Last summer I was part of a panel discussion with several other teachers. As it was winding down, the moderator asked us one final question. “What would you say is the most important factor impacting student learning?” Each panelist said something about class size, funding, standards, blah, blah, blah.
I got to go last. “The most important factor, as far as I’m concerned,” I said, “Is the extent to which we as teachers are able to work effectively with our students’ families.”
I still think that’s true.
And that’s not just my opinion. According to research, students whose families are involved in their learning earn better grades, enroll in more high-level programs, have better graduation rates and are more likely to go to college. They also display more positive attitudes toward school and behave better, both in and away from school.
If you’re a teacher, this doesn’t surprise you. And if you’re like me, you’ve probably said something like, “Hey, we have curriculum night in September, conferences in October and Open House in May. I grade papers and send them home with comments. I also have my kids get their parent’s signature on their homework. I’m doing my job. I can’t help it if parents don’t do theirs.” If I had a candy bar for every time I’ve said something like this, I’d spend a lot of time at the dentist.
Speaking of which, I was recently at the dentist’s. While lying back in my recliner (having a surprising amount of stuff removed from my teeth) I got to thinking about the commonalities between patients going to the dentist’s office and parents partnering with their children’s school. I came up with four similarities.
1. Shared Goals: In both situations, all parties have the same ultimate goal. I’ve always been impressed by how upset my dentist gets when he finds cavities. It’s like he takes it personally; as though he’s dedicated his life to the pursuit of healthy teeth. And although you wouldn’t know it by watching me snack, I actually share that same goal: I really don’t want to end up in dentures.
The same goes for teaching. In all my 27 years as a teacher, I have never once come across a parent who didn’t want their child to succeed in school. They may not always act on that goal, but they really do want their children to graduate from high school with an opportunity to go to college. This is extremely important and should form the foundation of our partnerships with students’ families.
2. Discomfort: Most of us, when we go to the dentist, feel uncomfortable. And it’s not just because a person we barely know is operating small power tools in our mouths. It has more to do with having that person discover something about us that we’d rather keep to ourselves. Like the fact that we haven’t owned floss since the Clinton Administration, or that we spent most of last weekend eating Milk Duds.
Likewise, when many parents talk to teachers, they feel uncomfortable. First of all, a lot of those parents don’t have great memories of their time in school. Maybe they struggled academically. Maybe they got in trouble a lot. Maybe they had bad teachers. More importantly, though, parents worry about we think about their parenting. After all, they’ve seen their children at their absolute worse. They’ve seen the tantrums, the misbehavior, the disrespect; all of it. They may have the best intentions of getting their kids to read every night, yet have trouble consistently following through. They are, after all, human. And just like you and I are worried about the dentist finding evidence of those Milk Duds, they worry that we’ve seen evidence of their parental shortcomings. They worry about our judgment, which is exactly why we need to be non-judgmental and as welcoming and friendly as humanly possible, not necessarily out of consideration for the parents, but for the benefit of their children.
3. Inertia by default: Good dentists probably realize that their patients will not voluntarily begin a more ambitious home-care regimen. Inertia is the default setting. People generally take care of their teeth in the morning, when they’re in a hurry, and at night, when they’re about to go to sleep. These are not the times when people get creative. These are the times when people fall back on established habits, hoping that what they’re doing is good enough. Good dentists take it upon themselves to help their patients initiate productive home care.
Likewise, most parental activity generally happens when all parties are exhausted. Just like you and me, parents come home tired at the end of the day. So do their children. Everyone in the house is in the mood for relaxation. If it’s 7:30 on a Thursday evening in November, most parents aren’t wondering how to better support their kids’ education. They’re assuming (or hoping) that what they’re already doing is adequate. If we don’t provide direction and advice for how our parents can follow up with our instruction and support their children after school, who do we think will do that for us?
4. There’s an expert in the house: My dentist went to college longer than I did. He knows how to use all those little tools. But most importantly, he has the expertise and experience to look at the evidence and make sound decisions about what he should do and what I need to do.
We’re the experts in our house. We have the training. We know how to teach. We also know how to look at evidence in our students’ work, and how to use that evidence to form our lesson plans and the work we do in our classroom.
Most importantly, we have the experience to understand how that student work fits into the context of what other students are doing or have done. Parents, of course, see that same student work, but they lack the context in which we see it. For all they know, the papers that come home in their kid’s backpack are perfectly adequate. Maybe they are, but maybe they aren’t. It’s our job to communicate to parents not only what work their children are doing, but to provide the necessary context for that work.
In about six weeks, I’ll begin working with a brand new set of students. That means I’ll be working with a brand new set of families, and it’s my capacity to work with those families that will make or break what I do with those students in my classroom. My goal this coming school year is to be as good at teaching as my dentist is at dentistry. But here’s the thing: I can have the best dentist in the world (and my guy’s pretty good), but still have lousy teeth if I don’t take care of them when I get home. By the same token, I can teach the best lessons in the world to my students, but if I don’t establish a solid working relationship with their parents, I’m not doing the rest of my job.
-I’m going to call each family at least two times before curriculum night to extend a personal invitation. For those who don’t show up, I will set up a home visit.
-In addition to my usual Monday-through-Thursday homework paper which requires their signature, I will assign homework on Friday that involves student-parent collaboration.
-From time to time, I will also send home anonymous examples of excellent student work so parents can see what we’re shooting for.
-Finally, I will contact each parent by phone at least twice a month for a simple, two-way chat on their child’s progress.
And I’m also gonna floss.