I have been noticing the last couple of weeks that there is a new chill in the air, and I have had to wear a jacket in the morning.  I have to let my car warm up a bit to defrost the windows, and honestly it seems as though the pumpkin spice and apple cider came a bit too early this year. (I love apple cider, don’t get me wrong!)  Fall ushers in sweater weather, homecoming games and dances, bonfires, hot cocoa, Halloween, and…parent-teacher conferences. 

The only one of those that should be scary is Halloween.  Parent-teacher conferences are a great way to make connections and partner with the families of students.  I remember my first year teaching when it was time for parent-teacher conferences.  I was terrified…What if they didn’t like me?  What if I am not doing a good job? How do I know if I am doing a good job?  The most important lesson that I learned that year is that both families and teachers are just people who have the same interests in helping students to be successful.  I wondered if other teachers had the same fears and experiences I had, and I began to research family engagement and educational success.

In my searching, I found Dr. Karen Mapp who has extensively researched that very topic.  She is a senior lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and has been researching the relationship between schools and families for over 20 years.  In the article “Last Year Was a Wake-up Call:  Family Engagement after COVID-19” by Kate Stoltzfus, Dr. Mapp articulated that because of the pandemic the way that schools and families communicate has been forever changed for the better.  Here is a video of Dr. Mapp talking about the importance of linking family engagement to learning.

This video had one statement that struck me, schools want to do better and families want to connect.  They just don’t know how, and the capacity has to be built. Dr. Mapp states the components of effective family and school partnership initiatives are:

  • Relational
  • Interactive
  • Collaborative
  • Developmental
  • Linked to Learning

If you are interested in a deeper dive into how to engage families, Illinois Online Academy has the course Building Meaningful Partnerships:  Connecting Schools, Families, and Communities.

Many school districts have programs to build the capacity of families to engage with the school.  In my experience, the same cannot be said for teaching teachers how to engage with families. At least, there was no class in my educator preparation program. If you are like me though, you may be interested in little things that you can incorporate into your practice regularly to change the family and teacher dynamic. It is important to remember that family engagement is crucial preK-12, so don’t forget to keep doing these practices at the secondary level. Here are some quick wins that you can start in your classroom right away.  

  • The beginning of the school year or semester:
    • Send a welcome email to all families.  
    • Encourage frequent communication and welcome feedback.
  • Every week:
    • Begin a practice of calling or emailing families with positive news.
    • Have a weekly method of communication to all families that can involve celebrations, curriculum, resources for families, and special messages.
    • Consider using a Family Playlist. Having students explain certain problems to their families and giving a short survey that could be created in Google Forms is a great way to check family engagement.
  • At an open house or curriculum night:
    • Have families engage in activities that students will be doing in the classroom.  This will help them to build their capacity to be actively involved in helping their students to be successful.  This also helps parents to make connections to other parents.
    • Provide additional resources and support for families that request more.
  • At parent-teacher conferences:
    • Listen first, then talk.
    • Consider using student portfolios or student-led conferences.
    • Provide resources for families to help their students at home.
    • Help families to understand that they are partners with you in the education of students and provide them ways to have a voice in the education of their students.
  • At the end of the year:
    • Thank families for their partnership.
    • Have students write a reflective letter to their family about their experience.

No matter where you are in your teaching career, it is important to continue to build positive relationships with families.  Do you have strategies that you use?  What have you found to be successful for your students?  Please join in the conversation by tagging us @KaneCountyROE.

Raven Szalkowski – Professional Learning Coordinator

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