In the process of drafting my own post about parent participation in education, I received this note from a parent who is very involved in education.  It spoke so well from the parent perspective and from a parent who has committed years of volunteer time helping students, schools, and other parents navigate and participate in the education system (over 15 years).  Mary-Lou VanBerkel has been involved with schools, school councils, and her school board’s Parent Involvement Committee (London District Catholic School Board).  She has been in the role of both parent member and chair on those councils.  She is also involved in many local and provincial initiatives.  She is a valued member in a network group of parents in Ontario.  She hopes to be using Twitter soon, but for now and with her permission, I wanted to share her words and perspective:

Parent Engagement:  A dinner invite or potluck?

By Mary-Lou VanBerkel, Chair, Parent Involvement Committee. LDCSB

The difference between involvement and engagement can be summed up as the difference between a community dinner and a potluck.

At the dinner you buy a ticket, you show up, and you eat a nice meal prepared by a committee based on a menu selected by a committee and that is the end – I am involved in the meal.

At the potluck, everyone is essential and everyone is needed. Each person brings the best they have to offer to share with the community and the result is usually an abundance of food and a very rich sampling of many cultures and many cuisines- I am engaged in the meal.

What is the difference to those participating? At the first one, if I do not show up no one really cares – I bought my ticket so they have the money and my commitment is less. I am not a part of the process of planning or preparing and I risk the chance that what they serve is nothing I can eat, or even want to.

At the second meal, I am a required person. If I do not show up with the roast beef everyone will be left with gravy and buns for supper. I am essential to the event and everyone is welcome to bring the best they have to offer. My commitment is much more significant, because without me it is not the same event. I feel I belong to the community and the community misses me if I do not show up. The potluck requires everyone to work and the result is richer, better, it feeds more people, satisfies every palette…etc.

So as leaders we should be looking for ways to facilitate engagement – like the potluck. When we make parents feel needed, like their offering has a place at the table and when we exclaim oh, my, what a delicious casserole, the chef feels proud and encouraged to make more next time. Their children feel the pride of their parent and feel a greater sense of belonging. We need to try to include many roles, many opportunities to participate in all events. Although the objective may appear to be the end result – the meal – in fact it is the process which is most important. It is the process that engages and creates the
sense of community and partnership that sees student achievement supported. It is the process that builds the relationship between parent and school, child and learning.

It is not a success just because lots of people showed up – it is a success if many people were involved in the planning and the presenting.

In receiving a recent new Parent Engagement guide developed by provincial principal groups, I feel like I got a church supper. It was prepared and planned by someone else, and even if I enjoyed the meal, my commitment to the concepts within, is lack luster. Had I been a partner I would share the responsibility, I would be engaged in the promotion and would be excited about the system.  I would have a sense that I belonged and that my contribution and I were valued – now I feel like I went to a decent lecture. A great opportunity to share some interesting cuisine and hear some interesting and diverse perspectives was missed. Too bad, because it could have been great instead of just pretty good.

Sometimes leadership looks more like facilitation – our leaders need to learn the difference.