Warning: Longer post – but communication is complex 🙂

I have made the statement regarding parent engagement that opportunity for 2-way communication often IS the engagement.  I believe that parent engagement in education cannot happen without good communication.  When I say communication, I don’t just mean the kind of communication that is limited to online reporting of student performance to parents. I recently read about a Parent Portal:

“The application, called Parent Portal, makes an extraordinary amount of information available to parents. It shows students’ grades, attendance records and notes from their teachers on how they are performing. Parents can exchange private messages with teachers. The information is updated weekly.”

Although important information and there was an option for an exchange of private messages between parents and teachers, I tweeted this link with, “There is so much more to parent engagement”.  I also think there is so much more to communicating with parents, specifically, the kind of communication that sustains dialogue and relationships.  A response post by Myrdin Thompson (@MyrdinJT) well addresses the possible reasons for the lack of use of this Parent Portal.  Chris Wejr (@ChrisWejr) has also written about the “with” of communication here.

It is no secret that parent-teacher interaction can often be difficult.  The perceptions of this are captured quite well in this article.  It also has some good advice and there are many other helpful resources for communication with parents.  For example, this podcast was worth a thorough listen (Thanks, Donna Fry (@fryed), for drawing my attention to it).  The panel discussion captured an honest and candid account of the barriers to communication, but also identified many practical suggestions and strategies to overcome biases of both parents and teachers.  Rather than putting family engagement in the light as just “another thing” and a burden on time, it had some positive messages about how it serves to alleviate some burdens related to learning and behaviour, and thus time.  I thought it had a lot to offer in terms of shifting the mindset of doing TO parents to doing WITH parents, while still honouring the unique roles of both teachers and parents that can lead to agreed upon outcomes and partnering as a team.  I particularly liked the mention of including goals around parent outreach in the school improvement plan with emphasis on identifying the goals and strategies in consideration of the school’s families.  One participant also mentioned the value of engaging parents in the big picture issues and goals in education.

Many parents will only have time to focus on the more immediate needs of their own child(ren).  Many others will be interested in school community information and district directions, as well as wanting to be informed about the broader, bigger picture of education.  How should these different communication needs be met?

A U.S. national survey by the National School Public Relations Association (2011) pinpointed communication preferences in school communication.   Among many interesting findings, I found it interesting that it was reported that respondents felt less informed about statewide issues impacting education.  (39% believed they were pretty well informed or very well informed.)

In Ontario, the 2012 survey of school councils coordinated by People for Education included a look at communication between parents and “the system”:

“Parents need information about their individual children’s education, but according to an extensive consultation conducted by the provincial government, they also want regular updates about the education system as a whole – about how the system works, who is responsible for what, how education is funded, and what the appropriate channels are to address specific concerns” (People for Education 2012 Report on Ontario School Councils, p. 9; citing the Parent Voice in Education Project, 2005).

The 2012 data revealed that school councils were notified about education policy changes in various ways – 82% received notification from their principals “always” or “often”; 53% heard from the school board; 27% from the Ministry of Education; 47% from the board level Parent Involvement Committees (which a parent chairs and membership must have a parent majority).

A recent U.S. survey about student engagement also generated a few blog responses.  Jeff Cobb, for one, discussed the findings and questions about the survey and also made reference to parent engagement:

“Second, parents – as always – need to be highly aware of the impact Education (with a capital “E”) as an institution can end up having on intrinsic motivation to learn. None of us want disengagement to be the result, of course, and I have no doubt that the average teacher works hard to keep students engaged. Still, when you move so many people through a large system, a certain amount of disengagement seems inevitable. Parental engagement in maintaining engagement and cultivating lifelong learning is essential.” (his bold)

I often read such statements about parent engagement, but I am often left unsure about the “how to go about facilitating” these expectations of parents.  How do parents become more “highly aware”, or more informed both about their role and the broader issues and directions of education that affect their children?  We can’t expect all to and there may be disagreement if they really need to be.  But then what?  Does that mean we don’t work with who is interested? Is it okay to “work with who you get”?  Is there a framework or structure that ensures the appropriate place and balance of parents engaged and informed at the school and district level?  I sense frustration when parents are too involved, or when they are not the “expected” parents, and then I also sense frustration that uninformed parents may be a barrier to progressive change in education.  I hear that we have to be inclusive of all parents, but then I often see barriers to the efforts to reach out and inform broader.  How often are the engaged parents we may need most disengaged through practice and bias?

In the podcast, one participant stated that it was important to have a structure in place at the school level for parent participation.  But do these structures help educators “lead with their ears”?  Even if a parent is in a position of leadership in these structures, are other parents really engaged and empowered in the discussion and advocacy that is relevant and meaningful to them?  Who should help parents become informed about the broader context and issues in education – at the school, district and regional level? Who actually does that at each of those levels, and what does that say?  Does open and necessary communication happen best in the foundation of relationships or structures, or both?  How do we recognize and support the nature of the relationship that IS engagement, just as much as two-way communication IS?

In the NSPRA survey summary their president noted, “The message is clear.  Open, honest and transparent communication is the best antidote to public mistrust.  This research finds the institutions that invest in communication, and provide opportunities for dialogue and dissent are the first choice for information about the services they provide.”

There may be struggle with the ‘what’ of communication, but the where, with and by whom may be integral.  Where does education allow for the dialogue and dissent that is important to communication and relationships which sustain parent engagement and trust?  Who should inform this dialogue at the different levels?  I am not clear of the answers, but I hope this post will help the awareness of many assumptions and at least provide support for respectful dialogue and relationships.

Related post: Bringing Parents into the Conversations