first teachers were our parents/guardians. The first four years of our lives were in their hands and we learned so much – walking, talking, eating, drawing, singing. Then we began our formal education.

As educators, we need to be respectful of what came before, honour the knowledge of those first teachers, and seek their input. In The Essential Conversation (a must-read) Dr. Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot reminds us that the parent’s child and the teacher’s student is one-in-the-same. What if a parent could give you good advice on how to work with that shy student? How to help the distracted pupil focus on a task? Suggest the most successful way to motivate a discouraged essay-writer? What if the teacher could show families how to support in the home what was learned in the classroom? Give insights into the person they see in their class? Our job is easier when we realize our truest partner is at home.

Dialogue is not a monologue

Get to know the names of your parents/guardians and greet them in the hall, the playground, the parking lot, the store. Then communicate. Communicate. Communicate. About your student. About you. About the family, community, school. Send information home regularly in a variety of ways (email, newsletter, twitter, website, phone calls). Strive to make communication two-way. Ask for information back and when you hear, acknowledge their input in the future work you do. When parents feel they are heard and respected, they become more engaged in their children’s education and more content with the school. Don’t forget – the more we dialogue, the more we communicate.

Fear breeds anger

Dr. Steve Constantino advises that much of the anger expressed by some parents comes from fear. And, I’d suggest, much of that fear comes from years of dealing with systems that seem deaf to their concerns. Whether you teach kindergarten or grade 11, your experiences with “that child” are limited compared with those of the parents. They have spent years trying to understand, cope, encourage, and keep the faith. Parents have dealt with educators in all forms – supportive, obstinate, forward-thinking and blasé. They are tired. Frustrated. Suspicious. Their experience may have taught them that few teachers listen, less understand, and most think they know better. So begin by trying to understand that the anger isn’t about you; it’s about fear, exhaustion and who came before. You may never break through the wall constructed to protect themselves and their child but keep trying. Your desire to support and build partnerships is just want they’ve always wanted. And it’s what you both need!

Years ago, my husband returned home from a field trip with our daughter’s class. He walked through the door, fell on the floor and moaned, “They don’t pay teachers enough.” Well, duh! One afternoon had educated him on the trials and tribulations of simple class management. As educators, we should strive to understand that we have a lot to learn from our families and communities. They will be our biggest supporters – when we build partnerships with them.