Engaging Families from the Classroom Out

By Teneh Weller

I remember being a new 5th grade teacher, full of excitement and hope. I had the opportunity, in some small way, to change the world. I had a vision that all of my students, no matter where they started out, would reach proficiency in reading and math. I envisioned that they would all go to college and be happy and productive citizens. The majority of my students were at least two years below grade level in reading and many of them had serious behavior challenges. But this did not deter my enthusiasm. I was committed to supporting each child’s success.

I was so excited to share this vision with my families at Back-to-School Night. I had my speech ready! I was going to start off with my vision for the students and then let the parents know how my classroom rules, procedures, and curriculum would help their children reach my  vision.

Needless to say, the night did not go well. And many of my subsequent interactions with families did not go well, either. I couldn’t understand it! I only wanted the best for their children. Why didn’t they want to partner with me? One evening, I was crying to my husband for the umpteenth time, and he asked me a question. “Did you ever bother asking the families what their vision is for their children?”

Asking that single question, “What is your vision for your child’s future?” shifted the way I engaged with families. When they told me that they wanted their child to be happy and go to college, it gave me the opportunity to provide the tools and resources needed to help them reach their vision for their child.

The most powerful relationship in a child’s education is between the family (the child expert) and the teacher (the content expert). The family brings a wealth of knowledge about their child and the community they live in. The family holds the vision for the child’s future. The teacher is the educational leader and knows the most about how the child is performing academically.

So often, family engagement staff, after-school coordinators, or the attendance clerks have the strongest relationships with families. School districts often invest in family liaisons and offer professional development to build their capacity. The school community then relies on the family liaison to engage all of the parents. Similarly, attendance clerks are typically responsible for communicating with families whose students are truant. They work to support families in increasing their child’s attendance. There is no doubt that these relationships are important but they cannot replace the partnership between “the child expert” and the “content expert.”

Because teachers do not have a lead role in the family engagement cast, most interactions with families are not linked to learning, and therefore do not support increased academic success.

 According to a 2012 survey, 73{dc2081ac6c5cc81baef6ff3d8b7134abf68618b2dec130d45a21090cbaafa61c} of teachers found it very challenging or challenging to engage parents in improving the education of students. (MetLife, 2012)

It is during the family-teacher interactions that teachers can provide the families with detailed, targeted tools and resources that can support the child’s success in class. It is during these times that families can share information on how the child feels about school or how certain life experiences are impacting their ability to focus in class. The family and the teacher can sit down to identify interventions, strategies, and needed resources that will improve outcomes for the child both at home and at school. When families and teachers have this deeper relationship, they can then turn together to the other key community partners at the school for any additional supports to ensure that students have what they need to thrive developmentally and succeed academically.

By the end of my first year of teaching, and throughout my ten years in the classroom, I asked families to share their vision for their child’s future. I made sure that during every meeting or event, I provided families with easy-to-use tools that they could implement with their child and see immediate results. It was key to my success as a teacher and key to the success of my students.

The most effective forms of parent involvement are those which engage parents in working directly with their children on learning activities at home.
(Cotton, K., Wikelund, K., Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory, School Improvement Research Series, Parent Involvement in Education.)

For more information on best practices around family engagement that puts teachers and families at the center of your efforts, as well as some tips for how to think about this in an LCFF/LCAP context, see the chapter I co-authored, Why Family Engagement Matters, visit the California Community Schools Network.

teneh laughing_Family Engagement Blog ImageTeneh Weller is the Executive Director of High Expectations Parental Service