Working Well By Teachers
Reaching today's parents takes creativity and flexibility
Cindy Long :
Picture it: a teacher sits alone in an empty classroom, watching the time tick by, wondering what went wrong. Packets were sent home, phone calls were made, emails were sent-cookies were even baked! But despite it all, not a single parent showed.
Being stood up on Back to School Night can feel like being jilted by your senior prom date, or worse. When attempts to engage parents fail, it can make you feel like a failure as a teacher.
"Parent engagement is central to education," says Nitzah Santiago-McRae, a student member of the Pennsylvania State Education Association and senior at Millersville University in central Pennsylvania. "They are the ones who will continue teaching their children long after they're out of my class or anyone else's. Education must be teamwork between parents and teachers."
Santiago-McRae hasn't yet begun her classroom career, but she's already gone a long way to encourage parental involvement in her own community. On Halloween day last fall, when most families were carving pumpkins and preparing costumes, Santiago-McRae helped organize an event that drew 75 parents of students in the Reading, Pennsylvania, school district to a Mennonite Church where her father is pastor.
The event, a training seminar for parents of special education students called "Together in Support of Our Exceptional Children," was designed to inform parents about the role and importance of the IEP, or Individualized Education Program. The highlight of the event was a series of seven mock IEP scenarios in which members of the Reading Education Association acted out common situations-and conflicts-that sometimes occur between parents and educators during the meetings.
"There are times when [parents and teachers] may not see eye to eye on everything, but it's important to communicate in a way that benefits the child," says Santiago-McRae. "Many parents aren't informed of these services or about the procedures and their rights in an IEP meeting, and at times, it can be very confusing. In our mock IEP meetings, we demonstrated to the parents and educators how an IEP meeting should and should not work."
The city of Reading has a large Hispanic population, and most of the parents at the event were from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and Mexico. Santiago-McRae, a junior majoring in elementary and special education, realized that many of these parents had no idea how to advocate for their special education children, or even that they have the imperative and the right to do so.
It's not an uncommon situation. Never before have our schools been more ethnically diverse, and never before has engaging parents been more of a challenge. It's not because parents don't care or don't want to become involved-it's because reaching parents today takes more than sending home a flyer, making an occasional phone call, and holding a Back to School Night. It takes creativity and flexibility.
The event in Reading, for example, was held on a Saturday when many of the parents were free from work. It included lunch as well as child care for those with young children, and the presentations were translated into Spanish for non-English speaking parents.
"Each one of us is different, so our methods of communication and education should reflect that rich diversity," says Santiago-McRae.
Bob Munoz, a sixth-grade teacher in Reno, Nevada, agrees. He's been engaging parents for 34 years, even in a school where students speak 16 different languages. He says teachers need to experiment with new ways to involve parents.
"Encourage your parents to visit the school whenever they want to," he says. "We've had parents come in and help set up and clean the cafeteria after lunch, or coach soccer games during recess. I've also set up a day each month to meet different parents for coffee before I arrive at school, which gives me an opportunity to visit with parents in a more informal setting. It's a tremendous ice-breaker and allows parents to see you as a person and not just as a professional."
Munoz also attends all school functions, especially if he knows his students' parents will be there. "I sit and talk to them, and eventually we become acquainted."
By doing more than sending the odd email or making the occasional phone call, Munoz has earned the trust of his students' parents, and he says word travels fast. When parents know who you are and that you can be relied upon, they tell other parents, and soon "your reputation as a great role model and teacher have been established."