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Education Trends

Engaging Parents: An Elementary Teacher’s Field Guide

Love and dialog can inspire parents beyond “What Johnny learned today.”

October 13, 2011

I love watching the new teachers scramble for the laminating machine and make copy after copy of bio info, homework routines, and schedules in preparation for back-to-school night. They sweat, stutter, and turn bright red. Don't get me wrong; I'm not making fun of their anxiety at all.

I'm just envisioning future parent events, and how fledgling teachers will morph into strong and confident educators. It won't be long before they're rocking the BTSN crowd. I hope. I hope the direction of their dialogue with parents will make connections, not build walls. It might be their one and only chance to personally speak to parents (I hold shame in my heart for saying that, but it's true.) Yes, first impressions are long-lasting and absorbing.

Thing #1 About Which Parents Could Not Care Less: My Qualifications

I just finished my twelfth back-to-school night. And in the midst of my presentation, which has been honed and carved to absolute perfection, a dawning overwhelmed my heart. Parents don't care. Parents don't care that I've been teaching for twelve years (it took twelve to realize this). They don't care that I will hold a master's degree at the end of this school year, blog for Edutopia, and am about to be a published author. They don't care that I am the current Teacher of the Year for the whole entire district. They don't care. Maybe I've been too caught up with my personal development, as a teacher, writer, and human, to recognize that a list of accomplishments is not impressive to most parents. Of course my hard work will allow me to effectively teach their kids, but I don't think parents put that at the top of the "What I Want for My Child in School" list.

I'm not trying to insult the intelligence of parents or point the finger for not caring about the skill level of their child's teacher; I just think that the humanity of teaching trumps the content for parents of elementary-aged kids. Parents value how a teacher makes their child feel, over if he/she remembers the capital of Utah.

What Does Matter to Parents?

LOVE. Parents long for their children to be loved and valued in school. I've always loved my students, so why now is it reaching the surface of consciousness? I really don't know. I wanted to immediately make a PA announcement -- "Attention teachers! Love your kids!! Parents want love, not credentials, routines, and marble jars." A definite hippie moment, but it's so true.

In his book, Teaching for the Students: Habits of Heart, Mind, and Practice in the Engaged Classroom, Bob Fecho states that, "A classroom is a living thing." (Duh, right?) You need to talk to it [the class], just like you would speak to a friend or family member. When my reading and writing workshop is filled with meaningful, personal dialogue, I truly "know" my students. I love them. Fecho's book, the inspiration for this blog, encourages teachers to create a dialogical classroom, where inquiry and critique twist and turn on the dance floor co-creating knowledge. This type of education spawns thinkers, not memorizers. In reading Fecho's book, the theme of love and dialogue is evident, but I do believe he needed to go a bit further to include parents in the dialogue. As teachers we all want parents to be involved, but I think in today's world of faux-reformers, edu-profit mongers, and mind-less fiery hoops of fear through which teachers need to jump, not only our kids' education is at stake, but their mental and social health as well.

And Among Educational Policymakers?

Unfortunately, love is not the "in-thing" right now in classrooms. It's making AYP (Annual Yearly Progress). It's block scheduling to accommodate RTI (Response to Intervention). It's using DIBELS to screen kids for reading problems. And teacher evaluation, based on hollow test scores, will create more love-less and stale classrooms all over the country.

This really is a mess. Teachers want to inspire students to, according to the late big thinker and educator, Paulo Freire, "Produce and act upon their own ideas -- not consume the thoughts of others." Parents want a loving and caring teacher who will make their kids feel good about himself or herself. Politicians and "Faux-reformers" want teacher evaluation, standardized tests, and schools for profit.

The Power of Parents

So, where can teachers and real educators get a foothold on this huge mountain of greed? I don't have all of the answers. (This is the beauty of the blog. Write it, let it off of its leash, and wait for its return -- sometimes with a bone, sometimes not.)

I do think parents have the power to move that greedy mountain, but it needs to begin with dialogue. For Freire, dialogue existed at the intersection of love, humility, and faith and it is only there "that a horizontal relationship of mutual trust can exist." This mindset sounds great in linking the dialogical triangle between teacher, parent, and student. This powerful trinity, in my opinion, will not only move that mountain, but also, in the words of famous guitarist, Jimi Hendrix, "Chop it down with edge of my hand."

Fecho argues that, "We (teachers) need to call our practice into question and seek ways to invite and sustain dialogue with our students." And, I would like to add, invite and sustain dialogue with parents. But how?


In the name of #schoollove, I've committed to Tweeting one classroom/school "little moment" of loving connection between teacher and student a day for each day of the school year. That's 180 tweets. Thanks to my good friend, Jill Schwantes, we have some names for my Tweets.

"Positive Tweetergy"
"Positive Tweetertude"

Call them what you like, wish me luck, and follow me: @gaetanp.

Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments area below.

The mighty triumvirate of teacher, parent, and student can (and will) take back the classroom, but it needs to begin with dialogue.

In the words of The Black Eyed Peas, "Where is the Love?" No room. No time for dialogue, no love.

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  • Family Engagement
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  • K-2 Primary
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary

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