Parents and Teachers as Partners
Most educators will agree that the difference between a good
school and a great school is the degree to which parents are
involved. Some of the benefits to children whose parents
are active in their schools are well documented: better
attendance, reduced drop-out rates and improved school
achievement in general. And there are additional effects
of parental involvement which are just as gratifying that go
beyond those experienced by their children. Research has
shown that when parents become involved in their children's
education, they themselves become more active in their
communities, and even the children's teachers become more
proficient, creative and motivated in regard to their work.
Of course, many schools which express interest in having
parents participate ask them to simply lend a helping hand
but stay out of academic decisions concerning administration,
curriculum and instruction. As such, the roles of those
parents are limited to field trip chaperones, fundraisers for
computers or band uniforms, or people who rubber stamp
decisions already made by the school or district. For years,
parents have accepted these fairly insignificant roles
unquestioningly, believing that teachers and school
administrators were the only people qualified to make
educational choices for their children.
But the true impact of the family's role as a valuable resource
in the education of their children is just now being recognized.
Researchers and administrators are now saying that sharing
power with parents and giving them a real voice in schools
gives children more than just a boost in their academic well-
being. Parental involvement is now seen as a key factor in
issues ranging from building substantial school-to-community
relationships, to successful integration of a multicultural
perspective, to curbing the rise of school violence.
Barriers to Parent Participation
Why, then, does the level of parent involvement in the
public schools remain very low, despite the verity of the
statement that children need the educational attention of their
parents? There are many factors that have caused the level
of parent involvement to lag behind the recognition of its need:
* Regardless of the recent research and literature attesting
to the benefits, parent involvement remains a low priority
for corporations which employ parents, social service
agencies which are struggling to meet survival
demands, and even the federal government: the
U.S. Department of Education has no office with a
primary mission of ensuring that parents are included in
substantial ways in their children's education.
* Many teachers do not know how to maintain their
authority and role as experts while still involving parents,
and are therefore reluctant to collaborate with them. Still
others who do want to involve parents simply don't know
how to do so.
* Parents themselves have to be educated to understand
what is needed. The field of education has
changed tremendously in the past decade, school
reforms are under way throughout the country, and
new information on public education is proliferating.
Unlike teachers and administrators who have
unions and professional organizations to help keep them
up-to-date on current education issues, parents get very
little support in that regard, leaving them to fend for
* Parents from low income or language minority groups
often have cultural perspectives and expectations which
impede, or even preclude collaboration with the
school. To begin with, many of these families have
traditionally been marginalized which has fostered
feelings of inadequacy, failure, and poor self-worth.
Some of these parents have, themselves, had bad
experiences with schools as youngsters and feel
intimidated when confronted with bureaucratic systems
which they don't understand and which they feel don't
value their diversity. The situation is exacerbated by
some parents' inability to communicate with the school
due to low proficiency in English; long working hours and
time constraints; transportation difficulties; child care
needs; and other economic and emotional issues.
* Unless they have had training to help them work with low
income and language minority parents, teachers may
misread their reserve, non-confrontational manner and
non-involvement to mean that they don't care about the
education of their children. However, these parents
have the same hopes and dreams for their children as
everyone else. High aspirations for children exist among
both high and low socioeconomic status parents, and
among all cultures. Many simply do not know how to
navigate the system, or are culturally disinclined to do so.
* Further barriers are erected with language minority
parents if the materials distributed to them are written only
in English. Because most school-based programs for
communicating with families have been designed to
accommodate the needs of middle and upper class
mainstream families, this oversight commonly limits the
opportunities for non-mainstream families to be involved
in their children's education. Families from culturally and
linguistically diverse backgrounds already constitute a
majority in many of our urban school districts, and their
population is growing exponentially. This one issue
alone -- not offering parent materials in more than one
language -- effectively eliminates more than one third of
our potential parent partners.
Redefining the Concept
Parent involvement in the 90's is badly in need of
redefinition if we are to move into the next century with
significantly improved chances for all of our children.
Both sides of the equation -- "parent" and "involvement"
-- need serious reengineering.
The Changing Family
As the students in our classrooms become more
diverse in terms of their cultures, languages, living styles
and socioeconomic status, educators will have to put aside
their outdated stereotypic views of the American family.
When asked to describe the all-American family, most people
still refer to an intact unit consisting of two children (a boy
and a girl), a mother who either stays home or works only
part-time, and a gainfully employed father, all living together
in a single family dwelling in a middle class neighborhood.
Not only is this inaccurate, but it exists less and less
frequently in America:
* Only 7 percent of mothers in two-parent homes stay home
with the children while the father goes to work, and this
number is decreasing;
* Today's households are also headed by single parents,
co-habiting parents, gay parents and families headed by
relatives other than parents;
* Blended families, another common type of family unit,
look very much like what most people consider a
"regular" family, but the resemblance ends there. In a
blended family, divorced parents with children remarry
and combine their households. Instead of a common
history there are two histories, along with two sets of
expectations and two structures.
* Fiscal capability is also important in understanding the
changing family scene. Research indicates that by the
turn of the century, fully one third of all families with
children will be living in poverty.
* Another outdated myth is that of the isolated majority
white family. In the near future, white children in middle
class neighborhoods are more likely than not to have
African American, Hispanic and Asian children as
* It is not uncommon for children to live in several different
types of these families before becoming an adult.
Even though research has proven parent involvement valuable
and we are beginning to accept that fact, many educators still
cling to the hackneyed, overworked image of the Cleavers as
our national standard for the American family. It is time to f
ind ways of working collaboratively with what is, in fact, our
new national majority: diverse family systems.
The Concept of Involvement
Given the changing family structure, and the increasing
demands on families' time and energy outside of school,
it is no wonder that schools say that they have not improved
their parent involvement. Most strategies to get parents
involved in the schools have been designed to serve a
family system that exists in decreasing numbers. Once
educators recognize that there is a continuum of support
levels, and are comfortable about affirming parents at
whatever level on that continuum they might be positioned,
participation levels in the school will begin to rise.
At the least involved, yet still valuable level are those parents
who don't come to the school but do respond to information
they receive from the school about their children's education.
Although this is minimal participation, many schools don't
even meet the parents' needs at this level! All parents, even
those from low income and language minority families, need to
know what and how their children are being taught, what the
homework policies are, who to contact if they want to speak
to someone about their children, what the grading procedure
is, and other basic information about the school.
At the next level, parents begin to serve as helpers,
supporting their children and the school by making sure
their children have a quiet place to study, reinforcing good
study habits at home, talking to their children about their
school day, reading each day to the younger children, and
communicating more regularly with the teachers.
At the third level, parents become regular participants at
school functions such as concerts, sports events and open
houses. They also come to school to assist the teacher or
staff at this level. Children begin to feel more motivated to
achieve when their parents show interest in the school
simply by showing up, and their presence in the school
can give teachers additional opportunities to talk to them
about their children in informal ways, conveying information
both about potential areas of improvement and news of
At the fourth level, parents become politically active in the
school. They affect the operation and program of the school
itself by sharing power with the administration and making
substantive and binding decisions about school operations
and programs ranging from selection of texts and materials
to hiring and firing the principal.
It is important to realize that parents usually feel more
comfortable progressing through the continuum rather than
jumping, or being pulled, from one of the early levels to
political action. It is also critical to affirm parents at whatever
level they choose to operate. Overlooking or neglecting these
two guidelines will seriously reduce any chances of increasing
significant parent involvement in the school.
Despite the diversity of the family structure in this country,
there is still an important role for parents in the schools and
in the educational process of their children. The success
of any parent involvement effort depends on how well it
matches the needs and interests of individual families.
Knowing who the parents are, including what their needs
and capabilities might be, is a necessary first step in
increasing their level of involvement in the school.
Establishing a personal rapport between someone from the
school, having as many options for involvement as
possible, and not requiring high levels of commitment and
participation, either explicitly or implicitly, are all very
effective means of getting parents to become interested
in supporting the work of the school.
More than forty million parents have children in schools
in America. Real school improvement -- including top-notch
education for all children -- will not take place without
effective involvement of at least a high percentage of that
group. As parents, we are the owners of the public school
system and bear a responsibility to participate in it. As
educators, we will be fighting an uphill battle without
their participation. And as citizens and consumers we need
to understand the importance of parent involvement and
support parent-school partnerships as though the future of
our communities depends on it, because it does.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
* The schools are yours -- your taxes pay the bills. Go
to school when you have an opportunity and get to know
your children's teachers. Observe what happens in the
classroom. Talk with the teacher, counselor, administrators a
nd your children to learn about their needs.
* Set high expectations, and let your children's school
know what you expect of them. Work in partnership
with the educators to help them achieve your goals.
* As much as you can, volunteer your time to the school.
If you have a particular skill that you are willing to share --
accounting, clerical, child development, art, or administrative,
for example -- apply the skill to help the school. Recruit
other parents and concerned citizens to help, too.
* Negotiate and establish rules about when, where and how
homework will be completed. Make sure your children have
access to reference material either at home or at the library
and that someone is available to help with specific problems.
Check their homework when they are finished. And always
expect your children to finish their homework.
* Attend as many school concerts, open houses, student
performances or sports activities as you can in which your
children participate. Even if they are not involved in a
particular event, go with them to watch their friends participate.
* Engage the place where you work to support the school.
See about instituting flexible leave and child care policies so
that the employees can support their children's learning.
* Find out what your employer is doing to support your local
school system. Encourage them to set up school/business
partnerships, opportunities for work/study programs, and
* Become actively politically in your children's school and/or
district leadership through parent councils, committees under
the auspices of the school administration, attending school
board meetings, and so on. Encourage others to do the same.
* Work through your state and federal elected officials to
ensure adequate financing for education. Since the strength
and vitality of your community depends a great deal on the
quality of your schools, they should have a vested interest in
supporting your requests.
* Whether or not you have children in school, become a
child's mentor. This will be enormously helpful to those
children who lack role models or attentive adults in their lives.
As a mentor you can provide advice, encouragement,
information, support and an example of someone who
* Research what other communities have done to help their
schools. Some of these ideas might work for your school.
* Take a good look at how your school does or does not
welcome parents into the education process.
* Let parents know that they are significant educators of
their children. Give them a sense of their importance in the
education of their children.
* Set up a special lounge/resource room in the school for
use by parents. It need not be elaborate, but could have
access to coffee, comfortable chairs or sofas, a lending library
of parent aids, and a display of social service agency
* To help parents assist their children at home with their academic
habits, create a handbook of simple guidelines. It could contain
tips and techniques dealing with formats for reports, study hints, symptoms
of test or math anxiety, checklists for editing homework, information about
stages of growth in child development, and so on. You might
want to make it a monthly additions to the guidebook that
parents can collect in a notebook. With just a little extra work,
the same material could be updated and used year after year.
* Suggest to parents that they keep dialog journals -- booklets
that pass back and forth between you and the parents. Their
first entry could be notes jotted down about their child's
likes, dislikes, habits, or anything related to their child that
they feel would be important to let you know. The child
carries the journal to you, you respond accordingly, and
send it back to the parents. Or, you can initiate dialog
with parents by sending the first entry. These make
wonderful communication tools especially during the weeks
when everyone is too busy to make face-to-face appointments.
* Many parents are truly concerned and interested in their
children's education, but may have survival problems that
must be addressed first. If you are aware of specifics of
these difficulties, work with the school counselor in assisting
the family to get the resources they need.
* Let parents know that they are wanted and needed, and
don't hesitate to ask for hands-on help from them. They
will be more willing to lend a hand if you are specific about
the help you need, and you tell them the reasons that you need it.
* All families have strengths. Successful parent involvement
programs recognize them and let the parents know that their
strengths are valued.
* Cultural differences are both valid and valuable. Learn
about the cultures of your students' families. Then find ways
of building that information into your classroom environment.
* When working with language minority students, parent
involvement becomes more relevant when it includes the
extended families and the communities to which the children
belong. Tap into this rich resource -- aunts, uncles, grandparents,
cousins, etc. Don't overlook any adult in the child's circle
when thinking about "family."
* All individuals and families benefit from feeling empowered,
especially at-risk families who often feel powerless and out
* Successful parent involvement programs follow one basic
rule: they make it easy for parents to be involved. Offer
services when needed like translation, babysitting and
transportation to facilitate the attendance of parents at
school-related meetings and activities. Distribute materials
in the language of your student population. Have the
meetings in places other than the school. Vary the times
of the meetings and events so that all parents can come
at least some of the time. Do not charge fees.
* The most difficult part of building a partnership with
families is getting them to the first meeting. Impersonal
efforts are largely fruitless. The best approach is as
close to one-on-one as you can make it. Direct
conversations with the parents in their primary language,
either in person or on the phone, personalize the invitation.
Direct communication will also help you understand
the extent to which they might need help in order to
attend the meeting.
* To retain their involvement, every meeting should
respond to a specific need or concern of theirs, not
just address the school's general agenda.
* Make sure you are totally committed to the idea of
parents being a part of your school and classroom, or
don't get involved. Half-hearted attempts are worse
than not trying at all.
* Don't give up if the initial response is not a monumental.
Many parents had bad experiences when they were
students and it takes time for them to overcome their
discomfort at being so directly involved in their
NOTE: The text above is from the recent book, Teaching Peace: How to Raise Children to Live in Harmony -- Without Fear, Without Prejudice, Without Violence_ by Jan Arnow (Perigee/Berkley, © 1995 Jan Arnow, ISBN #0-399-52155-0, $12.00). In each chapter there are additional charts, quotes and sidebar sections that have not been uploaded. If you are interested in seeing these additions, please contact the author directly (email: email@example.com); (snail mail: 2025 Maryland Avenue, Louisville, KY, 40205); (telephone: 502-454-0607); or buy the book!
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