Looking back over time it is easy to remember an easier more happy time. The economy was stable. War was not prevalent. Mothers stayed at home. Fathers worked nine to five. Children behaved in school and always tried their best. Well that is what history looks like when viewed through the gray tinted glasses of fifties television families.
Though these concepts seem antiquated, many of the assumptions made in everyday family lives are based on such stereotypical ideals of family life. As educators and future administrators we long for the parents to be involved, like they used to be in a bygone era. We wish that parents would call to say what a good job we are doing. We wish that parent teacher conferences would be pleasant all the time. Room parents arriving daily, asking to be kept busy with miscellaneous projects. The school longs for full bleachers at sporting events and full gymnasiums during christmas programs. Just like things were. The PTO night, with standing room only, every parent present and agreeable. Money rolling in from parents wanting to help out.
But as we look back in history, or pseudo history, did this level of involvement actually ever occur in the real world? Surly on some levels and in some locations it did. But I would argue, the problems we as educators and administrators are facing with lack of parent involvement and parent apathy, are the same problems facing schools fifty years ago. So let us take a snapshot of what involvement looks like in schools today.
Parental involvement in elementary school classrooms runs an enormous gamut. Yes there are schools in this nation that have mothers helping everyday. These schools have volunteers at school functions and bristling PTO meetings each month. These schools are also rare. Mostly confined to suburban upper middle class districts, if not privately funded schools. This is of course in itself a stereotype, but one that I have encountered.
At the other end of involvement by parents in the twenty-first century is the zero involvement school. In these schools there is no PTO. Teachers and administrators educate students for 180+ days and never once interact with parents. Phones are not answered. Mail is not replied to. Requests for conferences are denied. These schools function without the parents. That is not to say that these schools are not offering a good education (this issue will not be further addressed in this paper). These two extremes are both rare cases with regards to parent involvement in elementary education.
I propose that most schools in this nation fall between these extremes and can be defined as such:
- Parents are willing to help out some.
- Parents are generally too busy to devote direct time during the school day.
- Parents have a limited income, so monetary donations are also limited.
- Parents expect the schools to handle education, it is the teacher’s job.
- Parents are judgmental with regards to all school to home communication.
- Parents are less likely to commit to assisting but will help when asked.
- Parent Teacher Organizations are not utilized and are looked at as a clique in the eyes of outsider parents.
- Parents are willing to ride along on field trips but usually are not able to drive for a field trip.
- Parents would agree that most communication between school and home is negative communication regarding the student.
I truly believe that parents want to be involved in their child’s education. I also believe it is wrong for schools to expect the unrealistic 1950’s ideal of parental involvement. I do however feel that each school should take a look at itself, and it’s involvement and set reasonable and attainable goals for increasing parent involvement. The clearest method for increasing involvement of parents is to establish a communication link with them.
There are many ways that schools communicate with families. Phone calls. Email. Handouts. Letters. Notes. Automated systems. Parent portals. Face to face. Group meetings. Videos. We live in an age where communication and information is readily available in many forms. Thus as a school we must not only communicate with our parent patrons, we must communicate effectively with them.
A school must use K.N.O.W.L.E.D.G.E. when communicating with parents in order to build community, trust, and a relationship which will increase involvement in the school:
K Know a much as possible about the person you are communicating with. Ask other teachers or staff. Learn about their profession and skills. This will give you an advantage as well as avoid possibly embarrassing slip-ups.
N Never assume that your message was received correctly or with the proper intent. Always be as clear as possible with your reason for communicating.
O Overcome any personal communication problems you might have as an individual in order to communicate effectively. I personally hate making phone calls, but sometimes this is the best or only way to make contact.
W When is the best time to contact a parent? Always take into account the times of day that works best for the parent, unless the situation is an emergency. This part may seem difficult, but as a parent of small children and a busy schedule I have times when I simply can’t be reached.
L Let the content of the message drive the communication. Do not get too tied up in pleasantries and chit-chat. Make sure the content of the message is received effectively without a lot of distracting other information.
E Ears. Use them. Be a good listener when communicating. When receiving written communication be a thorough reader. Do not let a lack of careful listening negatively affect the content of what the parent is saying. Listen well.
D Determine the best communication method for each parent. Some parents prefer email. Others have not web access. Many prefer a direct phone call or face to face interaction. Whatever the preference cater to the individual. Always take into account the times of day that works best for the parent, unless the situation is an emergency.
G Genuine gratefulness. Make the parent feel that you are grateful for their support. Make this as genuine as possible. It is important that the parent leave the conversation feeling like they have not been wasting their time.
E Evaluate each communication experience and learn from it. Reflect on what was said on both parts and plan ahead for the next communication.
Through the implementation of my K.N.O.W.L.E.D.G.E. based communication strategies I believe that a school will increase the level of parental involvement.
That is the ultimate question. How do we motivate parents? Obviously their motivation must be intrinsic. Schools cannot pay parents to help, or reward their good behavior…or can we. I believe that parents simply want two things. Satisfaction and the best life experiences for their children. As a parent I am more than willing to help out with school. But I want to feel good about doing so. Positive communication between the parent and teacher can go along ways toward motivating said parent to help with school. It is often stated when dealing with students: say three positives for every negative comment. This holds true for dealing with anyone, including parents. Establishing a positive rapport with parents increases trust and provides a stable foundation for further communication building.
As a parent I am often requested to help during Sunday School at church. This help is ‘required’. The younger students are supposed to have parents with them at all times. As a teacher I can understand this. As a parent it can be difficult, especially when juggling more than one child. But all of the difficulties are usually forgotten when the Sunday School teacher thanks me for coming and helping. That is all it takes. Two simple words. Thank you. Appreciation is a powerful tool and a powerful motivator. If a parent feels the work they are doing is appreciated they will be more likely to help in the future. On the converse, when a parent is not shown appreciation, even one time, it often causes an irreparable rift between home life and school. The school is viewed as ungrateful. The school can apparently get along without help. We must not let this happen. We as educators and administrators must motivate our parents through positive contact and genuine appreciation for parent support.
Every parent wants the best for their child. Every parent is willing to help their child succeed in school. Every parent is willing to do something to help out. It is up to the school to seek out these parents. To actively pursue them. Make them feel welcome and trusted. Draw them into the conversation about school and success. Communicate effectively with them. And by all means show them appreciation. By establishing a constant stream of supportive communication, we can increase the level of parent involvement in our elementary schools. The parents want to help. Lets allow them to do so.