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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Editor's Note: Teachers and Parents as Partners

Bringing educators into students’ homes builds trust and gets Mom and Dad into the education process.
By James Daly
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Alice in Wonderland

Credit: Corbis

"Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?"
"That depends a good deal on where you want to get to," said the Cat.
"I don't much care where," said Alice.
"Then it doesn't matter which way you go," said the Cat.
-- Lewis Carroll,
Alice in Wonderland

We all remember the great teachers we had in school, but what we didn't know was when we were going to meet that potentially life-changing person. When would lightning strike? This year? Next? Never?

I was lucky enough to have three standouts. First, there was Mr. Miller, my curly-haired, wild-brained high school art teacher, who fired up a class of restless Jersey suburbanites with the mind-expanding work of nineteenth-century French avant-garde painters. Imagine. Then there was my fifth-grade teacher, Mr. Novak, a bearded, soft-spoken man who took a gang of baseball-obsessed boys and refined our passion for the game by showing us its mathematical underpinnings. He also loved taking us out of the classroom -- on hikes and canoe trips and to kickball tournaments -- in the days before anybody knew there was such a thing as project-based learning.

Finally, my first-grade teacher, Mrs. Smith, made a shy six-year-old boy who had just moved to the neighborhood feel at home among twenty noisy kids who had known each other their whole lives. Plus, she was a hoot.

I think any of us would feel lucky to have had three or four great teachers in the thirteen years between kindergarten and our senior year of high school, but, honestly, that's a miserable success rate. Less than one great teacher out of every four, and we consider ourselves fortunate.

Instead, wouldn't it be great if we had a half-dozen or more memorable teachers in our journey through public education? To guide us, like the Cheshire Cat led a puzzled Alice, with questions that require self-exploration. It's possible, but it may take an attitudinal change -- not so much on the part of the teachers, but more on the part of parents, who must realize that public education is not a one-way street. It's not just school giving and families receiving. No relationship can survive in such a unilateral fashion.

Here's a way to shift the equation: At a recent lunch, a few of us came up with the idea of taking a teacher to dinner. Once a year, invite your son or daughter's teacher over to your house. Give him or her a look at what makes your little person tick.

Some school districts require such contact. In California's state capital, for instance, the Parent/Teacher Home Visit Project has become an integral part of the Sacramento City Unified School District. For the past seven years, teachers have gone out on a home visit each semester. Often, the visits are a revelation for the teachers: They'll see the cramped conditions some kids work in, for instance, revealing why a child doesn't always get homework in on time.

The program's supporters say bringing teachers into students' homes helps build trust and brings parents into the education process. More importantly, such visits can help build a relationship between home and school, bridging the gulf that often separates teachers from the low-income population many serve. Other benefits Sacramento educators have seen include increased student attendance, better test scores and classroom behavior, and decreased vandalism.

The home visits do something else, something subtle but critical. They take the pressure off children to be mediators between teachers and parents. Instead, a relationship can bloom among adults whose common interest is educating a child. A casual dinner conversation can segue into other more substantive discussions about, say, recommended books parents might enjoy with their children, or career goals.

Educators may have expertise in content and pedagogy, but parents have knowledge of their own children that can be extremely helpful to teachers in meeting the needs of their students. Teachers and parents must think of each other as partners in the educational experience. That partnership could develop at a dinner.

Meanwhile, children come away with a new appreciation of a teacher who took the time to see them in their own home and learn a little bit about what makes them tick. My guess is that they'll also have a teacher who will both inspire and lead them. And one they'll remember the rest of their life.

Editor in Chief
James Daly


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