(How can they become our allies?)
Most parents are intimidated by the schools their children attend. They don’t feel free to ask questions, to suggest changes, or to sit in on their children’s classes, especially important at the early childhood and elementary school levels, to find out what their children do each day so they can better support their education at home. It is a rare school that welcomes parents to join together with teachers in a relationship of equality in a search for improved teacher/parent communication and for educational excellence.
In many schools, parents are welcome as long as they engage in minor activities such as baking cookies for school fundraisers or going on class trips. As soon as these same parents raise questions about the school curriculum or ineffective teaching, for example, they are immediately looked upon with suspicion.
I know of a parent who, as part of a P.T.A. curriculum committee, asked a lot of questions about how reading was taught in her child’s elementary school, raising the issue that non-reading students may need systematic direct instruction in phonics. (The school had adopted the “Whole Language” approach in which phonics is indirectly taught as part of a literature-based reading program.) One teacher became very irate saying, “Are you questioning our professional judgment?”
When it came time for her to observe her own child’s class as part of open school week, her child’s teacher panicked, considering this parent a spy to find out who is or is not teaching phonics, and asked the principal to sit next to the parent during the class observation, which he did.
Rather than seeing this parent’s concerns as an opportunity for dialogue and discussion, this teacher, the principal and other teachers became defensive and hostile, thereby alienating a potential ally in any effort to improve the school’s reading program.
This parent’s questions and the serious questions of other parents, are often dismissed by such comments as “We are professionals; we know what we are doing,” rather than, “Thank you for your interest and concern. Let’s discuss this together and try to come to some agreement.”
Parents have a right to know what their children are doing 6 hours a day; to understand how reading and math are taught as well as other subjects, and what the system of discipline in the classroom and school is.
All this requires that administration and teachers demystify the school and invite parents in on a regular basis to learn what is happening in their child’s class, to attend workshops which will explain the curriculum, to learn how to help their child academically at home and how to develop better parenting skills.
In many schools, parents are only expected to come during Open School Week, and if for some reason they can’t, they feel they lost their chance for a school visit.
The alienation of parents from their child’s school is a great loss, not only to them but to their child, the teacher, the school at large, and the community.
In this chapter are stories of encounters between teachers, administrators and parents—many negative—with commentary on how the negativity could have been avoided. Others are positive, pointing the way to building stronger school/home relationships.
Many of the examples are from the elementary level, but most have relevance to middle school and high school levels, too.
How lack of communication between teacher and parent resulted in children’s unnecessary suffering: two examples
One year, I had a 5th-grade child who was a non-reader. I called the mother at the beginning of the year and asked, “Why do you think Joe can’t read?” She replied, “I’ve been wondering about that myself.” It had never crossed her mind all those years to come to school and seek help for her son.
Because I reached out to her, she came to school, and I gave her suggestions on helping her son to sound out words and to understand what he was reading. I lent her some books to read to/with him. One day she told me, “My son called me at work today. He said, “Mom, I can read!” This formerly depressed boy began to cheer up.
I had a friend, María, whose son, José, was also a non-reader. One day while he was visiting my home he said, “I can’t wait until I’m a teenager, so I won’t have to go to school anymore.” My son, who could read, and who was in the same school, didn’t feel that way at all. They were both in a school where serious efforts were made to make education interesting and to improve teachers’ skills.
I said to José’s mom, “María, why don’t you find out why your son isn’t reading, and what you can do about it?” She replied, “I went last year, filled out a form, and they never got in touch with me.”
I took her to a remedial reading teacher in the school who then helped get her son into a remedial reading class. María told me later that his teacher reported he was not as frustrated and angry as he was before.
Why hadn’t these parents been called up years before, invited to the school and offered help? I think part of the answer is that we are caught up in the four walls of our classroom, often isolated from other teachers, with little help from the administration, and frequently inundated with bureaucratic paperwork. It is all we can do just to get through the day in one piece.
In addition, there is a frequently misplaced feeling of territoriality: “This is my classroom. I’m in charge. I don’t want any interference. I don’t want to have to explain myself.” It’s like the doctor I visited once for headaches, who, when I asked him to check my neck as a possible cause, said, “I don’t look below the chin.” Just as overspecialization in the field of medicine has often led to inferior health care, focusing only on the classroom, and not also on the parents and the wider school can result in poorer quality education.
How Involving a Parent Solved a Behavior Problem
I once had an elementary school student, Thomas, who often daydreamed. At least once a day he would tip himself over in his chair and crash to the floor. He would lie there without moving until I told him to get up. This curious phenomenon seemed to have no solution until I decided to contact his mother.
She came to school, and I asked her some questions about her son. Her reply was, “I don’t know what’s the matter with him. I have wonderful twin daughters two years younger than he is, but he is very strange.”
I asked her if she ever sat down and gave him her total, uninterrupted attention for an extended period of time. She said she never did. She was very busy, especially with her daughters. I said, “I think your son falls out of his chair so he will get attention from me and the class. This always works because each time he does this, a child calls out, ‘Thomas is on the floor again’, and then I do what I can to get him up. I believe he daydreams because he feels lonely, and that is his escape.
“I would like you to sit down with him every day and talk with him for at least ten minutes without interruption. Ask him questions about school, his friends, games he likes to play. Listen carefully; look him in the eye; sit close and give him a hug. Tell him you love him. I think this is what he really needs.”
She agreed to try this. Sure enough, in a short time Thomas stopped falling out of his chair. He daydreamed less, and his academic work improved. I wrote letters home regularly commenting on how Thomas had changed.
His mother was very grateful for the advice I had given her. She said she had never realized he needed more attention and that she was proud of his achievement. She told me that he was better behaved and more cooperative at home too.
I would never have been able to help Thomas if I had not involved his mother. She was the key to his being able to change his behavior. Despite all the problems she was having at home with him, it had never occurred to her to contact the school for guidance.
How Involving Parents Improved Reading Levels
In London, England, an experiment was undertaken to involve parents in improving their children’s reading. The assignment was for all children in two primary level classes in two different schools to read to their parents on a regular basis. The children came from multi-ethnic communities which included families who did not read English or use it at home. Almost all parents welcomed the project, even those who were non-literate and non-English-speaking. They agreed to complete a record card showing what had been read.
This experiment was a success. “Children who read to their parents made significantly greater progress in reading than those who did not engage in this type of literacy sharing. Small-group instruction in reading, given by a highly competent specialist (who taught two classes which were not part of the experiment) did not produce improvements comparable to those obtained from the collaboration with parents.”
Positive results were seen for all children, even for those “who, at the beginning of the study, were failing to learn how to read. Teachers reported that the children showed an increased interest in school learning and were better behaved.” 1
This experience shows that there can be simple solutions to what appear to be complex problems. In this case, the mere fact that children received extra attention and encouragement from their parents through the simple act of reading to them (even if a parent did not understand or could not read the words) was enough to help children succeed in school.
Learning From Parents
Do you really listen to parents? Are you careful how you speak to them? Do you make a serious effort to be open-minded and non-defensive toward them?
In my role as a parent, I had encounters with my child’s teachers which were positive as well as negative. Over the years, I have spoken with many parents who have vivid memories of incidents in which they felt rebuffed more than they were welcomed by their children’s teachers. Their experiences have made me think more carefully about our relationships with parents and how they can be improved.
Listen, then, to the voices of parents who have much to teach us. (Any interviews without a citation were conducted by the author.)
Lesson #1: Don’t assume you know what a child needs better than their parent.
At a parent/teacher conference, Esmeralda was talking to her daughter’s kindergarten teacher.
Teacher: “I have decided that since your daughter is so shy, we have to make special efforts to help her overcome this. It would greatly help her if she had play dates without your participation. She’s too sheltered, and she’s with you too much. She needs to interact more with other children. I’ve made an appointment for her to go home with Alice next Monday after school. You shouldn’t go with her. Just call the parent and find out when you should pick her up.”
Esmeralda: “My daughter does interact with other children. She had play dates with children before kindergarten; she plays with cousins and friends; she goes to playgrounds, and I make appointments now for her to play with other children.”
Teacher: “I’m sure she’s done these things, but she needs to be more socially aggressive.”
Esmeralda: “I’m not going to send my daughter to a home I know nothing about.”
Teacher: “Oh, the family is fine.”
Esmeralda: “I always go the first time to a play date. My daughter’s father was shy, and he got over it, and so will my child. Thank you, but I’m not going to let her go on this play date.”
This teacher thought she was being helpful, but the main effect was to make Esmeralda feel badly. “She made me feel that I was a bad parent, that it’s my fault my daughter was shy. My daughter was only five. She should feel close to me and spend a lot of time with me. There’s nothing wrong with that. As it turns out, I was right. My daughter is eleven now and no longer shy.”
An alternative approach to encourage more play dates among students would be to send home a list of all classmates with their addresses and phone numbers (after getting permission from students’ families to include their child’s name), giving parents the option to arrange more after-school or weekend visits which would help widen and deepen children’s friendships. This will also help create better communication and camaraderie among various parents who would otherwise be isolated from each other.
Lesson #2: Keep an open mind. Don’t jump to conclusions based on someone’s age, race or ethnic group.
Here’s another story from Esmeralda: “One September day I was in my daughter’s school helping to clean up classrooms before school began. I was painting a room, and my husband was about to paint in another room. A teacher said to my daughter, ‘Here, take this brush to your mother’s boyfriend.’
“I heard this, and I said to this teacher, ‘He’s my husband, not my boyfriend.’ The teacher looked at me and said, ‘How surprising.’ I was so shocked and upset by her remark, I couldn’t speak. I felt that she was stereotyping me because I am young and because I am Hispanic. After that, I didn’t feel like talking to her any more. I avoided her whenever I could.”
Lesson #3: Don’t criticize a parent in front of a child.
Patricia was upset when her daughter told her the following:
“Mom, today the teacher told me that you don’t spend enough time with me. She said she knows you are busy, but still you have to pay more attention to me.”
Patricia wondered why the teacher couldn’t have expressed this concern to her, not her child. She was a single parent with three children trying hard to manage work and family responsibilities. “I didn’t need my child to begin to question how I treat her. I would have been willing to discuss this matter with the teacher, but she had no business commenting like that to my child. It could have created a problem with my daughter, but we have a good relationship, and we talked it over.”
Lesson #4: Don’t blame a child for a parent’s errors.
Patricia also relates this incident: “It was very hard for me to get my son to school on time. I had to drive him and my two other children on my way to work. One day, after my son had been late, I decided to park the car, go to his class and talk with his teacher.
“From down the hall I could see my son outside the classroom crying. The teacher had put him in the hall for being late. I had a shouting match with her. I said, ‘My child is late because of me. Don’t punish him for something that is not his fault.’
“I wish this teacher had made it possible to talk over this problem with me, but I felt her attitude was accusatory, and I became alienated.”
Lesson #5: Listen extra carefully to parents who are not of your race, and read about their history, or you may inadvertently make insensitive remarks and wrong decisions.
Allyn is an African American mother. Her child was in a school in which Black children were in the minority, and she thought it would be a good idea for Black parents to get together and discuss how their children were doing. She told it to the white principal who said to her, “I hope this isn’t going to be a gripe group.”
Allyn had felt that her idea had been a good one, but became discouraged after hearing this remark. “I felt criticized and rebuked, and frankly I lost interest in this project.”
This principal could have had an ally in trying to improve education for all children. She might have said, “I’m glad you are making an effort to involve more African American parents in their children’s education. Let me know how your meeting goes. I am interested in any suggestions on how to help African American children be as successful as possible in our school.”
Over the centuries in our country interest groups have met among themselves to build up their morale, receive support and solve collective problems: workers, women, people with disabilities, people of color, lesbian and gays, and others.
Because of the history of racism in our country which is embedded in its institutions, those of us who are white often carry unconscious attitudes and beliefs which have racist overtones, and which can silence people of color in interpersonal relations and at meetings. For this reason, Black people, for example, may want to have some of their organizations and meetings without any whites present, so they can speak more freely among themselves.
As a teacher, I haven’t viewed any such attempts with alarm. To me, any group which has felt oppressed should have the right to brainstorm and strategize together. Even in the Congress of the United States there is a Congressional Black Caucus, Congressional Hispanic Caucus and a Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues. Don’t we as teachers like to talk with each other at times without administration present? Aren’t the views of teachers often different from those of their school administrators?
Meeting separately does not have to mean creating antagonisms. It can enable the parties involved to come up with a consensus of ideas in each group which can help raise the level of discussion in the wider community. It can also make it more possible for all points of view to be heard and for a greater equality among all participants.
Here is another example of insensitivity by school personnel to the issues of people of color told to me by a parent:
“I felt that it was not good for all the teachers in my son’s multi-racial public school to be white women. I believe all children need role models who are their complexion.
“I went to the director and asked why there weren’t any Black teachers. I was told, ‘We looked and couldn’t find any.’ I figured I would give them time. A year later I asked the same question. The director looked annoyed and said, ‘We still can’t find any. You find us one.’
“I found two candidates, but they were rejected. The next year I spoke to the new director expressing the same concern. She was also annoyed and said, ‘We refuse to compromise the education of our children just to find a Black teacher.’
“I believe it was racist for them to say they couldn’t find a qualified Black teacher. The teachers I had sent them were qualified. What was wrong with them? They didn’t tell me. It wasn’t my job to do this applicant search. Why didn’t they make a concerted effort to contact African American newspapers, churches and Black organizations for candidates? New York City has many excellent Black teachers.
“This whole experience was a bad one for me. I felt very disappointed in the way I was treated, and I lost the enthusiasm I had originally had for the school.”
Lesson #6: If a parent perceives that his or her child is having a problem in your class or the school, and you don’t, you may be wrong.
In third grade, Jean’s daughter Jessie was still having trouble reading. Mary, a classmate would say to her, “You’re stupid. You can’t read.” A couple of times a week Jessie would come home crying and complaining about Mary.
Jean went to school to try to solve this problem. However, Jessie’s teacher said, “Oh, it’s nothing. They just don’t get along.” Meanwhile, Jean found out that the whole class was in turmoil because of the conflict between Jessie and Mary.
Having gotten nowhere, Jean then went to the principal and asked that her daughter be transferred to another class. The principal refused, saying, “She has to learn to deal with this.”
Next Jessie and Mary were sent to a school counselor, but the persecution persisted. Mary was a child who knew how to misbehave and make it look as if it were Jessie’s fault. Jessie suffered the whole year and got a reputation as a trouble-maker.
As a result, in fourth and fifth grades, she was put in classes with strict teachers who also turned out to be abusive.
“I wanted to transfer her to another school, but I couldn’t find one that was acceptable. My daughter, who had been happy from kindergarten through second grade with teachers who respected and nurtured her, was transformed into a child who hated school and hated reading.
“Now she is twelve, and although she learned how to read from a tutor I hired, she still hates reading. Her elementary school experience has left a wound that has not yet healed.”
Those last three years in her elementary school were a nightmare for Jean and Jessie. Neither the teachers nor the principal were interested in the parent’s input, nor sensitive to the child’s unhappiness. What could have been a united effort to solve this family crisis with a serious two-way dialogue turned out to be a one-way street with the school going in the wrong direction.
Years later, Jean found out that during this period, Mary’s mother was suffering with cancer and that Mary had been scared and worried about her mother, which had affected her behavior. If the school had tried to find out why Mary was acting so badly, and had invited her parents to school to discuss the problem, both Jessie and Mary could have been helped and a lot of unhappiness avoided.
In another school, one parent felt so rejected that she had to turn to an advice column in her local paper:
“A girl in my daughter’s second-grade class is able to convince other girls not to be friends with certain girls in the class,” says B.D. “My daughter is not in the clique, and she cries and doesn’t want to go to school. The teacher doesn’t believe there is a problem, but other mothers have complained, too. Is there anything I can do?” 2
What is the matter with this child’s teacher? How can she deny what one of her students is experiencing? Bullies should never be tolerated and can be transformed into cooperative class members with the help of the other students and with proper teacher guidance.
(See Chapter 4: “Specific Challenges and Solutions” and Chapter 5: “Preventing and Dealing With Personal Attacks Due to Racism, Sexism Homophobia and Bullying”)
There is no excuse for any of our students going home day after day depressed and crying. We have the ability to change unhappy situations into happy ones. Why should our students and their parents suffer for nothing? Life is hard enough.
Donald transferred as a sophomore into a new high school. He knew no one there and dreaded going to school. His mother went to a PTA meeting which was run by the PTA president and a school administrator. Donald’s mother raised her hand and asked if the school had a student welcoming committee to help new students learn about the school and to make new friends.
PTA president: “Does he have a problem?”
Parent: “No, he just needs help in adjusting to a new school.”
Administrator: “We don’t have money to pay a teacher to advise such a club.”
Parent: “Why do you have to pay someone? Can’t students be asked to join such a club, be given guidance on how to make new students feel supported and befriended, and left to conduct the club with minimal supervision?”
Administrator: “That’s not how it works here. Tell you son to join the band.”
Parent: “My son doesn’t want to be in a band.”
Administrator: “Try to convince him.”
The agenda moved on, leaving a frustrated mother behind who never attended another PTA meeting. It took her son a year to become comfortable in this high school, and during most of that year, he was unhappy. This could have been avoided if the PTA and administrator had offered to look into forming a welcoming committee or finding an existing club that would encourage members to be paired with newcomers.
Lesson #7 Don’t mislead parents.
Jennifer was a dedicated class parent in her son’s third grade who conscientiously helped the teacher, Ms. B, in any way possible. She tells this story:
“When I heard that the next fall all classes would be organized differently and that Ms. B and a co-worker would each be teaching a 3rd/4th grade class, I asked that my son remain with her for another year since I felt Ms. B was a good teacher. She assured me that this would happen.
“When June came around, she firmly and matter-of-factly told me my son would be put in another teacher’s class. She was not apologetic and didn’t explain why. I was shocked because I had been led to believe all year that he would stay with her. He was now supposed to go into the class of a new teacher who was not as experienced.”
Jennifer asked that she and Ms. B meet with the principal, and in front of him, Ms. B said, “She must have misunderstood me.”
Jennifer decided to transfer her son to another program. “I am not as open and trusting as I once was of teachers. I have my guard up, and I feel that a parent has to fight for her child every step of the way because a teacher may have a hidden agenda. During the year my son kept telling me, ‘I don’t think she likes me,’ and I would discount that, saying, ‘It’s your imagination. I’m sure she likes you.’ Other parents told me they didn’t think this teacher liked the active boys, the ones who are labeled as ‘behavior problems’. I never paid any attention.
“But now I think they were right because the next year the new teacher got most of her active boys. I really felt betrayed.”
If we are to build trust with parents, we should be honest with them and keep our word. The grapevine in schools is active, and even word of one unhappy experience spreads around among parents and throws a damper on developing a cooperative and enthusiastic school community.
Lesson #8: When parents offer information or suggestions, don’t get defensive and assume they are criticisms.
Theresa, parent of Katherine, a first grader, thought she was being responsible by carefully answering six questions for parents on the schools’ new report cards. One of the questions the teachers had asked was, “Is there some area of work or behavior that you would like me to focus on during the coming months?”
Theresa wrote, “Reading is the most important skill for her to acquire, but she needs to be challenged more in math.” Later, she heard that Ms. M (the teacher) was upset by parents’ comments which Ms. M thought were too critical. Theresa decided to stop by Ms. M’s room when the children were out to discuss this with her.
She said, “Ms. M, I didn’t mean to be offensive in the comments I made. I was trying to be helpful by seriously answering each question.”
Ms. M replied, “You and other parents don’t appreciate all the work I’m doing with your children. You say that I’m not challenging your daughter in math. Your daughter is already struggling with reading. Leave math alone. Now, if you want your daughter to be very challenged and under pressure, put her in a gifted program in another school.”
“Ms. M,” said Theresa, “I don’t believe in gifted programs or in putting her under pressure. I see you have work to do, and I would like to continue this discussion at a more convenient time.” Ms. M refused to discuss the matter further.
Theresa then went to discuss this issue with the principal. She told him, “Ms. M shouldn’t be so defensive about parents’ remarks. She shouldn’t give a list of six questions if she doesn’t want to hear answers.”
The principal said, “It isn’t just one teacher who has complained. All the teachers are offended, and they all can’t be wrong.” He did not look at Theresa’s comments.
This experience with the teacher and the principal left Theresa feeling badly misunderstood. “If I describe a problem my child is having,” she explained, “it is because I want to help my child, not criticize the teacher. However, if the teacher and the principal react defensively, I start to see them as part of the problem. Why couldn’t they address the issue I raised, and explain the math curriculum? As far as I was concerned, since my daughter was having trouble in learning to read, if she could be more interested in math and more challenged that could help her morale, but no one was interested in hearing my insights. I wondered why couldn’t the principal see the other side of the coin? He says that all of the teachers can’t be wrong in their reaction to parents’ comments. Why can’t he see that the parents aren’t necessarily wrong either? If we have a number of suggestions, why not talk with us instead of shutting us out?”
An Analysis of Why Teachers Tend to Be Defensive
A friend of mine, Edy Rees, a parent and former day care teacher, explains teachers’ defensiveness as follows:
“I believe that a defensive attitude by teachers is related to the wider society. We grow up and live as adults in a very competitive environment in which put-downs of almost every class of people are intrinsic. Most of us have not learned to cooperate very well with one another, even though we have many natural allies around us. We expect criticism not support, so we are insecure. We therefore tend to be suspicious of others.
“The effect of this competitive atmosphere and the attitudes it engenders, is to divide us from one another when what we need most is to be united in efforts to solve the many problems we face in our schools and in the society at large.”
John Gordon, both a parent and a teacher, believes that a prime responsibility of teachers is to build a cooperative spirit with parents. “Parents and teachers have the basic common interest of educating the child. If teachers could describe in detail to parents what their school does well, and what needs to be improved, this honesty would be greatly appreciated by most parents. It could draw parents into a dialogue on how to make things better.
“The main problem as I see it is a reluctance to discuss problems. If somehow a problem is brought out in the open, there is often an inability to discuss the issues involved without implicating each other. There are no easy answers, but teachers must have an open ear to parents and involve them in real ways in their schools.”
Lesson #9: Be very careful how you report a problem to a parent.
Second grade teacher, Lori Hartwick, was talking with a parent about her child’s low reading level. The parent’s first language was Chinese; she had no confidence in her English skills and felt she could not help her son at home:
“I was giving the mother an example of her child’s difficulties decoding blends and word endings, and his tendency to substitute words that would be O.K. in context or supported by pictures in the stories.
“The parent was agitated, so I added that he’s not the only child in the room with difficulties like these. Her tone softened; she looked at me and said, ‘Thank you very much for telling me this. I’ve always heard he was the only one in the room with reading difficulties.’ She had been on the defensive since kindergarten because of his low skills, but finding out that her child was not being singled out, she became more receptive to news and updates on his progress.
“I am sure his former teachers did not ever say the child was the lowest in the class or was very far behind his classmates. I do think that is what the parent interpreted from the discussion. I believe parents can handle the truth if given with compassion and sensitivity. As teachers, we must keep this in mind.
“As I think back on my experience with this parent, I know there is more that I could have done to help her. I could have given her suggestions on how she could help her son at home such as by giving her a list of sight words starting with kindergarten and had her practice those with her son. Her English was good enough to be able to handle that. Unfortunately, I could not recommend an English as a Second Language class for adults because my district does not have any, which is unfortunate, but I could have helped her find a book that could help improve her English.”
Lesson #10 Give children a chance to redeem themselves: a parent shows the way.
Tanya played hard at recess, and when she came into the school, she was disheveled. Her white shirt was hanging out, skirt askew and socks had a brown ring around them. The teacher said, “You look too dirty. You can’t be in the color guard.”
Tanya became sad. Her mother happened to pass by the classroom and overheard the teacher’s comment. She took Tanya to the bathroom, washed her face, tucked in her shirt, fixed her skirt, and rolled down her socks. She said to Tanya, “Now you can be in the color guard.”
An Open Door Policy to Parents Improves Communication
There are, of course, parents who have had positive, welcoming experiences in their children’s schools. This is either due to a school-wide policy of encouraging parents to come to school, participate in activities and generally making them feel welcome, or to efforts by individual teachers to make themselves and their classrooms accessible to parents.
My sister-in-law, Ann Califf, attributed the positive relations between parents and teachers in her children’s K-8 school in Rutherford, N.J., to the fine leadership of the school’s principal, Anna Maria Amorelli. For example, this extraordinary woman found out that a parent of a child in her school was depressed because she was always home with small children. One day she went to this woman’s home and watched her children for a couple of hours while the mother went out for a break. The mother was much revived and grateful.
Such selflessness is contagious. In this mostly middle-class school, the family of a poor child was not looked down upon. The question was, “How can we help this family?” Parents and teachers collaborated in finding out the family’s needs down to the size of their children’s clothes. They would even find fancy clothes for a child who needed them to go to a party or other special event.
Ann says, “If parents objected to something going on in the school, we met with the principal. We complained about poor substitute teachers who were then replaced. One of our teachers was not effective in the classroom. The principal redirected her to be a tutor in one-on-one situations.
“Our school had an open-door policy, and parents were invited to visit classes at any time. We had an open house in the fall where teachers described the curriculum.
“We had a blue book in which were listed 30 functions that will happen during the school year. Parents were encouraged to sign up for something, and the activities ranged from giving a lot of time to a little. In this way more parents could be involved. Every now and then a single page was sent home listing the latest events coming up and encouraging parent involvement in the day or evening.”
In Ann’s school, a great effort was made to bring out the best in students. There was a program called “Silver Bells” where children go out into the community to help senior citizens, and each year an award was given to a student who cared the most for others.
The principal had a knack for turning around disruptive students. Once a first-grade boy put a rubber toy knife to a girl’s throat. The parents were brought in, and the principal decided not to suspend him. Knowing this particular child as she did, she helped him become involved in positive activities which built up his self-esteem and which changed him into a cooperative student.
According to Ann, all of these efforts and activities resulted in a thriving school environment in which teachers and parents worked well together.
Edy Rees had two children who attended a small alternative public middle school of 200 students in New York City. Edy explains that “parents were completely integrated into the school process. Teachers had an open-door policy. You had to get a pass, but then you could go to any class and sit down. The teacher would say “Hi” and go on with the lesson. Teachers would ask any parent who showed up to help out and even for input in the curriculum.”
Dr. James P. Comer’s School Development Program
Nationally known African-American educator, psychiatrist and author, Dr. James P. Comer is the originator of a successful parent involvement and school restructuring method that has been implemented in more than 1,000 schools in 26 U.S. states, the District of Columbia, Trinidad and Tobago, South Africa, England and Ireland. It is called the Comer School Development Program. Dr. Comer believes that parents need to be involved at every level – from school governance and management to a parent program in which they are active in developing social events and improving school atmosphere. In a 1993 interview, Mr. Comer stated:
“You have to structure some experiences that allow parents and staff to interact with each other as equals. You’ve got to be careful that you don’t ask people to interact in ways that expose their weaknesses. We have some Black parents whose parents and parents’ parents have been denied education and participation in the economic and social mainstream. So you don’t immediately ask them to serve on an academic development committee. Where do they have the necessary experience? Well, they’ve planned activities in churches, figured out how to structure and publicize events. So we have a social program in schools and that’s where you bring in parents with those citizenship skills. The social program helps the kids to feel valued and to improve certain skills related to interacting with peers. If you happen to have parents who are going to be very good in the academic areas, then bring them into those areas.” 3
Dr. Comer testifies that encouraging the active involvement of parents is key to creating a positive school atmosphere with fewer behavior problems and higher academic achievement. Strong parent programs have created parents who become activists to improve their communities. This teamwork also has inspired students to discuss among themselves what they can do.
In the New Haven communities, where Dr. Comer worked for many years, he noted that “…at probably the best elementary school in the area, kids who graduated went over to the middle school, and they came back and told their principal, ‘We’re going to change that school. We’re going to make it the best school.’ And these were elementary school kids just going to middle school who felt the commitment to make it better!” 4
If we want to be more successful in our teaching, in our classroom management skills and in reaching more children, we need all the help we can get. Hard as it may be at first, we must make time to reach out to parents and to pressure the administration to work for a school policy that welcomes them, encourages their participation, invites their questions and suggestions, offers them workshops, and in general, makes them feel at home. Then our students will have a greater chance of succeeding.
Teachers Who Successfully Reached Out And Listened to Parents
Ken Bierly held a meeting for parents in his classroom at the beginning of the year and he provided refreshments. He carefully explained his philosophy of education and how he taught each subject. Parents were encouraged to ask questions. He gave them a booklet which had more explanation and which said in part: “Visit our classroom. Observe. Come any time; ask what your child is doing….Question the teacher’s philosophies and activities. Keep the teacher informed of your views and objectives. Help establish and maintain three-way communication: home – school – child.” 5
This kind of invitation cannot help but allay parents’ fears and even make it clear that it is their duty to be involved.
Cyndi Kerr invited parents to “hang around” in the classroom instead of just dropping kids off. “Then they see what’s needed,” she said.
For example, she trained one parent to work with a group of children learning place value in math. Another parent, a dancer, taught her class dances that related to the curriculum. One mother came in to read and write with her son who needed extra help.
The Lower East Side School in New York City where Cyndi Kerr worked, had a strong parent group. They set up a phone tree system so that “Parents get called regularly to tell them what’s going on in the classrooms….These phone calls also give parents a chance to talk about any problems they might be having.”
Lena Ashly, a parent, said, “A lot of parents need that extra push, to hear a teacher say, ‘Just come in and see what’s happening.’…One parent suggested that the teacher needs to call them to say, “Can you come in at l0 a.m. and read?’ The teacher has to be organized enough to be able to call the parents.”
Their school received a Parent Involvement Grant. With the funds, teachers and parents invited speakers for a series of breakfast and evenings meetings. They had workshops on discipline, racism and the school’s educational philosophy.6
Bonar A. Gow
In a Rethinking Schools article, Bonar A. Gow describes his experience as a beginning teacher for a class of 33 fourth/fifth-grade students in a small village in northern British Columbia. Almost one third of the residents were Cree. “The level of unemployment, alcoholism, family instability, and child and wife abuse among whites and non-whites was high.”
He very conscientiously planned his lessons and was confident that he was doing well. All this changed when a parent of Arlene, Mrs. Yellow Eyes, came to school looking for Waba-Sewa-Towah-Ka, which he found out later meant “rabbit with short (or small/flat) ears” as opposed to a rabbit with ears that are “long” (upright) and cannot only listen but hear.
She was very upset, saying that her daughter was unhappy in his class and wanted to leave school:
“You white teachers think white. You don’t know nothing. My Arlene, she is one smart girl. But you got her readin’ and writin’ things that are no good. She brung her big yellow book (basal reader) home last night and read me stories. Stupid stories. About white kids doin’ things she don’t know about.
“White kids and Indian kids are different. Indian kids got to learn ‘bout things to help get jobs. No jobs on our reservation. Ain’t no jobs in trappin’ now. Too many people on welfare or getting drunk. I don’t want that for my Arlene. She is one damned smart girl, this I tell you. But you whites don’t hear me. Not in Fort Nelson. Not in Fox Creek. This is true.”
Mr. Gow went home that night preoccupied. He thought carefully about what Mrs. Yellow Eyes had said, and he evaluated his curriculum. He concluded that he had been “plodding on through endless language arts, social studies, science, and art lessons, seldom pausing to challenge the assumptions underpinning what I was doing. On the rare occasion when I questioned the wisdom of what I was doing, I promptly proceeded to devalue my homegrown knowledge and to wilt in the face of the superior abilities of curriculum designers. How could something be unsuitable if an expert in curriculum design wrote it into the guide, I reasoned.
“An aboriginal mom with little or no education – but a deep understanding of what an education should be all about – changed my view of myself and my children. In the early evening I sat at home and subjected everything I was doing in my classroom to a rigorous examination. In the end I was forced to recognize that I had to change my approach to children and learning.”
The very next day he began shelving his curriculum guides and asking the children “what they felt young people their age needed to survive on a day-to-day basis.” They had many suggestions. As a result, “learning how to snowshoe replaced some of our regular indoor activities. Basal readers were almost completely replaced by books the children brought in. They represented a wide variety of subjects, and comic books became acceptable reading material. Reading snowmobile repair manuals, recipes, and assembly instructions for toys and games came to occupy an important place in my classroom. Writing began to focus on personal experiences, hobbies, and ‘how to’ booklets meant to be read by other children. Learning became something that you took out through the door with you at the end of the day and then into your home, to share with your family.”
Once he was able to show respect for the children’s culture and bring aspects of it into the class, the children were more willing to listen to and read about lessons from the wider world.
His new curriculum changed Arlene who “blossomed.” She showed the class how to skin a beaver and how to prepare the hide for sale; she showed how to make clothing out of moose hide. She became “an accomplished storyteller in the best of the Cree tradition and in so doing, she won the admiration of all her classmates.” 7
Sally Novak, a special education teacher, realized over time that many of the parents of her students were overwhelmed by the challenges of raising a special needs child. Her school administration did not support her effort to meet for extended periods of time with parents. She found a way out of this dilemma which resulted in much better communication with her and the school staff. Parents built supportive friendships with one another and learned new skills to help their children.
Her story, entitled Connecting with Parents of Special Education Students is on my website.
I’ve come strongly to believe that many parents have a lot of wisdom and knowledge about education and what their children need. Two other examples come to mind: parents who had no training whatsoever in reading instruction who taught their children to read:
An African-American teacher describes how her mother helped her learn to read:
“When I was three-years old, my mother was gonna take me to the river. And we were going to visit some big ship that had come in. And I kept saying, ‘I’m going to see the big boat.’ And she said, ‘No, a big boat is called a ship.’ And I kept referring to it as a big boat. So, in desperation, she got a piece of paper, and she wrote, ‘This is water.’ And she drew a wave. ‘This is a boat,’ and she drew it. ‘This is a ship.’ And something about the this is with a different word there, and the diagram, I immediately read it.
“And then I could read anything thereafter. It was just like…Oh! And I remember that very day. I read everything from then on. I don’t know what method of teaching reading that is, but whatever it was, you know, it clicked. But it made me read this early, which then all the neighbors and relatives took very seriously. And that determined what kind of person, I guess, I was going to be.” 8
Nancy Jefferson, a community organizer in Chicago, tells how her father taught his children to read:
“…My father makes an X for his name, but he taught me how to read. I remember all thirteen of us had to sit down in front of the fireplace. Sometimes we had oil in the lamps and sometimes we didn’t. If we didn’t, Dad had made a big fire, and the glare of the fireplace would give us light. We had to read every night.
“I was eleven-years old before I knew my father couldn’t read or write. We’d get to a word and we’d stumble over it. He’d say: ‘Read that over again. You’re stumblin’ over that word.’ We thought he knew what that word was. He knew it didn’t sound right to him. He’d tell us: ‘Chop it up like you’re choppin’ cotton. You know how you get weeds out of cotton. Chop the word up like that an’ put it back together again.’ That was really teaching phonics. (Laughs)
“Now, my brothers and I, we laugh. When we’re talkin’ about things, I’ll say: ‘Chop it up. Chop it up. Put it back together again.’ As a result, all of us are great readers.” 9
Making Parents Feel Welcome in Our Schools
If you are in a school that does not welcome parents, it is easy to fall into the pattern of dealing only with the children and having little, if any, input or relationship with their parents. However, you don’t have to go along with this; you can be different and encourage other teachers to be the same.
Here are a few suggestions for making parents feel at home with you, your class and your school:
- If your school has a school-based management (SBM) committee, encourage your colleagues to be as open-minded and welcoming to parents as possible. Remind them that the average parent is not our enemy or spy, but someone who wants what is best for his or her child. For children to do their best in school, the relationship between the home, community and the school should be as positive as possible.
- If your school has no SBM committee, talk up the need for reaching out to parents and making them feel welcome. Form a committee to brainstorm how to attract more parents to the school.
- When parents appear unexpectedly at your door, warmly greet them and invite them in. Ask them how they are, if they have any questions. Say something positive about their child. Erica Fishman, parent of a 4th grader in a Minneapolis school said, “In my son’s school, you always know you’re welcome. The teachers talk to you when you come in, and they make you part of the class activities. For example, they will have you help your child or another child in a project. They prefer that you let them know a day in advance when you are coming in, but you can also drop in.”
- If parents show up during the school day and there is no time to talk at that moment, make an appointment for a more convenient time.
- Call parents early in the year to mention something positive about their child. Parents are often shocked and pleased to get such a call since many expect bad news when a school contacts them. A phone message with good news helps to build better relationships with parents. If you have to reach parents later about a problem, they will be more open to listening to you and collaborating on a solution.
- When you report a problem to a parent, be careful how you say it. Try not to blame the parent or student. For example, don’t say, “Bob will fail math if he doesn’t buckle down and do the work.” Instead say, “I am concerned about Bob’s math. I’m sure he can do better if we both help him. When can you come in to discuss this?”
- Send a monthly letter home to parents explaining your curriculum, special programs or trips, and any problems you think they can help you with. Encourage them to visit the class.
- If they are critical of one of your lessons that you feel was important, or if they feel you should be teaching something that you believe is inappropriate, don’t brush off their comments. Show respect for their opinions, but explain why you teach what you do. Tell them you take what they are saying very seriously, that you will think about their concerns and get back to them.
- Invite parents to share their expertise or interest in a subject with your class in a one-time presentation or in a series of lessons. Ms. Fishman and her son told of programs in her son’s K-8 school in which parents played a key role: “At the beginning of the year, teachers sent home a note explaining how you can help in your child’s class. One year there were two main programs. In Book Nook, the teacher, a volunteer parent and his daughter made a list of books to read aloud during the year, a schedule was made and different parents showed up 3 or 4 times a week to read.
“In Options, parents could volunteer to teach something one hour once a week for 6 weeks; classes included the Chinese language, baseball cards, chess, Moncala (an African board game involving math), volley ball and basketball. A student in 4th – 8th-grade could team teach with a parent or another student. Teachers could also teach an Options class.
“Options happened in two 6-week sessions during the year. There were 15 choices and children attended two different classes for one hour each during the week. This program was very popular and helped bring parents closer to the school.”
- Encourage parents to join the P.T.A. and to become active in the school.
Phone Calls to High School Parents That Solved Problems: Two Examples
Phone Call #1
When I was teaching at the Frederick Douglass Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., a successful alternative school with a literacy emphasis for 17 – 21-year olds, I had a student who began regularly falling asleep in class. I asked him why, and he simply said he was tired.
I called his mother and described the problem. Could she tell me if anything had changed in his life recently? She said that she had given him his own TV which was put in his bedroom. She wondered if his sleep deprivation was due to watching it at all hours.
This proved to be the case. She took it away and put it in a closet. She set up new rules for TV time which resolved the problem. From then on, her son stayed awake in class.
My call to this parent enabled me to talk about more than TV. She had told me early in the term her worry about her son’s poor reading skills and his lack of interest in reading. I was able to further discuss with her ways she could enforce study time at home and help him with some of his assignments.
As a result of the phone call, my relationship was strengthened with the parent, and the son’s work showed improvement.
Phone Call #2
Marie, mother of Robert, also a student at the Frederick Douglass Center, did not think her son was smart. He had been a school drop-out and had a low reading level. She had come alone to the U.S. from the island of Jamaica when he was a child to work as a housekeeper because in her country jobs were scarce and wages low. She sent a portion of her wages each month to his care-giver.
By the time she had saved up enough money to bring him to the U.S., they were estranged. Robert resented the fact that his mother was absent for most of his childhood. She was disappointed in his low academic level and his lack of appreciation for all her years of sacrifice for him. (This problem was not unique to Marie and Robert. Many of my immigrant students and their parents were in the same situation with communication problems and feelings of alienation.)
I worked patiently with Robert, giving him short, achievable academic goals, and he began to take more interest in his schoolwork. I told him I would like to tell his mother in person of his progress, and he agreed. She came to school for the meeting, but despite what I told her, in front of her son she said, “He’s not college material, is he?” Robert slumped in his seat. I replied, “He is if he wants to be.” She looked surprised, but skeptical.
At the end of the year, our school had a ceremony in which students received certificates for progress they had made. Robert’s mother came, and I showed her our booklet of class compositions and poetry, pointing out two poems and a story Robert had written about his life in Jamaica. She read them and began to cry, saying “He is intelligent. I didn’t know he could write poetry, and here in this essay he tells what he was doing while I was in the U.S. I didn’t know any of this. He never told me. I am his mother, and I missed it all.”
Breaking down a barrier between mother and son could have appeared to be hopeless. After all, Robert was 18. However, if a teacher stays positive, doesn’t give up and keeps in touch with a parent with reports of progress, the parent could become an ally instead of an obstacle to her child’s academic advancement.
To read more about Robert’s transformation, go to an article on my website entitled Students and the Power to Change which describes my entire year with Robert’s class.
Advice From An Administrator
Lenora Bosley, now retired, was a very effective administrator in a Brooklyn, N.Y. elementary school. She did her best to support teachers and to have her school be welcoming to parents. Here are some recommendations based on her long years of experience to add to those above:
- Making your school a positive place for parents begins with the security guard and the personnel in the main office who need to see parents and guardians as allies in the education of their children, not as intruders who are looked upon with suspicion. The school entrance and main office can be authoritative without being forbidding. In addition, having the main office well-decorated and with plants helps convey the message that your school cares about its appearance and its students.
- When speaking with parents, try not to use words that might not be understood outside the profession. Parents need to be spoken to in plain English. For example, there is vocabulary specific to medical doctors, social workers and others which are appropriate to use at meetings of people in the same profession. These are not the terms used in speaking to people in the outside world unless they are clearly defined. You can close people off by the language you use. To guard against this, be sure to encourage parents to ask questions, and don’t rush. Give them time to think.
- Teachers should greet parents as children are lining up in the morning or at dismissal. Don’t socialize with colleagues instead of with parents and children. You can learn a lot about your students and their parents through casual conversation which can help you communicate with them better.
- Don’t discuss other people’s children with a parent unless a student is having a problem with a classmate. Even then, the goal is to ask as many questions as necessary in search of a positive solution. Disparaging one of the parties involved will be counter-productive.
- Don’t run out the door at 3 p.m. Although you may feel like escaping after a difficult day, don’t make a habit of it. Staying around to talk with students and parents, or to get ready for the next day shows your dedication to the job.
- Make sure your school has a welcoming room for parents which can be a social outlet for those who need a network that can help solve personal as well as educational problems. It should be a place where administrators and teachers can stop in for conversation, to encourage participation in school activities and to hold workshops on issues of importance to families.
- Avoid being part of a clique. Be open to including other teachers in conversations and social gatherings.
- Negativity and pessimism can often be found in the teachers’ lounge which can cast a pall on school spirit and cooperation. Teachers who badmouth students and parents to colleagues violate student confidentiality. Conversations about problems with a student or parent should be held with colleagues who have their interests at heart, who do not play the “blame game,” and sincerely want to help you find a solution. The teachers’ lounge can be turned into a positive place when colleagues agree to share successful lessons and student victories not just failures, as well as earnestly work together for a better school environment.
- A serious outreach effort should be undertaken to have a multi-racial staff. Students of different races and ethnicities, as well as parents, need to have role models they can easily identify with.
Sometimes there are parents who will come to school with inappropriate behavior toward their own child or the teacher. I know of an instance in which a teacher complained to a parent about a child’s behavior; the parent came to school with a belt and beat the child with it in the hallway while the teacher looked on.
In such a situation, a teacher should call the principal or guidance department. We must never condone parental violence toward children. Such parents need serious counseling that we are unable to provide but which the school administration can recommend. In extreme situations, children need to be removed from a violent home.
If a teacher and a parent are in conflict, a principal, guidance counselor or social worker can be asked to mediate. There have been instances in which serious conflicts between a parent and a teacher have been resolved through successful mediation.
A Helpful Resource on the Need for Parent Involvement in Schools
Henderson, Anne T., Mapp, Karen L., Johnson, Vivian R. and Davies, Don, Beyond the Bake Sale, The Essential Guide to Family-School Partnerships, The New Press, N.Y., 2007.
This book points out that research indicates a positive relationship between parental involvement in schools and children’s achievement. It advises that educators need to examine their own attitudes before they can work effectively with parents, and it shows step by step how to do this. It gives many suggestions on how to improve relations between parents and school staff.
It stresses the need for required courses to train teachers and administrators to be adequately sensitive to cultural, social and economic differences among families, and how to use this information to successfully reach out to parents. They came to this conclusion during their research when school staffs stated that they needed greater skills to work more productively with their students’ families.
Resources to Help Improve Parenting Skills
Many parents want to be loving and effective in raising their children but don’t know how. It is amazing that although one of the most important and difficult jobs one can have is parenting, there are no job requirements. Some adults are able to parent well naturally while most need guidance. Adults who are successful parents raise children who are more cooperative and more ready to learn in our classes.
One resource that schools can access to help in this effort is the Center for the Improvement of Child Caring: http://www.ciccparenting.org/
This organization has national programs that train people on how to deliver parenting classes and seminars. It provides books and videotapes on child-rearing for parents of preschool through 19-year olds.
Around the country there are school districts that have a parent center that specializes in helping adults improve their parenting skills. The Commack Union Free School District in Commack, New York is an example. Its Parent Resource Center provides free child-rearing advice and support for area parents of children of all ages.
The parents’ section of the school district’s website, https://www.commack.k12.ny.us/ has many links with helpful advice. For example, it features a Character Education Parent Handbook suggesting ways to develop in children values that include citizenship, honesty, responsibility, accountability and compassion. It lists movies and books that can help achieve these goals.
The website has an encouraging invitation to parents to use these resources:
Visit the Parent Resource Center…for information and support.
Call for answers to your parenting and school questions.
Borrow parenting books and brochures.
Attend workshops that are held throughout the year.
Discover the many school resources available to your child.
Such a proactive approach to reaching out to parents can be very helpful in school districts nation-wide.
1Cummins, Jim, “Empowering Minority Students: A Framework for Intervention,” Facing Racism in Education, Harvard Educational Review, Reprint Series #21, 1993, pp. 58-59.
2Mills, Beverly, “Child Life,” Brooklyn Paper Publications, August ll-17, 1995, p.4.
3Murphy, Don, and Ucelli, Juliet, “‘We’re Going to Make it the Best School.’, An Interview with Dr. James P. Comer,” School Voices, A Newspaper for Parents, Educators and Students, Spring 1993, p.l0. (Mr. Comer’s approach to making schools more effective is described in his many articles and books including School Power and What I Learned In School: Reflections on Race, Child Development, and School Reform.)
4 Ibid., p. ll.
5 Kohl, Herbert R., On Teaching, Schocken Books, N.Y., 1976, p. 97- 98.
6 “Parent Involvement in the Classroom,” School Voices, Vol. II, #3, May 1992, p.16.
7 Gow, Bonar A., “Teach Her Good and She Learn Good. That’s Your Job,” Rethinking Schools, Oct./ Nov. 199l, p.l0.
8 Casey, Kathleen, I Answer With My Life, Life Histories of Women Teachers Working For Social Change, Routledge, 1993, p. 118.
9 Terkel, Studs, American Dreams: Lost and Found, Pantheon Books, N.Y., 1980, p.278-279.