I often hear the reference to “parent leaders” in education. Like many terms and roles in education, it could mean different things in different districts.
In a previous post of mine (Where does a parent fit in effective change in education?), I asked a few questions about parent leaders:
“… if a parent is considered a “parent leader”, what can/should that mean? Are they only leading parents? Helping the voices and input of other parents? Does it mean they are focused on supporting changes in education or supporting “student success” (however that might be defined). Can these focuses be one and the same, or how are they different? And lastly, are parent leaders leading parents or ideas? If they are leading ideas or change, who can follow? Just parents, or other stakeholders? Who can benefit?”
It is not clear to me what defines a parent leader. Are they leaders if they are championing an organization’s goal or agenda? The “place” for parents in general is an on-going debate in education, and it may be that the place and role for parent leaders isn’t any clearer.
In some districts, parent engagement has also been extended to include the idea of choice, or as being a force in addressing low-performing schools. This is described as “parent trigger”. Larry Ferlazzo (@Larryferlazzo) has compiled a list of readings that help explain the drawbacks of “parent trigger”. I also don’t see this as parent engagement, or that which requires parent leadership. I don’t think many parents are interested in such “taking over” or having a direct responsibility for school performance. However, I often wonder… if parents feel they don’t have a place for their voice and input, does this push the desire for more school choice? I do understand a parent feeling they have a right to their decisions regarding their child.
In my contact and interaction with parents (through organized groups as well as in my work with newcomer adults who are parents) the focus and need is mostly to understand and navigate the education system. Whether it is to understand how they can advocate for their own child and/or all students, it all has its place to me. They don’t always want parenting advice, which I reflected about here.
There are many parents who have spent much time supporting other parents with these kinds of questions and efforts. I invited a few to write guest posts on my blog here and here. I know that there are also many trustees who help parents in these ways as well. It can take a lot of time, patience, and commitment. But I think many parents and trustees continue to do it because they value parent voice in advocating for students, and they are willing to help bring more informed voices “to the table”. There is often talk about engaging the broader community, but it is often parents with children in school who are most motivated to advocate for change. Joe Bower (@Joe_Bower) recently blogged about how parents can take a role in change that can take on a different approach compared to other stakeholders.
There may be valid concerns about “volunteer” parents providing support and leadership for other parents, but what would be a better alternative? Parents often need to connect with other parents – they learn from each other too. Can trustees or hired parent engagement co-ordinators still provide the same rapport, support and leadership compared to volunteer parents or parent leaders? It is often said that it has to be “about” the students, but I still believe that there is support of parents by parents that does lead to good outcomes for students. How are engaged and passionate parents in education guided and included to be a part of solutions and problem-solving? What is appropriate?
How has a volunteer parent/leader been an asset to your school community or district, or to other parents who want to make a difference in a collaborative way with staff and stakeholders?