Assorted Stuff blogged today about the Washington Post's article on parent involvement in schools. The article discusses how parents need to stop being blamed for bad schools because: "Great teaching makes great schools, and once you have a good school, parents become engaged and active." The article frustrated me and I think AS does a great job articulating why. It got me thinking a lot about parent involvement and why parents enter the school doors.
(I have a lot to say so I'm going to try to limit myself and put it into topics)
How we reach out:
I have to admit I teach at a GREAT school. We have incredible teachers who deliver research based teaching methods on a daily basis. We have a Parent Center where our parents can go for coffee, check their emails, speak to someone in their home language, get explanations about how to put lunch money on their child's card, or just sit and talk with other parents. We have many parent-focused events during the year to bring parents into our doors. We plan presentations and class parties for days and times we think the parents will be able to make it. (8am is usually good before parents are off to work... 7 or 7:30 is usually best so that parents have time to come home from work and fight traffic). We are hyper-aware of what will promise us the best parent turn-out and are consistently working to make our school a welcoming place for parents. We have teachers who do home visits. We want the parents involved and we fight to keep it that way.
Yet we still struggle with parent involvement. It is common to have no chaperons on a field trip, or never see one of the parents of your children the entire year. It is common to have children who receive no help with their homework. (Despite all this I have found that many of our parents are some of the most inspiring people I have ever met. I am in awe with their hope, determination, and work-ethic they brought into this country. )
A large problem schools face with parent participation is that many schools operate under middle-class expectations and social norms. We expect parents to know how to tell time, how to be on time, how to logically and sequentially store information in their memories, and to prioritize the way we (the school) see fit. Often our middle-class expectations do not line up with lower-class reality. Ruby Payne wrote a great and very easy to read book called A Framework For Understanding Poverty. She covers many of these issues and I highly recommend it for anyone interested in increasing parent participation.
Living in the lower-class brings a new set of life rules to go by. Survival becomes of optimal importance, as does paying the bills, feeding your children, and keeping your job. If something (like a parent/teacher conference) does not fall into one of these categories it is likely to be forgotten about, ignored, or cancelled at the last minute if something with a higher priority comes up. Forgot to pay the mortgage again? Lose the house. Take another hour off work to go to a parent conference? You don't earn money that day. Less money for food/housing/clothing. Babysitter to expensive? The game-cube will keep them quiet while an elderly grandparent watches them. That way you can save money to actually feed them and keep a roof over their head. You come home from your second job at 9pm? Your child isn't going to bed until 10, despite how many times your school has told you about the importance of an 8 o'clock bedtime. Plus, if you put your kid to bed at 8, he wont see you to hand you the letter from the teacher. You don't see it? He misses recess the next day and you get a call that takes you away from your job, which in turn gets you in trouble again.
A few years ago I lived with a group of girls in an incredibly beautiful row-house. The reason we could afford to live there was that it was in one of the most unsafe areas in the city. The cops (in our neighborhood to break up a fight on the street) practically introduced us to Harvey, the city's leading crack dealer and then asked us why in H*** we were living there. Then winter came and we didn't have heat. Slowly our lives changed from being 20-something girls in the city to a constant awareness of the immediate situation, and only the immediate situation. We lost our reasoning and logical thinking and could focus only on the here and now. We only planned to accommodate for our safety and our warmth. I remember begging a coffee shop to stay open another hour because it was warm. I cried on a snow-day because school was cancelled so I couldn't go anywhere to get warm. We knew all the tricks with the taxi-drivers too. We memorized the city taxi-cab laws since the cab drivers never wanted to drive us to where our house was. And when they'd try to refuse to take us, or would try to rip us off we'd find ourselves quoting laws and threatening law suites (does this sound like angry parents you know?) We're not mean people. We are sweet girls who knew how dangerous it would be to have the taxi cab let us out on the wrong street corner. We memorized the tenate laws in the city and finally were able to break our lease when we reminded our landlord he was required to give us heat. When did we become such extreme people?
We only had 2 survival concerns and they consumed our entire being. Two weeks after we finally moved we were sitting in our warm apartment in our safe, yuppie neighborhood across town and finally realized how hard life had been for the past 6 months. And we only had to worry about 2 issues. We weren't concerned with money, we weren't trying to raise children or hold down multiple jobs.
Parents come from a tough situations. I've had quite a few conferences lately where I learned a family lost their house and was homeless for a week or two. No wonder they didn't return the forms, or get their child to school on time.
I'm not excusing behavior, because if your child comes to school an hour late every day she will miss an entire subject. If you don't return your forms you are creating legal problems for us, or excluding your child from opportunities. But our "great teaching" isn't going to be what gets parents in the door.
Teach Well And They Will Come?
Jay Mathew's article frustrated me as it suggested that we merely need to "teach harder and better" and the parents will come. I think what he may have been suggesting is that once we get a reputation as a "good school" the rich families will move in, which will inevitably raise our test scores and increase our parent involvement. I think if that happened, me and many of my co-workers, would be looking to find another school. We love the population we teach. Sure we get frustrated that they aren't doing their homework, and I have been known to say terrible things behind closed doors when I've become frustrated with a parent.
What helps is understanding where the parent is coming from, why they aren't able to be involved, build up trust, personal relationships, and slowly but surely make the parent more comfortable in the school building.