Best Questions: Parent and Family Engagement
Despite the rumors, school improvement is hard. It's not about a single passionate leader. It's not about "fixing" teachers and teaching or parents and parenting. It's not about poverty. It's not about money. And it's not about standards. It's about all of them. And more.
In this column, I'll take on the real deal of school improvement—for all schools, not just certain kinds. And for all kids. Because it's not about quick fixes or checking off the instant strategy of the moment. It's about saying, "Yes, and..." not "Yes, but..." no matter what our circumstances. It's about asking ourselves the best questions.
Fellow educators, let's set the record straight on a few things:
- Families are not keeping the "good" kids at home.
- No parent wakes up and thinks, "I am really going to mess up my kid today."
- School staff work for families, not the other way around.
- Teachers parent and parents teach.
- Every bit of research ever done shows that collaborative home-school partnerships (not fund-raising, not athletic boosters, not chaperoning field trips) has a positive influence on long-term student success.
- The most important family engagement strategy is sending kids to school prepared every day and asking about school every evening.
Any further questions? As a parent and an educator myself, it really is so frustrating to hear other parents complain about schools, and educators complain about parents and families in ways that seem absolutely intent on blame. It's just so silly sometimes. We know it takes all of us to help young people be successful, yet we separate our expertise and roles into impermeable categories and hierarchies that make our efforts harder.
The traditional back-to-school night is really, for me, the epitome of this dysfunction. So many back-to-school nights I've attended as a family member and, honestly, held as an educator are strange round-robins of following your child's schedule to hear from her teachers what she will experience this school year. You as the family member sit in a chair and desk (even at the high school level!) not fit for an adult body, are sometimes explicitly told not to ask questions because the teachers are just going to present to you, and are repeatedly hit up for money for a parent organization membership, fund-raising bake sales, and "spirit wear" purchases. Meanwhile, families are buzzing in the parking lot about which teachers are "good," what's happening on the bus, and how horrible the cafeteria food is. (OK, maybe these examples are a bit extreme, but I'll put money down that many of you can relate to elements of each.)
Imagine what would happen at a back-to-school night that had round tables set up for conversation about the four sets of questions we introduced a few posts back? What if families and school staff members—not to mention business partners, coaches, ministers, and so forth—sat together and had real conversations during which they asked themselves
- Is each of our kids healthy? Safe? Engaged? Supported? Challenged?
- How do we (as adults committed to student success) know?
- What have we done to make it so?
- What have we taught them to keep it so?
Imagine the commitments people could make collectively and individually to a successful school year. Imagine how future family-teacher conferences would look and sound. Imagine the level of respect and collaboration this would establish. Imagine the transition from blame to problem solving.
And since I'm ranting a bit and reflecting back on some earlier blog posts, one last comment: My word-snob self has also very intentionally used the word "family" with "parent" throughout this post. It might seem like a bit of a politically correct detail to some, but the reality for many children is that they are being raised by adults other than their natural parents and that when it comes to engagement, it really doesn't matter which family member it is. So let's use language that includes, rather than excludes; let's problem solve, rather than blame; and let's talk with, rather than about.