A comment from my soon-to-be sister-in-law has inspired me to write this post, and I thank her for the request.
She asked about how teachers connect with families in order to “carry over” learning into the home environment. As a parent herself, she wonders why this aspect of the child’s life seems to be ignored. After all, research shows that parental engagement plays such a crucial role in a student’s success at school. They too are candles that consume themselves to light the way for their children.
This made me think a few things. Firstly, how grateful I am that there are parents who, despite having a career of their own, responsibilities around the home, extra-curricular activities to attend to, AND who have to wake up during the night when monsters and nightmares and sore tummies stop their offspring from sleeping, still want to, and find the time to, help reinforce, consolidate and strengthen what their child has been learning at school.
Secondly, it made a few faces pop into my mind. Parents who, over the years, have never tired of supporting the vision and programs of the school. They, as busy professionals themselves, managed to tread that delicate balance between being unapproachable, disinterested, uninformed or unqualified, and being interfering, domineering, defensive or presumptuous.
One such parent is one from my school, our P+C president and author of best-selling books, including a recent one about education. He has had 5 children spend their primary school years with us (all school captains!) and to us, is seen as a pretty ideal parent.
Why? Because he cares, he’s there, and he also has our back. By this I mean that he completely entrusts his children to the school and its methods, never second-guessing a situation without being fully informed.
He shows he cares by asking questions. He responds to emails and newsletters that teachers send, he talks to school staff candidly when we see him in the community, he reads the school website that teachers so diligently update and is generally the first to hand in responses to surveys that teachers produce as part of their research. All the while he is asking his children questions like “What are you learning in spelling? How can I help you with it? What can I buy you/show you/do with you so that you better understand your Maths goal?” Or simply “What’s been happening at school?”
After he gathers this information, he points his kids in the right direction to support them. This could be showing them Khan Academy videos that teach Maths concepts in an easy-to-understand way, or buying them a Studyladder membership to reinforce phonics or setting tasks for mental maths on Mathsonline. It could be allowing them to have another go at the Science light bulb experiment that failed at school the week before, or modelling how to keep your head down when you dive into the pool.
He’s there as often as he can be. He’s a lawyer, an author, a researcher, and his older children now go to different high schools, but he still manages to be a special guest at assemblies we invite him to. He attends every 3-way parent meeting that his daughters run in order to share their learning goals and action plans. His wife helps out at kitchen garden and at swimming, and they help to run the fete. He attends parent information evenings and if he has a tough question to ask, he’ll make an appointment with the teacher to discuss it.
Meanwhile, he understands that time at home is much-needed downtime for children and playing together or talking together is vital for showing trust and affection in your relationship. He involves his kids in lots of extra-curricular activities like acrobatics, trips to art museums and learning an instrument because he knows that different kinds of learning build new pathways in the brain. He attends to their emotional and social needs. And he lets his kids be kids.
Last year, teacher research at our school focused on feedback. The group I was part of focused on parent feedback. Our findings were that parents didn’t feel they sufficiently understood the meta language of school. Often they hired a tutor to help their child with homework, as they felt unqualified to support their child even in this. They knew their child was involved in Reggio Emilia-inspired Investigations but didn’t understand them, they knew the school used the Building Learning Power framework for its star student nominations, but didn’t really understand what BLP was all about. They had only surface-level understanding of Philosophy and our literacy CAFE program and our Maths CAMS + STAMS program, and…. the list goes on.
What did we learn from this? We need to get better at communicating what we do and how we do it. We’ve known for years how essential to competitive enrolments marketing a school is, and yet when you’re so busy doing it, it’s hard to also put it out there for others to see.
We also know that there is so much potential for a child’s learning to be maximised when we harness the power of parent support, but we simply don’t know how to go about it.
We use community-building weekend working bees, online forums, regular email curriculum updates, program workshops, we send home spelling sorts and goal postcards and activities that reinforce school learning. And we have an open-door policy. But we could be doing more.