When the idea of parent engagement came up for the blog, I knew exactly who to turn to:
Meet Katherine. :)
A dear friend and former colleague, Katherine has been called names ranging from “the parent whisperer” by staff who admired her uncanny skills, to “my unicorn” by one self-admittedly tough parent with whom Katherine established a thriving relationship. I am thrilled for her to share some of her magic with you today!
At Co-CreatED, we know the learning path is formed not in isolation, but in strong collaboration.
Greatness comes from working together.
So it’s not only about the teacher-student partnership, nor the teacher-leader partnership, or even the school-community partnership. Parents are co-creators too, and our relationships with them have huge potential for enriching students’ learning experience.
There are many facets to the topic of parent engagement and many co-creators who have a stake in it, from parents to school staff to policy makers to citizens. There’s a close-up interpersonal piece, and there’s a big-picture societal piece. In this two-part series, we’ll take it from the up close and personal to the bird’s eye view for a deep and wide look at co-creating the learning path with strong parent partnerships.
I am excited to collaborate with Jen on this two-part, “zoom in, zoom out” series where we take a look at parent engagement. To start, I’d like to zoom in and talk about the parent-teacher relationship and what’s made a difference for me on both sides of the table.
See, I am a parent of both neurodiverse and neurotypical children. My daughter who is hard of hearing, has ADHD and a mood disorder just graduated high school, while my neurotypical son and step-daughter are in elementary.
I’ve also had the pleasure of teaching both neurodiverse and neurotypical children for five years, and then working six years as director of admissions and counseling for a small school educating students grades K-8 with ADHD, autism, and other learning differences.
So, I have literally been on both sides of parent-teacher conferences, phone calls (the good, the bad, and the ugly), and requests for support.
Along this journey, I’ve reflected on the tools and tricks of the trade that have helped me have meaningful and productive parent-educator relationships, thanks to the different hats I’ve had the opportunity to wear.
Here are a few of the essentials.
#1) Treat each other like humans.
I know it sounds basic, but this is the foundation.
The truth is, parenting is hard. There is not a job on the planet that opens a person up for more judgement than becoming a parent.
The truth also is, teaching is hard. I’ve always felt there is a unique weight that comes with being entrusted with other people’s children. Both jobs come with extensive public criticism and a list of expectations a mile long.
If you come away from this blog with nothing else, please take this:
People are doing the best they can, where they are, and with what they have."
I truly hope you’ve already developed and leaned into this belief about your students; I encourage you to extend it to their families, too.
Cultivate empathy, offer the gift of grace, and remember we are all in this together.
There is nothing more powerful than human connection.
#2) Equal is everyone getting the same thing. Fair is everyone getting what they need.
Raising my daughter in private schools that specialize in educating kids with disabilities, I never had a parent-teacher conference shorter than 1 hour.
When my son came along and I saw his public school conference was scheduled for 20 minutes (and that there was only one for whole the school year), I was shocked and appalled...until I experienced the first one. Where all my questions were covered with time to spare.
Then I was shocked that that was even possible.
My two kids had very different needs, and as a result received different things and had different experiences.
And it turned out... that was ok!
You wouldn’t water a cactus the same way you would a hibiscus; it would drown.
You also wouldn’t treat an ER patient coming in with severe chest pains and difficulty breathing with the same urgency you would a sprained wrist. "Triage" saves lives!
As a teacher, you have many, many demands on your time and attention. If you find yourself stressing over how to distribute these finite and precious resources, I think some version of the Pareto Principle or "80/20 rule" applies here.
EXAMPLES: In healthcare, roughly 20% of patients use 80% of the healthcare resources. It’s not that the larger counterpart is going without-- they simply have less need. In the technology world, 80% of "bugs" come from 20% of software-- repairing those specific glitches gives bigger bang for the buck. For bloggers, 20% of posts usually generate 80% of traffic to the blog site.
I’ve heard some teachers get pretty indignant about a handful of kids and/or parents each year who require more energy and resources than the rest of their class.
Instead, embrace the probability that roughly 80% of your students/ familes will need about 20% of your effort, while 20% of your students/ families will need about 80% of your effort. Lean into spending your time equitably and fairly instead of evenly.
#3) And while we’re talking numbers… we have to let go of a “100%” goal.
There will be some parents you reach out to-- maybe even repeatedly-- who are just hard to get in touch with or who don’t engage in the relationship you’re trying to build.
That is ok!
This is where the "parents are people, too" mindset comes in handy.
Think about all the many things parents and caregivers in general have on their plates. Then consider that there are families out there who are facing a whole gamut of challenges of which you may or may not be aware-- from working multiple jobs, to battling substance addiction, to escaping abusive relationships, to wondering where their family will sleep that night.
When you put those challenges in perspective, it becomes obvious that returning a teacher's phone call falls low on the priority list. (Lookin' at you, Maslow!)
To be clear, this is by no means an excuse to leave some parents out, to give up, or to blame.
It is a reminder to take a human perspective and to see any parent involvement as a gift. Practice gratitude for what you do get, instead of a hyperfocus on what you don't get. One teacher reminded me we have to “aim for the moon so that if we miss we hit the stars.”
One way to aim high for reaching parents is to diversify your efforts.
Mix-and-match: phone calls, text messages, home visits, open door hours, class newsletters, class website/ learning platform blasts, Twitter, printed letters & flyers, formal conferences, 2-way notebooks or folders, etc.
Pick a few go-tos that parents can count on from you, and ask parents what they prefer. Knowing a parent's preferred mode and time of communication can drastically reduce frustrating communication barriers.
#4) Make an up-front time investment, then bask in the returns.
In short, you get what you give, and it helps to front-load the year with positive interactions.
As a parent of a child who struggles with impulsivity and emotional regulation, you better believe I’ve gotten more than my fair share of phone calls and emails detailing ways my kid behaved poorly or unexpectedly.
So much so that any time I saw the school’s number pop up on my phone, my heart would race and I would start sweating profusely.
Reaching out within the first week for a quick phone call to highlight something positive that happened in class or on the playground will go a long way, especially with parents who have historically only gotten those negative calls.
Even just reaching out in a neutral way early on can be a big step toward cultivating a relationship. Introduce yourself, see if the parent has any questions, and let them know you are there if they ever want to touch base.
Later on, if you do have to reach out to troubleshoot a concern, it will be after you’d already established a foundation, so it will likely be better received.
An added benefit to building that parent relationship is that it’s not lost on the student.
Kids know when you are talking with their parents about the good and the bad, and that can definitely have an impact on how they conduct themselves in the classroom. They connect that their actions at school get communicated home and vice versa, so it brings an added level of awareness.
#5) You gotta ask!
Parents are not mind readers, so if you need help, you have to reach out.
For the most part, parents want to help out where they can, so be sure to vary the ways they can contribute. Items/supplies for the classroom and volunteer time during the school day are the most common requests, but not everyone can afford to give in those ways.
This is where take-home tasks come in-- cutting things out, assembling folder games, mending pillows, repairing torn books, laundering bean bag covers, etc. Everyone wants to feel like part of the team, and take-home tasks can loop in parents that are normally left on the outs.
Blanket asks, like in your class newsletter, are great for getting the word out, but even with the most involved group of parents, I would sometimes still have holes to fill.
That’s when I would rely on my relationships with parents to make direct asks. Which brings me to...
#6) Cold-calls always suck.
Awkward and uncomfortable-- that’s how I feel reaching out to someone I don’t really know to ask them for help.
It’s like the equivalent of a “cold call” in the sales world. On the flip side, a “warm call” doesn’t feel quite as awkward, and tends to work out better.
Relationships make the ask easier and make a ‘yes’ more likely.
Knowing your parents individually not only helps you narrow down who is best to ask based on the task at hand, but it also exponentially expands your bank of resources. For example, based on the relationships I had built with parents, I knew who to ask for what, and it greatly enriched the learning experience for ALL students.
I asked the parent who sews to help us out when our cozy corner pillows were bursting at the seams. I asked the Spanish-speaking parent to be our guide on a fieldtrip to Plaza Fiesta during our Latin America Unit. I even took up one parent on her offer when she said she’d rather just donate than volunteer. She and I shared a passion for diversity and activism, so she sponsored a class set of critical literacy books for our library.
In those examples, asking for support actually deepened our relationships, because the parent felt valued and included for what they uniquely bring to the table.
The parent-teacher relationship is just that-- a relationship.
Think: interactions, instead of transactions.
In my experience, there are no shortcuts to building relationships. It does take time and effort, and I certainly appreciate how valuable both of those commodities are. I will also say, though, that it’s entirely 100% worth it-- because when you make this switch to developing richer connections, you will actually be more likely to get what you need, and so will the students and families you serve.
To all the school leaders, classroom leaders, and parents out there:
What are some of the ways you've partnered with each other to co-create the learning path together?