Celebrate Family Engagement All Year Round
Our guest author is Sarah Johnson, a practicing public school educator in Saint Paul, Minnesota. She has taught in elementary classrooms, coached new teachers as a Peer Assistance and Review consulting teacher, served as an Academic Content Coach, led professional development on School, Family, and Community Partnerships and helped launch the Parent Teacher Home Visit project in Saint Paul Public Schools.
It’s October. For some that means apple orchards, leaf viewing, and pumpkin spice. For educators, it also brings Parent Teacher conferences . . and a dread of all the candy and unbridled enthusiasm for that last day of the month, but that’s a different blog. Over the years I’ve seen educators approach conferences with a variety of perspectives and approaches: some excited to update families on the new learning, some worried about how families might respond to a concern, and some exhausted from the preparation and longs days. Thankfully, it’s quite rare that some take Ted Lasso’s view, shared when he met Rebecca’s mom, “Boy, I love meeting people’s moms. It’s like reading an instruction manual as to why they’re nuts.”
During my 29 years as an educator in various roles in Saint Paul Public Schools, the approach I have learned is that meaningful family partnerships* are integral to student success. Cory Jones, one of the founding teachers of Parent Teacher Home Visits explains it like this, “With a great curriculum, with a great teacher, if you leave out the home the results for that individual student will be lower.” He’s right, families and schools need to be on the same team. This October, I’d like to encourage educators to take this parent-teacher season and challenge themselves to create opportunities for meaningful family engagement year-round. If you’re an educator leading a system instead of leading a classroom, then I challenge you to find ways of supporting and structuring these opportunities year-round as well.
My learning and commitment to meaningful family engagement began a few years in to my teaching career. I had an experience that impacted me immensely. It was the end of the school year and I was both exhausted and feeling sad about saying goodbye to my kindergarten class. I walked back in the classroom to find a very kind note from a parent with whom there had been a lot of tension for most of the year. “Thank you for truly caring about my son,” I read. My eyes got quite misty, because I promise you that is not how the conversations from September to March sounded. The child needed more help than a typical kindergartner and more than my beginning teacher skills could handle, so I reached out to the home for help. Initially, I was met with resistance and blame. Sometime around spring break our relationship shifted, a testimony to both of our persistence and shared goal. We had a wonderful end of the school year as we partnered together for her son. We had built trust in each other. Yet, as I read her kind note, all I could think about was the months we missed out on. Then I wondered how first grade would go, and if she and that teacher would be able to partner with each other, too. Like any reflective practitioner, I asked myself what I could do differently to build trusting relationships with families and how might it happen earlier in the school year. That question led to a lot of different answers, attempts, successes, and failures. Thank goodness I am an educator and know that making mistakes is an essential part of the learning process. There are two evidence-based approaches that have helped change and strengthen my practice. They have led to stronger family partnerships as well as better academic and social/emotional outcomes for students.
Home visits, following the Parent Teacher Home Visits model founded in Sacramento, are probably the most impactful practice I have added to my teaching repertoire. It’s a simple concept: ask a family if they would be willing to have you over for a short visit, during the visit you get to know each other better, share your hopes for the school year, and name any expectations you may have of each other. That simple visit brings so many rewards. Ages ago, I was a gymnastics coach, so the analogy of a springboard comes to mind. A home visit launches the possibility for such a meaningful partnership with two-way communication. No more, “I sent an email and they didn’t respond” or “if only the families that need to would show up.” Home visits open the communication stream AND challenge any deficit based thinking you may be carrying about families. Home visits give you an opportunity to see the inherent strengths in each family and the deep support system a child has from their first and life-long teachers. You discover little pieces of their lives outside of school, which in turn help you connect the curriculum to their lived experience—talk about culturally relevant teaching—partnering like this is priceless! I have found that after a home visit, both parties are more likely to reach out to share a concern, ask a question, or celebrate a win.
Academic Parent Teacher Teams
A few years later, while attending an event sponsored by my local union, I heard a parent, Karinda Anderson, share her experience with Academic Parent Teacher Teams, an innovative form of conferences. When she shared how APTT transformed her experience from being an involved parent who showed up to school for all of the events, yet whose child was struggling academically to a parent who now knows how to help her child practice key skills at home, I knew I needed to learn more. The concept of Academic Parent Teacher Teams was developed by Maria Paredes in 2009. The practice focuses on key grade level standards, collecting data, and family teacher collaboration. It also allows for families to connect and builds a deeper community in your classroom and school. In truth, it reminded me of an Early Childhood Family Education meeting on steroids. I just had my first APTT meeting of the year last week. Some of the highlights: families exchanging phone numbers for play dates, an interpreter helping a parent share with another parent that her daughter finds their son to be a fun soccer playmate, families asking questions about the specific skills students need, a few brave parents volunteering to demonstrate a math game, and a parent staying behind late and asking me if I could just practice it with her and her child one more time so she makes sure she gets it right. Although I arrived home exhausted that night and wishing the next day was a weekend, my heart was so full. I can’t wait to see the learning that happens for my students this year. I know, based on the experiences I have had with APTT over four years, that it will be great!
When I talk about these practices, I’ve heard people say, “that’s because you’re such an amazing teacher” (and by people, I mean my mom and dad). I think it’s important to note that I didn’t conjure up those good ideas on my own. I found them through connections I made in my national union, the American Federation of Teachers professional development (AFT PD) and through colleagues at my local union, the Saint Paul Federation of Educators, or SPFE. Recognizing my passion for family engagement, my local union sent me to a train the trainer course for AFT PD where I experienced an intensive eight-day research based course defining parent engagement and outlining best practices. Next, in 2010 my local union president introduced me to a colleague who also was passionate about collaboration within the community. He had learned about the Parent Teacher Home Visit Project at a conference he attended. We joined forces with some amazing educators and parents, to bring this version of home visits to Saint Paul, MN. Since then, my union has consistently partnered with our local school district to create both a sustainable program and contract language that supports its continued existence and growth in Saint Paul Public Schools. Because of my union’s commitment to professional development and bargaining for the greater good, educators in Saint Paul are now offered the opportunity to receive training, support, and remuneration for both Home Visits and Academic Parent Teacher Teams and with collaboration from Saint Paul Public Schools Office of Family Engagement. Even more importantly for the student and adult learning process, written into the contract is that educators who choose these practices meet twice yearly to debrief. In these sessions we celebrate the joys, learn from the mistakes, and make plans to deepen the work. Our practices continue to evolve based on feedback from families and educators.
So, while October has historically been filled with parent teacher conferences, I celebrate family engagement all year and my challenge to leaders in and out of classrooms is to join me. Let’s prioritize the work that needs to happen so all teachers and families have ongoing opportunities to communicate and work together for the success of our children.
* Notice, I said family partnerships. Not only does the term parent engagement exclude those caregivers who are not parents, it also limits the broader family support system our children come to school with. I’d like for individual educators as well as education systems to get curious about other ways to partner successfully with families.