What came first? The chicken or the egg? In the school world this might sound like “Do I increase engagement opportunities for parents to improve communication or do I improve communication practices to increase engagement?” All to often, I see schools trying to increase parent engagement with the addition of activities designed to bring parents to the campus without paying attention to their communication practices. Or they are spending lots of time, energy and resources on ineffective communication practices and wondering why their parents are not engaging in the numbers they would like to see. I have spent the last five years trying to spread the word that by investing more time in strengthening and clearing the lines of communication between parents/guardians, schools and students (see Communication Triangle at right), we can solve many of our education challenges.
When I read this short blog, Engaging the Disengaged, written by Elena Aguilar and posted May 27, 2016 on Edutopia, I was immediately struck by the positive culture described at Jaya’s Middle School! As much as we talk about ways to engage our parents and help them engage with our schools, this blog reinforced for me that the activities are important but the practice of effective communication strategies is more so! Engaging parents is not about doing things its about how we communicate. Do we actually listen? Do we ask them questions? Do we involve them in the education process as a partner?
Jaya, the principal of this middle school, took some bold steps in order to make change and connect her parents to the school and vice versa. From and effective communication strategy perspective, she did something that I wish more school leaders would do: 1) She made the first move to communicate, personally! Then, after taking the initiative, she paid attention and took the even bolder move of including parents in professional development.
By Jaya walking across the street and asking the question “What is keeping you from coming onto the campus?” she opened the the lines of communication. That is the type of data that our Federal government doesn’t collect. That is the type of data that does not present itself immediately with paper and pencil or on a standardized assessment. If her supervisor asked her what she did to raise student performance, I wager she might not remember that initial step that she took to establish effective communication at her school. What the parents noticed, and what was different from her teachers complaining about “parents not returning our phone calls” and leaving it at that, was she pointed the finger at herself and simply asked “What can I do about this?” She did not settle for the easy answer. Jaya very easily could have walked back into her office that day and answered her emails from the District Office or other upset parents. She had a choice and she decided to act in a way that was risky and off the normal path. She met her disengaged parents where they were. She did not just try to get them to come to her.
A couple things happened because of her actions. First, parents took notice. They saw someone step into their arena and were inquisitive about her actions. After listening and gathering her data, Jaya followed up with her staff. Positive phone calls is not a new strategy! Much research has shown the positive affects of this strategy, but many teachers fight it because they have so much else they are required to do. Jaya getting her staff to buy into this this positive action solidified what the parents might have been wondering…”she asked us but what will she do about it?”
However, from a purely communication standpoint, the best thing Jaya did was to notice the parents listening in on the professional development session in the library and then include them in upcoming teacher professional development sessions. The best thing a leader can do to facilitate effective communication between parents and their school is to have them participate in collaborative learning opportunities. I brought parents into our classrooms on walk-throughs and to support teachers in reading groups. We taught our parents how to run a reading group and what good reading instruction looks like. We showed them what we were doing, why we were doing it and how it would benefit their child. Jaya unclogged the communication line between the parents and the school when she invited them to participate in professional development and on hiring committees. Making the world and language of schools transparent to parents helps them understand the how and the why that they usually don’t get.
Jaya clearly had established trust with her staff and by having them all participate and learn together, she made it possible for parents to come and see for themselves the good things going on at school. Jaya did not just accept this as status quo. So to engage the disengaged, she created trust and transparency by developing strong, open lines of communication between the school and the parents/guardians. This action will benefit her students and strengthen the lines of communication between teachers and students and parents/guardians and students, thus allowing the community to address challenges that come up in a collaborative and efficient manner.
Unlike the opening question about the chicken and the egg, there is a clear answer, in my opinion, to the question of “Do I increase engagement opportunities for parents to improve communication or do I improve communication practices to increase engagement?” I believe that every school leader should be investing time in opening, and keeping clear, the lines of communication between their parents/guardians, their students and their school personnel. From a short term and a long term investment standpoint, investing time and energy in developing effective lines of communication will allow school leaders much flexibility in accomplishing the changes needed to move their school forward, meet all students needs and pave the way for increased engagement from their parents and the surrounding community. And, with improved and more effective communication practices in place, school leaders will give their students a great school experience!