Is This What It Takes To Get Parents Involved?
Last Wednesday night was “Back to School Night,” that American education classic, and my classroom was packed with parents and others. All the seats were full, which relegated the few stragglers who had lost their way in the maze of unfamiliar floors and corridors to the SRO area along the back wall.
It was a true family affair. Parents, students, and siblings were there to take in an all too brief ten-minute synopsis of the United States History curriculum. The toddler members of the crowd fiddled with the papers and pencils on the tables, but I sensed a real connection with the parents, even though many of them were getting a translated version of my remarks from their son or daughter. Almost all were taking notes (or at least writing down my contact information) from my bi-lingual Power Point presentation.
When the bell rang to end the session, a line of parents surged toward me to shake my hand, give me a hug, or bow. They introduced themselves and asked with some hesitancy how their child was doing in class. The triage we render at such events is familiar to teachers – a quick recognition of the student, a brief comment about his or her progress, a sincere thanks for taking the time to attend, and an invitation to contact me whenever they have questions or concerns. I will follow-up with each and every parent several times throughout the year, knowing a bit more about them because I had met them face to face. But for now, I need to point them in the direction of their next classroom and welcome my next group of parents.
My other sessions that night were variations on the same theme, but they did not have the same attendance or the same energy.
I had tried something new with that United States History class. Growing weary of the sparse attendance in my high school classes at past Back to School Nights, yet knowing the importance of parental involvement in education, I chose to mix things up with a little experiment.
Most parents appreciate the value of a good education, want their child to be successful in school, and are willing to help in that endeavor. However, it is difficult to get many parents involved. And their reasons (or excuses) for not attending a school event, volunteering on campus, or playing some other positive role in their child’s education are often valid and understandable. They may work two jobs to pay the bills, care for younger children or an elder parent at home, or lack adequate transportation. They may also view school as unfamiliar or even unwelcoming. Many of my students’ parents had negative experiences in their own school systems as children and are not anxious to enter that world again. So, it is often difficult to build partnerships with engaged parents and bring them into classrooms where they know their participation is valued.
In my experiment, I stuck with the standard protocol for five of my six classes. I emphasized to my students the importance of their parents attending Back to School Night and distributed several informational newsletters and bus schedules for their parents. However, in that sixth class, I made parental attendance an assignment with a point value. Students whose parents attended or sent a note signed by the parent explaining why he or she was not able to attend received full credit. Students whose parents did not attend or failed to submit a note would receive no credit. I introduced the assignment the first week of school to give students plenty of time to talk with their parents and also with me if there were extenuating circumstances.
To tell you the truth, I felt a little nervous. In my classroom, the focus is typically not on the points a student earns. Instead, we focus on the journey to acquire knowledge. When students ask “What grade do you think I’ll get on this project?”, I redirect the conversation to ask, “Tell me what you learned? What issues were raised as you worked on this assignment?” The conversation and my focus are on teaching and learning, not the grade value assigned to that endeavor.
To make an assignment with the primary focus on the point value was definitely out of my comfort zone. However, I thought it was worth a little discomfort because, even in high school, I strongly believe that students benefit when their parents are involved in events like Back to School Night where they can learn first-hand the scope of learning and expectations taking place in their child’s classroom.
And so, despite my hesitancy, I went ahead with the experiment. The results were dramatic. While the average attendance in my five other classes hovered around ten families out of thirty-five, all but two families attended the “for credit” class. For the two families who did not attend, I received notes beforehand explaining why they could not be there. For many of these parents, it was their first Back to School Night on our campus and the feedback was remarkable. Parents were thankful for the information, appreciative of advice about their role in the education process, and grateful for the warm welcome to our campus and classrooms.
Reflecting back on this night, I’m not sure what the lasting implications are. Is the extrinsic motivator of earning “points” a valid tool to use to encourage parents to be involved? Or, is this “pay to play” program just a scheme that may fill seats but will not produce substantive parental involvement. Perhaps this sixth class was just an anomaly that would not have worked with any of the other five classes.
The night and the experiment have left me with more questions than answers. However, on this one Wednesday night in San Diego, I had a room full of engaged parents and what felt like the beginning of a powerful partnership to help our students succeed.