George Lucas Educational Foundation
Family Engagement

Strengthening Parent Partnerships

For effective school-home partnerships, get to know the parents early in the year, get to know the values of each family, and remain consistent and fair.
Photo credit: Kevin Jarrett via flickr (CC BY 2.0)
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The end of the school year has me wistfully longing for summer camp. Yes, I still go to summer camp (where I am lovingly referred to as a camp "elder"), but it's a world run mostly by college-age students. Yet with no parents and few adults, that world seems to function quite smoothly. So as someone now working in schools for most of my year, I often wonder, "What can we learn from this world run by teenagers?"

There are many answers to this question, but I want to focus on the "adult" and "child" relationship.

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Teacher as Parent?

In my first year teaching in middle school, a girl walked into my classroom wearing something wildly inappropriate. It totally broke the school dress code, and I remember my immediate internal panicky moment: "How can I tell her to change her shirt? Her parents brought her to school today and they must have approved! Who am I to tell her it's inappropriate? Is this really my role as teacher?"

I don't fully remember the ensuing conversation, but I must have said something right, because I suddenly found myself as the female "inappropriate dress guard" for the rest of my tenure at the school. Other teachers would come to me about a girl who needed to be spoken with. I would gently pull her aside, talk about appropriate attire, and give her the huge t-shirt that I kept on hand for such occasions. What I do remember clearly about each of these talks is that it never got easier. Every single time I doubted myself.

That "Who am I?" moment ran through my head for years. I always wondered what a girl's parents would say if they heard this conversation. Would they be angry with me for trying to change the way their daughter was dressing? Did this conversation overstep my boundaries as a teacher?

I don't believe that parents and teachers are on opposite sides of the child-rearing coin. I firmly believe in the parent-school connection that lets us work in concert to help these children grow, but those awkward dress code moments always had me questioning my role.

Establishing and Maintaining Connections

Here's one glaring difference between camp and school. At camp, the rules are clear and consistent, and the consequences for breaking them are swift and fair. When children at camp challenge authority and test limits, they live with the consequences of their actions. When an 18-year-old counselor sees a 10-year-old camper breaking dress code, she immediately sends the camper to change her clothing with no questions asked. The camper's parents will probably never find out, and the counselor has no need to second-guess her decision: a rule is a rule. Camp counselors hardly ever think about parent reaction because, if the parents even hear about the incident, a few days have passed and everything has probably been forgotten.

I'm not advocating that we hide things from parents. I still believe in a strong partnership, but I think that teachers need to erase the fear in ourselves. How can we truly build a relationship with parents where we're not afraid to "say the wrong thing" and get an angry email about it? What are some concrete steps that we can take to feel as confident as that 18-year-old camp counselor in reinforcing our school's expectations?

1. Establish a relationship with parents.

It's easy to get angry at the "other." When I think of my students' parents, too often I lump them together in one category. Similarly, it's easy for parents to lump "teachers" or "school figures" into one category. As teachers, it's on us to connect with the parents on a more meaningful level. Share a little about yourself in a professional manner so that, instead of seeing you as just another teacher, the parents see you for who you are. Share why you became a teacher and what you hope for this year with their child. Explain something about your journey to becoming a teacher. Make sure that the parents understand your intentions and know that you really care for their children from the outset of your relationship.

2. Get to know the values of the family.

What do the parents want of their children? When that girl walked into my class, I assumed that her parents had no problem with her shirt. I didn't think that perhaps she'd worn a sweatshirt at breakfast, or walked to school that day without her parents seeing her. If I'd really known her parents, I would have understood if this had been a difference in value or an act of tween rebellion. At the beginning of the year, teachers should make an effort to ask parents the important questions:

  • Where do you want your child to grow this year?
  • Why did you choose this school for your child?
  • What is your biggest struggle with your child?
  • What single accomplishment of his or hers makes you the proudest?

3. Be consistent and fair.

It's true that parents don't always agree with our decisions as teachers. There are times when we'll have a clash in vision for the children that we're both taking time to help grow. If we as teachers are consistent with our expectations and fair with our decisions, it's much more palatable for parents, even when we don't agree.

The Power of Partnership

During the summer, the parent-camp relationship is very different. Campers don't report things to their parents daily. Their letters home are quickly scribbled in between soccer games and a dip in the lake. Parents visit the camp website for a picture of their child smiling, and that's all the feedback they get for the whole day. As teachers, we should take daily advantage of the parental connections we have. We should proactively ensure that parents are our partners. We don't get our students for 24 hours a day, and as teachers we should use the resources that we have, the parent partners, to help ensure consistency in our students' lives.

What are your strategies for maintaining parent partnerships? Please share them below in the comments section.