Engaging Families from the Classroom Out
By Teneh Weller, High Expectations Parental Service
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.