Monday, December 20, 2010

Help Parents Be Participators (not Spectators) in their Child's Education

I have a goal.  I want twice-yearly parent teacher conferences to be a thing of the past.  I want the concept of parent-teacher interviews to be absolutely redundant.  Do I like meeting with parents? Of course!  It is one of the most important things that we can do in education.  Do I like discussing their children? Absolutely.  Who doesn't like to talk about their children? Do we want parents to come in to our schools? Without question.  Our home is their home.  But with a goal of OVERCOMMUNICATION with our parents, I want every day and every night to be considered a 'parent teacher conference' so that parents can be participators, not spectators, in their child's education.

One of the most convenient scapegoats in education is highlighted when we blame parents for the misgivings of children in our schools. The PARENTS need to be more involved.  The PARENTS are over-involved. The PARENTS need to discipline their kids.  The PARENTS need to teach these kids some manners.  The PARENTS need to step back and let their children take responsibility for their actions. Why can't these PARENTS just TRUST us to do our job?

As you might have guessed from my last post, my daughters (and my brilliant wife, of course) are the most precious people in my life.  Call me crazy, but I make my 2 1/2 year old hold my hand whenever we are in a parking lot, or whenever a car is remotely approaching us on our quiet street.  I make sure when she eats stuff that she chews it thoroughly so she won't choke.  I have secured our flat screen TV to it's stand on that one in a million chance that it might tip over and hurt her.  Book shelves are secured, there are gates everywhere, doorknobs have those childproof things on them, cupboards are clipped shut, pills are safely stowed,and cleaning chemicals are out of reach.  I am a neurotic Dad, right?  Wrong.  I just want to keep my children out of harm's way.  And judging from the books that I have read about parenting and childproofing your house, and the number of books on these sorts of things at Chapters or on Amazon, I am confident that I am not the only parent that wants to protect their children.

So perhaps a better question than any of the ones above is "Why SHOULD any parent trust us to do our job?".   The answer to this is pretty clear.  They SHOULDN'T.  At least not until we have earned their trust.  And we all know that the key to establishing this trust is to create clear lines of communication with parents so that our parents know that we care about their most precious commodity, and that they know that they are partners, not spectators, in their children's education.

We have to ask ourselves, how do we really involve parents in our schools?  I say this from a high school perspective, because when I talk to my elementary colleagues, I hear that parents are much more involved at that level.  But at high school, I often wonder, do our actions REALLY indicate that we truly want parents involved, or do we just want them to give their kids a kick in the pants when they don't do their homework.

Recently, we used Google Docs to create an online survey for our parents.  We have a relatively large school of more than 1400 students and 800 families, and we were thrilled to get responses from nearly a quarter of them (which is by leaps and bounds the largest response that we have gotten). One of the most common answers that we got to "things that our school could improve upon" was communication with home.
When we asked what parents needed to know, things like 'progress', 'how my child is doing', and 'marks' came back among many other things.

This made me think about some things that we can do to make parents more of a partner in their student's education.  I came up with a few things for us.

1) Have a communication protocol for our important events at the school:
We are completely changing the way that we are going to communicate messages from our school.  We have gotten rid of paper newsletters, and are sending these out online.  We have created a communication protocol that will take advantage of numerous applications including email, Twitter, Facebook, Buzz, Tumblr and other means to try to connect to our student, parent and alumni community in as many was as we possibly can.

2) Use a marks program that can easily email progress reports to parents:
Interim reports sent home with kids have very little value.  Most reluctant learners are even more reluctant to take a progress report home that demonstrates a lack of progress.  Often time, these paper-based reports line the wastebaskets of the school, and sometimes are sent home at a point that makes it too late for students and their parents to do much about it.  We have stopped waiting for the BCesis system utilized by schools in British Columbia, and most of our teachers are using a program that they can easily send home progress reports on a weekly basis.  Parents appreciate this because they can constantly keep track of their students, and teachers appreciate being able to keep parents in the loop.  One of our fabulous teachers makes his first assignment only submittable by parents!  This way he gets their emails right away.

3) Have an intervention system in place that gets parents involved as soon as their student is struggling:
A report card should never report something that a parent does not already know.  We put in an after school Academic Intervention system for students to complete missing learning outcomes that takes place after school Monday thru Thursday.  Part of this program involves teachers contacting parents at home so that they can be put into our AI program.  We use a referral slip that we send home with the student--if this doesn't work, many of our teachers will have the student use their cell phone in class to call the parents at home directly.  It is pretty neat, because parents always take calls from their student's phone.

4) Involve parents in the planning and goal setting for our school
This year, we created a School Improvement Plan Blog that allows our parents to see and be involved with the entire process of developing our SIP.  We feel that students, teachers and parents need to be shareholders in our plan, and to do that, they need to see and be a part of each step of its developent.

5) Make 5 positive phone calls per week to parents who don't expect it
I stole this from Chris Wejr, a great BC administrator.  He does it on Fridays, and what a great way to make a parent's (and your own) weekend.  If you want to have a tear come to your eye, listen to the unmitigated joy when a parent tells you "this is the first positive phone call that we have ever received". 

6) Provide information for parents that is useable, and will bring them back to your website.
Recently, I found a "Parent Guide to Facebook", and put it online and got some very good feedback.  Parents like things like this, but don't always have the time to go and find them.  Tutorial sites such as the Khan Academy, Wolfram Alpha, LearnNow BC and many others can help parents help their students as well.

7) Have an open door policy and MEAN IT.

 8) Find ways to loop in the parents of reluctant learners.
This is something that I still need to get better at, and constantly am looking for ideas.  If you have great ideas, I would truly appreciate your comments.

So collectively, let's make the 'one-night-per-semester' Parent Teacher Interview a thing of the past.  If we can overcommunicate with our parents so they are partners in our education, we will have better schools where parents feel like they are empowered partners in their child's education. 

Ultimately, our parents WILL trust us with their precious children.  But we need to connect and communicate with them first so they can participate in their child's education.


  1. Thanks for tackling an issue most schools struggle with. Your ideas sound well thought out. I'll be interested to hear how they work :)

  2. Thanks for the post Cale, I agree with the suggestions you proposed. We have been using email and are starting to use Twitter to communicate with parents. We use Facebook in some cases to communicate information to students.
    Many of our teachers use their websites to inform parents what it happening in their classrooms on a day-to-day basis. Teachers are also communicating student progress to parents electronically, including through our 'connect' system.
    As you mentioned in your last point, our challenge continues to be involving the parents of many of our reluctant learners. As much as I agree that it would nice to claim that Parent Teacher Interviews have become redundant, I know we are not at that point. In an attempt to connect with the parents of our reluctant learners, we have made it a priority to personally invite these parents to our Parent Teacher Interviews. The parents have been very appreciative and I believe it is improving their level of involvement in their child's education.

    You state a great question' "Why should parents trust us to do our jobs?" I believe we provide answers to this question everyday. First, we need to meet the parents where they are, understand and value their perspectives, reach out to them for advice on how to work with their children and demonstrate to them that we are willing to go the extra mile for their children because we care about them.

    We all know that parents are critical partners in education. It is up to all of us to demonstrate this to them daily so that we build up their trust in us.

  3. liked this blog post so much as it really resonates with our philosophy. Just tweeted it.

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  5. Great blog post. Once upon a time, parents taught their children at home. When it became clear that not all parents were capable of educating their children, formal education was introduced.
    However, parents are still the ones responsible for their children and their education. And that point is "driven home" very nicely by this blog.
    At PTC Wizard we strive to empower schools and parents to cooperate and communicate about the education of their children and students.
    Our comprehensive and easy-to-use online scheduling system ensures that parents will have an easy time setting up PTC meetings... while school faculty will be free to focus on their real job. Educaton

  6. Cale,

    If I was to make a list of big topics in BC education this coming year, parent engagement would be right at the top. I like your list - it is concrete in an area that is often hard to describe. The recently released report from the Premier's Technology Council suggested that a necessary shift is "From Parent as Supporter to Parent as Participant". It is this idea that, at least from the comments on my blog and others is getting the greatest skeptical reaction. There is a feeling that parents don't want to, or can't, be more involved in their childrens education. This is going to be interesting to see how it plays out.

    There is a lot of political noise, in B.C. and beyond about the changing role for parents. It may mean an increased role in governance, or even greater choice in schools and programs or, it may mean a fundamental shift in their role in relationship to school. I am interested to see us define what a parent as participant looks like at different levels in different communities.

    Thanks for writing about a topic that is of interest to so many of us right now.

  7. Love your goal! Very respectful considerations of parents and authentic strategies! Here is something I posted in another online forum regarding the topic of report cards:

    "Has there ever been any conversation about not having the scheduled night for teacher-parent interviews? Is this out of the question? What I am getting at is this: What if instead the focus/effort was made to really let parents know that they can call/make an appointment whenever they feel the need, and then teachers could do the same at convenient times. Would parent-teacher contact cease? Are our lives just too busy? Does it really have to be a prescribed time and part of a contract? Don't we hear a lot that the scheduled nights don't bring out "the parents we really need to see". I go for the face to face time regardless of how my kid is doing, because that is what I do and I think it is important and respectful......and then a part of me feels like I should apologize at times. I am also thinking that the scheduled nights may intimidate some parents--everyone will think my kid is doing bad....? Is that sometimes the case/barrier? Could technology change reporting/information? But how should "face time" be preserved and honoured, and kept meaningful?

  8. Thanks Cale for another insightful post about working with parents and the community. In response to your search for help about connecting more with parents of reluctant learners, might I suggest - and perhaps you have done so already - organizing opportunities for parents to connect, socialize off the school site and in the community. Many parents with reluctant learners may have issues with their own past personal experiences with school and that can impact on how they support their children.

  9. Terrific post. Your sentiments are exactly what I wished I heard from other schools. As a Dad, I want to be involved, but schools are not always so inviting.

    I ended up creating a website to encourage parent involvement. It's similar to the other tools you mentioned although it's tailored to this task - it's free, no ads, and private to the classroom.

    It's called the kid report ( and it's now a non-profit effort and growing beyond the schools in Seattle.

    I completely agree with you about inviting parents in - as soon as schools do that, they will see it's better than leaving them out. I imagine it can be scary for the school - it means communication is no longer centralized and controlled by the administrators, but it can be a huge benefit on many levels for the kids, parents, teachers, school and community.

    I recently found myself in a discussion about this exact topic: - the article is interesting and related, and there certainly appears to be strong sentiment from teachers that feel they are already doing enough to invite and involve parents.

    Given the cost constraints we're seeing and demands from parents, I'm sure we will ultimately see schools take advantage of the free and very beneficial effects of parent involvement.

    Looking forward to reading more of your articles!

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