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The 2004–2005 MetLife Survey of the American Teacher found that new teachers consider engaging and working with parents as their greatest challenge and the area they were least prepared to manage during their 1st year.
Julia Johnson Rothenberg and Peter McDermott, professors at the Sage Colleges School of Education, write:
Given the ambivalence of many schools toward parent engagement, it is vital that novice teachers develop the ability to work with families while being mentored during their teacher preparation programs. Our interest in parents' involvement in their children's education began during our study of good teachers in urban schools. We had identified teachers who consistently provided best practices and noticed that working with parents was the area they consistently found disagreeable and in fact, avoided. They told us that as children progressed through the elementary grades, their parents became progressively less involved and more negative. We wondered if parents shared these views.
We formed a parent focus group and found that parents overwhelmingly expressed distrust toward the local elementary school because they felt the faculty has been biased against African American and Latino children and their families. Consequently, the parents said they deliberately decided not to participate in school activities. Parents explained they would only work with teachers who respected and valued their children.
We soon began to implement strategies in our course work to help novice teachers in working with parents. We have found that in order for novice teachers to implement strategies in their classrooms, they must do so before they have their own classes. So we built several parent components into their 125 hours of required practica. Assignments included meeting with the parents of their practica students, routinely beginning conferences with positive news about the children, attending an event within the neighborhoods of their students (something rarely done by local public school teachers), interviewing parents for their views about goals and dreams for their children, finding (or using available) translators, and developing a regular newsletter for parents. Our novice teachers simply accepted these as assignments, and usually enjoyed doing them.
Supervising teachers often found these assignments an annoyance, telling our novice teachers they would be unsuccessful and would only stir up trouble. In fact, parents were very receptive, especially to newsletters and visits to the neighborhood. The novice teachers also found these contacts to be enjoyable and productive for the children. We found that novice teachers became far more appreciative of children's home cultures, which we had also found by having our novice teachers work in the neighborhood projects. Insights included surprising areas of parental support and the astounding thought that the ability to speak two languages was a positive factor for children, rather than always a limitation for new immigrants. As one student said, “Foreign exchange students are praised for attempting English, but Central American or Puerto Rican immigrants are said to have limited language.”
These interactions require hard and constant work. New teachers need to learn a variety of strategies and skills to involve urban parents in their children's education, including the ability to communicate clearly and sensitively with adults of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Methods course work should provide opportunities for prospective teachers to learn how to write effective notes, letters, and newsletters to families. They should learn conversational strategies that focus on children's positive qualities as well as identify ways they might grow and be helped at home. These are all gestures that may help break social and ethnic barriers and foster understanding and respect between family and schools.
Julia Johnson Rothenberg Ph.D.
Professor, School of Education
The Sage Colleges
Troy, NY 12180
Peter McDermott Ph.D.
Professor, School of Education
The Sage Colleges
Troy, NY 12180
Read more about the study in Why Urban Parents Resist Involvement in Their Children's Elementary Education.
Anne T. Henderson from NYU writes:
Whether and how well teachers engage their students' families depends more on the culture of the school where they work than on their training. Is it a fortress school, bent on protecting itself from “outsiders,” or a partnership school, that supports productive relationships with families? Teachers must be able to be leaders. If they enter a poorly performing school, they must know how to work with their colleagues, parents, and community members to improve it.
With this in mind, I recommend three key points for teacher preparation programs:
1. Make sure teachers understand that engaging families is a vital part of their job, and why. The research is clear that students with involved families tend to do better in school, stay in school longer, and go on to post-secondary education. If teachers engage families children will do better, and if they don't (and this is important), children will do worse. It's not a choice.
2. Build strategies for engaging families and working with community groups into every course prospective teachers take. Develop a good methods course, too, and don't make it optional. Give them useful, practical tools to do this job.
3. Establish a relationship with a local school that works well with families and help it do even better. Make sure every prospective teacher spends time there, experiences the benefits, and sees, first hand, how it's done.
Anne T. Henderson
Institute for Education and Social Policy
New York University
1640 Roxanna Road, NW
Washington, DC 20012
Dorothy Rich from the Home and School Institute writes:
We need academies to provide in-service and preservice training in school and family/community involvement. It's harder to change schools of education, even though some education leaders are trying. Academies could operate on a team concept and include teachers, school district staff, state education department staff, teacher educators, parent leaders. The goal will be to enable these teams to provide training on site directly in communities across the nation. We have successful models for this kind of initiative. Now, we need the support to make it happen more widely.
Home and School Institute
MegaSkills Education Center
1500 Massachusetts Avenue NW
Washington, D.C. 20005
Sue Ferguson from the National Coalition of Parent Involvement in Education writes:
Very little is done on the preservice or in-service level to provide teachers with greater understanding and skills needed to effectively teach students from cultural backgrounds different from their own, or to recognize cultural and economic factors that may influence family-school dynamics. Existing professional development programs and courses seldom address cultural and class differences in relationship to their impact in the classroom or home-school interactions. If fact, even having teachers confront their own prejudice toward other races, lifestyles, and economic class is almost unheard of. Yet the power of such prejudice “tracks” kids and their families, keeping academic expectations low and families at arms length. Professional development programs need to develop multiple strategies to provide teachers with tools to successfully break through these barriers. Resources such as the Public Education Network and Public Agenda report Quality Now! Results of National Conversations on Education and Race as well as emerging research from the Poverty and Race Research Action Council can provide invaluable knowledge and information. Programs must embed these subjects within the curricula and create ongoing opportunities for discussion. Family/school/community field experiences emphasizing diversity must also be relentlessly pursued.
National Coalition for Parent Involvement in Education
Nancy Chavkin, Professor at Southwest Texas State University, writes:
We don't prepare people in education for a broad conceptualization of the whole child. We teach them about very specific areas; we teach them to work alone and not as team members. Even if we do prepare them, when they get into the real world, the school's not set up for them to do that. There is a very weak policy about parent involvement in many schools. There's still a lot of rhetoric and parent involvement is not well supported.
Professor and Co-Director
Center for Children and Families
Southwest Texas State University
San Marcos, Texas
Joyce Epstein, Director of the Center on School, Family & Community Partnerships, writes:
Family-school partnership is really a very immature field of study compared to other aspects of education. People talk about thirty years of research and that's very young in terms of a research enterprise. There must be an investment for research over the next ten years, and how to develop this infrastructure in colleges and universities will be an interesting and challenging task.
Center on School, Family & Community Partnerships
Johns Hopkins University
Gord Kerr, Founder of the Ontario School Council Support Centre, writes:
People involved in the Ontario school council system are still learning how to make them work for maximum possible advantage. School council members have not had training in the more advanced responsibility of improving student learning. Without guidance, involved parents will slip back into their “comfort zones” and school councils will continue to struggle to move beyond the more traditional roles of parent groups. The way forward appears to involve a focus on learning for school council participants, principals, and teaching professionals.
Ontario School Council Support Centre