This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Right now schools throughout the city are hosting back-to-school nights. At these events, parents and teachers are provided with the opportunity to meet one another for the first time. This occasion, in addition to report conference nights, is usually the only time that most parents will have face-to-face contact with their children’s teachers.
Educators are well aware that when parents are positively involved in their children’s schooling, they have a strong effect on their children’s academic performance.
To increase the likelihood of engaging them in the activities of the school community, schools typically provide parents with a variety of volunteer opportunities during the school day. Teachers request parents to chaperone class trips. They invite them to special classroom events and school assemblies. School concerts and award assemblies are scheduled throughout the year to encourage parents to come to school. These are but a few of the many ways in which a school’s staff might attempt to engage with parents.
During the course of the school year some parents will go on class trips, attend special events, and maybe even help out in a classroom. But in many urban schools, these folks are usually few in number. The majority of these schools’ parents have little direct contact with the staff. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they are not involved or supportive of their children’s school. They either have jobs that they cannot easily get away from or they cannot afford to take time off from work.
Working parents often participate in their child’s education in ways they are not easily observable to the school staff:
- At the end of the day, they will ask their children what happened during the school day.
- They will check on their children’s homework. Involved parents will talk to their children concerning the importance of school.
- They will be supportive of their children’s teachers.
When I was a teacher I didn’t have much face-to-face contact with parents. Most of the communication that I did have with a child’s parents took place through notes and phone calls. When I met with a parent at a time other than on back-to-school night or report conferences, the meetings usually concerned children who were seriously misbehaving or receiving failing grades. During my 18 years as a classroom teacher, the parents I had the most contact with were the parents of these struggling children. Many of these meetings were stressful and emotionally draining affairs.
As the principal of Meade Elementary School, most of my interactions with parents were focused on dealing with problems. Usually the people I met with during the year were either pursuing a complaint or responding to my request to see them in regards to their children’s inappropriate behavior. Many of these meetings were less than pleasant.
Since Meade has consistently had a high rate of transient students, during the course of the school year, I would additionally meet with the caregivers of the students who were newly admitted to the school.
Every year at least 70 new children would transfer into Meade School from other schools. Many of these new children were in the midst of a major life setback such as homelessness, placement in foster care, or the separation of their parents. Parent conferences with these families were seldom short. Usually they would involve the school counselor, school community liaison, nurse, and quite often the special education liaison. In the principal’s office, you often see parents at some of the worst times of their day.
Unfortunately, in these kinds of circumstances teachers and principals can easily lose sight of the positive contributions of most parents. School personnel need to be mindful that they often have limited opportunities to interact with their total parent community. We must be careful to not make unfavorable judgments of all parents based on our experiences with a fairly small subset of parents. When dealing with difficult parents, it is our responsibility and our challenge to avoid letting our resulting frustrations adversely color our view of all parents.
Parents are our partners after all. It is our job as educators to assist them in their efforts to secure a quality education for their children. We have a responsibility to be there for them as well as for their children.