Parents who come from all over the world bring a different sort of expectation and understanding of how schools work. For some, culturally they are not accustomed to being invited into school and feel that discussions with the teacher would come across as accusatory or insulting- as though they were questioning the teacher's ability to perform the job. Others truly don't have a cultural background for understanding that it is a team effort- in their countries the teacher is responsible for all learning- so they do not understand that we want them to read and do homework with their child. They are not against this concept, we just need to communicate our expectations. Some parents see school are scary places they are completely unfamiliar with since they never went to school themselves in this country. For others we are fighting years and years of schools being seen as untrustworthy and 'the enemy'. Somehow we have to form a team with each and every one of these parents.
I've found that one of the best ways to start forming this team (other than home visits) is to get parents into the classroom to see their children in action. When I was a classroom teacher I held our largest writing celebration of the year right at the end of the first month of school. We published our books, baked cupcakes, made invitations, put out table cloths and fresh flowers and fancied everything up. Not only did it set the tone for writing workshop for the rest of the year (writing is IMPORTANT and we are WRITERS) but it brought parents into the classroom to see us hard at work early on. When parents come into school to see their children perform, whether reading, writing, or in a play, they usually are more comfortable than when they are coming into school for conferences. Their reason behind coming into the school is different- they are less likely to feel stressed because they do not speak English. Everyone gets an opportunity to gaze at the children and their hard work without having to worry about difficult conversations.
The Think-Tank has a dance night every year. The PE and Music teachers put on an amazing show. We all meet over at the high school's gym on a Friday night to watch all the grade levels perform the dances they've been working on in PE and Music for the past month. It's amazing and one of my favorite nights ever, but what I've noticed after years of attending is that parents who never, ever come to school for anything else will come to dance night. Parents who never show up to conferences, who do not return written notes or phone calls, who put their child on the bus and never enter the door of our school- they come to dance night. It's the best possible night to make contact with parents.
Another thing I've noticed over the years is that parents from other countries are more likely to come to events if they can bring food. I think it's from feeling as though they otherwise have nothing to offer. They can't even communicate in English with their child's teacher and so coming in the door to the school is like a reminder of what they can't do (in their minds, not in ours). But when they are asked to bring food from their country they often flock through the doors in droves. Food from their country is something they can finally offer us. It is something they are good at, something they specialize in, and something we are not experts in.
Another aspect of parent behavior I've noticed is that they are more likely to come to whole-school events. Many of the parents I've worked with do not have transportation, but if it is a whole school event and they can catch a ride with their neighbor they will come to see their child in action. It feels safer to go anywhere with a friend, particularly if you do not speak the language or are in a new situation. The Think-Tank had a school-wide writing celebration every year. Because it was school-wide the parents came in droves- they could walk over together, carpool, and chat to each other in their native languages about what was going on, where to go, and how it went. It felt safer.
Once we get parents in the doors- through putting their children on stage, in writing celebrations, dances, or class picnics, we can start to form those relationships that will open the door for further collaboration.