I just finished parent/teacher conferences and they made me wonder if I’m meeting the needs of my parents. There are some I really wanted to see, but they didn’t come. There are others who are so worried about everything that they create lots of anxiety for their kids. How do I manage such different kinds of involvement?
Managing Parental Involvement
Dear Managing Parental Involvement,
You’ve brought to the surface a mindful reminder: learning will go beyond our walls and into all the spaces of our students’ lives, whether we plan on it or not. It can be overwhelming to consider the burgeoning number of learners you have when you start to bring families into the picture too.
Managing their diverse entry points into their children’s learning requires a lot of observation and careful attention. Yet, you are certainly equipped to work with parents using many of the same skills you’ve honed in the classroom with your students. Here are a few ways to help you frame your thinking about working with parents.
Focus on entry points and building relationships. Like students, our parents all have different entry points into school and learning. Some are hands-off, others are hands-on. Some base everything on their own experience in school, others are teachers themselves. Reach out to them in whatever way you can. I remember the semesters of sending personal invitations to parents and working with students to write postcards to parents in their native language.
Meet them where they are. Build relationships because you’re a careful listener, because you withhold judgment, because you don’t lead with defensiveness, but openness.
Remember that learning is systematic. Learning families helps me learn students and reminds me that it’s all systematic. The lever I push at school can pull one at home; the wheel that turns at home can wind the one in our classroom. But we can’t assume the child is the parent in intention or motivation, in perspective or disposition.
Learn what the “just right” amount of information is. And remember “just right” is different for all parents and we want to use information to expand learning, not stifle it.
I remember finding out that Sam’s mother religiously scrutinized all of his assignments before handing them in, which meant I needed to see him do more work in class. I remember finding out that Ben worked better with specific learning contracts outside of the school building that his father was very involved with. I remember discovering that Alex would suffer extreme consequences at home for missing assignments, so I couldn’t share grade details until they completely accurate, if I wanted him to trust me.
In each case, and the hundreds that have followed, I need to see each situation as unique and workable.
Know and be able to explain why you make instructional decisions. When we talk and work with parents, we have to maintain our teaching mindset. Our goal isn’t to defend what’s happening in our classrooms, our job is to teach why we deliberately make decisions. When we can explain how our instructional decisions matter to individual children, we can diffuse those occasions when parents are confused, jump to conclusions, or worry.
I find that many parents, especially those who are prone to worry and hyper-vigilance, just want to know that school is being fair to their student. Demystifying the learning process can go a long way to assuaging confusion or concern.
Believe they are doing the best they can. I fully believe every parent is sending the best child they can to school each day. So, whether you’re wishing there was more contact with one or more relief from another, we have to remember that the ends of the spectrum are usually more alike than different and when we lead with learning, we’re leading with students first.