Replay: Parental involvement more complex than we think?

This combined post first appeared in TeachMoore Jan. 21 & 25, 2007. I share it again as my TLN colleagues are addressing parental involvement over at the Teaching Ahead roundtable at Teacher Magazine. Join the conversation.

Educators and administrators across the country are wringing their hands and shaking their fingers over the need for “more parental involvement in our public schools.” But what exactly do we educators mean by “parental involvement”? There are at least three possible scenarios:

#1. Send us your child. Clean. Well-dressed. Fed. Disciplined. Obedient. Eager to learn. Cooperative (and preferably already reading, counting, and computer literate). In 12 years (give or take a few months), we’ll send the little darling back to you ready to use that college trust fund.

#2. Come to school when we call you and deal with your child (this usually means there is a disciplinary problem); send money, supplies, science fair project boards, and your signature when required. You may come on parent night or to special events.

Then there’s another possibility.

#3. The parent who thinks public education means the public gets to run it. The parent who wants to approve lesson plans, classroom rules, and the reading list. The parent who questions the necessity and logic of homework or class assignments. The parent who demands to see credentials, has a copy of the curriculum guide, and highlights the school’s published report card, noting deficiencies. The parent who has the principal’s cell phone number, and the school board president’s on speed dial. The parent who visits the classroom frequently, and stays. The parent who never misses PTA meeting and always has questions, suggestions, or criticisms for the staff.

When I hear fellow educators lamenting the lack of parental involvement and blaming parents for not supporting their children’s education, I wonder which of the scenarios they’d wish to see instead? There are some places where meaningful parental involvement is routine. In those places where it is not, there are reasons–and some of those reasons are us. If we had genuine parental involvement from the majority of our parents, how many of us could really take the pressure?

Some of the best and brightest students I have ever taught had parents who were not just dysfunctional; they were dangerous. Conversely, some of the lowest performing students I have seen had parents who were passionately interested in their education.

Larry was one of the most naturally intelligent and engaging youngsters I have ever taught. He was also terror in the hallways at our high school. He loved to write, absorbed books by the dozens, and generated questions at light speed. Parental involvement? Larry’s mother deliberately put rat poison in his food,”To teach him a lesson because he was eatin’ too much food from the other children.”

Cinque, another amazing young African American student, had earned one of the highest scores ever at our school on the ACT. Halfway into his senior year, we learned that his mother had packed up his youngest siblings and left him and a younger brother to fend for themselves. They lived in a dilapidated trailer in an extremely rural area. Cinque had been paying the bills and maintaining the home for two months before anyone found out they were living alone.

Tonisha finished high school in the top 10 of her class, with scholarship offers from several major colleges. Her freshman year, her mother and stepfather slipped off one night and moved out-of-state leaving Tonisha and her two brothers asleep at an aunt’s house. Tonisha slept on a cot in the kitchen for the next three years, and stayed awake most nights to fend off her drug-addict uncle.

The list goes on and on.

Still, all students need support. They need and deserve teachers who are genuinely concerned about them, their lives, and their academic progress. Students also need other adults around to encourage them and to push (or pull) them through the rough places.

I grew up with an incredible and extended network of supportive adults. In fact, I cannot remember any adult ever using the word if when discussing my future; it was always, when you finish college…when you become a professional. It distressed me that so many of my students would not have that kind of wonderful nurturing and encouragement.

One technique I developed to help give all my students the opportunity to experience that kind of support was a classroom mentoring program. At the beginning of the school year, I required each student to choose a significant adult to be his/her mentor for our English class for the entire year.  This could be the parent(s), but it did not have to be. The primary requirements were that the person be:  a) an adult over 21 years of age;  b) someone the student respected highly;  c) someone who really cared whether the student finished high school. One of the first writing assignments of the school year was to draft a personal letter to that person asking him/her to be a mentor.

Over the several years I used that process, the results were always overwhelmingly positive. Grandparents, pastors, coaches, Scout leaders, Head Start teachers, all came to serve as stand-in parents. There were always a couple of students who could not think of any adult they believed would be their mentor. For them, I always had a set of colleagues and community volunteers on call.  I communicated regularly with the mentors about student progress, and at the end of the year, we would hold an event for the students. I did not give up on communicating and trying to work with the parents as well, but having that additional adult was beneficial in so many ways.  Some of the working parents were especially grateful that there was another adult who could help their son or daughter, or come to school events.

Many things can hinder effective parental involvement; not the least of which is the unwelcoming attitudes of educators or the limits we put on when and how we want parental input. The best teachers cultivate strong ties with parents and communities. I would love to hear from some of you, teachers and parents, who have had positive home-school relationships on how that was done.

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