As families send their children back into the classroom, these first weeks of the school year are a critical time for parents and teachers to create connections that will make it easier to address any sticky issues that come up later, according to an expert on teacher training at Arizona State University.
But work and family responsibilities coupled with the demands on teachers’ time can make that difficult.
“It’s about being creative,” said Margarita Jimenez-Silva, an associate professor in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at ASU. “There are a lot of ways to make families feel like they’re part of the school community.”
Jimenez-Silva researches parent engagement, especially among underserved populations, and was a middle-school teacher in California before she became a professor.
She talked to ASU Now about parent-teacher interactions.
Question: Why is it important for parents to engage with their children’s schools?
Answer: All of the research indicates that parental engagement helps the child feel part of the community, it helps with retention rates, it helps with academic achievement. The research is conclusive that it’s beneficial to both the child and the teacher because communication is easier.
For the family, engagement shows that school is a priority and is the important work of the child. And the parents feel like they’re in this journey of education in partnership with the teacher and not working at different purposes. It can be alienating for parents to not feel part of the community.
Q: What are some roadblocks to parent-teacher interaction?
A: There are a lot of cultural differences in how parents engage with schools. For a lot of first-generation parents or parents who are not as familiar with our school system, there are not a lot questions about academics. It’s very much about behavior. I’m a former classroom teacher, and the parents would say, “Is my kid being respectful?” Very rarely would I get questions like, “Is his reading on grade level?”
That has to do with the teacher being seen as the expert on academics, and it’s disrespectful to ask about that.
Also, a lot of teacher preparation focuses on one-way communication. We prepare our teachers on how to communicate expectations with parents or when there’s discipline problems. There isn’t enough focus on how do you really reach out to parents to find out what their questions and concerns are.
Even with back-to-school night or parent-teacher conferences, it’s very much a delivery of information as opposed to establishing a relationship with the parents.
Q: So how do both sides creatively connect?
A: It’s about cultural community wealth. Every family has a source of wealth to contribute.
Teachers should understand that there are different ways to engage parents, and it’s not just about who can be a room mom or help with the worksheets. And parents must be creative in offering what they can to the classroom and to the school.
I worked at a charter middle school, and every family had to donate a few hours a month. As a teacher, I had to be very creative about how the parents could help me that didn’t involve them coming to the school because they had little ones at home or transportation issues.
I made a list. I need curtains. Is there a parent who can sew? I had a dad who was a semi-professional soccer player. Could he come in and do a clinic? That helps him feel a part of the community and helps other families see his role and say, “Hey, I have something I can contribute that I didn’t realize was valuable.”
My greatest asset were parents who had business connections who could hook us up for the carnival or other things.
I had a parent who could never go on a field trip because she had six kids at home. So she volunteered to call the other parents the night before. She felt like part of the field trip even though she wasn’t actually going.
The other thing that was really successful was having a core group of parents who share the cultural and language backgrounds of the families I was trying to engage. So if I had a family that was not participating, they would be a liaison between me and that other family.
Q: So parents should speak up about what they’re willing to offer?
A: Teachers should know your skills so they can tap into the resources you have.
When I had my doctorate I was teaching five classes, and it took somersaults for me to get the time to go volunteer at my sons’ school. And they would say, “We need you to sharpen pencils.” And not that I think I’m better than sharpening pencils, but I could have helped the kid who needed reading intervention, which I knew how to do.
I know teachers are frantic, but it’s a matter of being organized to make use of the resources they have.
Q: Are teachers being better prepared in how to cultivate parent relationships?
A: At ASU, we have a program that prepares teachers to be a part of the communities where they teach, so it’s not just drive in and drive out. That builds trust with parents.
Wendy Oakes and I are doing a a cool project in the next few weeks in an early childhood special education setting to engage parents in a culturally relevant way to engage families to share knowledge.
A few years ago we did a systemic review looking at our syllabi and how we prepared teachers and found it was very one-way. Now we are embedding in multiple courses the idea that the communications between parents and teachers has to be two-ways. And we’re seeing our graduates now who have gone through that are now thinking in this way.
Parents should be empowered to say, “These are the skills I have. Can this be of service to you?”
For more information on ASU's program to prepare teachers to better interact with parents, click here.