by Allison Friedlander, 2017 Texas Teacher of the Year
This column, published in the fall 2017 issue of INSIGHT, is part of a series called "Teacher Perspective."
Schools play an important, though not singular, role in a child’s development. For students to reach their full potential, teachers must work alongside families. While good schools use state standards to set goals and align their curriculum, great schools also engage families in the goal-setting process. The best teachers with whom I have worked are those who see parents as true partners; ones who listen to parents’ hopes and dreams and incorporate them into their class vision.
My understanding of meaningful family engagement has evolved over the past decade working in public schools. As a novice teacher, I was unaware of how parent-teacher partnerships could have a transformative effect on a child’s development. Doing the best I could in the legendary first two years as a teacher, I reached out for standard parent-teacher conferences, went to a few birthday parties, and touched base with parents when I could throughout the year, often in response to something that occurred in the classroom.
A few years into teaching, I strengthened parent relationships thanks to an incredible administrative team. They opened the school doors to caregivers, created a welcoming parent room, capitalized on every opportunity to interact with families, and utilized resources strategically to strengthen school-home ties. The school leadership set a strong foundation for parent involvement and modeled ways to build relationships with families. Among other things, I saw my school leaders proactively build relationships with parents, make home visits and ask parents for feedback. The expectations administrators set were clear — we should engage and work with parents as partners, given the invaluable role they play in the education of our students.
Another few years had passed and, through some work I was doing with an educational non-profit, I learned about schools that were building parent-teacher teams that, among other things, would meet on a regular basis to share academic goals and progress of students. The idea, though simple, seemed revolutionary — through these group parent meetings, I could build a stronger community among family members, collaborate with them on goals for the year, facilitate discussions in which parents could share their expertise for working with children at home, and get feedback on my teaching. Individual parent-teacher conferences could then be more targeted to individual students and build off what we did in our group meetings. Given our school already welcomed parents to participate in school-wide events, this was a fitting next step.
In my seventh year teaching, I implemented regular parent-teacher team meetings with the vision of building a strong community among families, collaboratively setting goals for the class, reviewing progress on a periodic basis with families, and sharing strategies to foster student growth at home and in school. In these meetings, it was critical to acknowledge and leverage the varied areas of expertise — everyone, teacher and caregivers alike, had unique experiences and perspectives they were bringing to the group. Everyone had the ability to learn from one another.
These meetings shifted over time from being focused primarily on academic achievement to including other areas such as health and social-emotional development. Instead of just providing my academic goals for parents, we collaborated on and set joint goals as a community. For instance, some parents who did not speak Spanish mentioned they were hoping to see students’ Spanish skills increase in our dual language classroom. In that discussion, two Spanish-speaking parents offered to lead Spanish book 24 clubs with students. Another parent’s goal was for her daughter to make healthier food choices and to be more physically active. We then brought health discussions into our morning meetings and every day at the lunch line, I reminded students about healthy choices. Eventually, students started reminding one another and, as a whole, they began eating healthier foods. At the end of that year, another parent gave me a picnic basket full of fruits and vegetables mentioning that because of our efforts, her son now loves eating healthy food. This shows the power of partnering with parents to achieve meaningful goals.
We also set academic achievement goals for the year and discussed strategies for both home and school that would help students succeed in those areas. Through conversations, parent surveys and student achievement data, it was clear that increased parent engagement was translating into more learning for students.
As part of community-building, I aspire for parents to not only connect to one another as members of our internal campus community, but gain exposure to the assets and opportunities beyond the limits of our school. Thus, over the years I have also partnered with community organizations to foster these connections. For example, I’ve hosted some of our meetings at the public library (followed by a library tour and opportunity for parents and students to check out books), invited a dietician to share ideas on healthy eating habits and recipes with my students, and partnered with a parent liaison to share opportunities for summer camp scholarships with families. Schools obviously play an important role in the education and development of a child. However, the more communities, schools and families work together, the stronger outcomes we will achieve with our youth.