We all know that fundraising flyer—it comes home every Fall, urging us to unload…er…I mean…sell chocolates or wrapping paper or magazine subscriptions to our neighbors. I know that fundraising is an unfortunate reality for public schools, but I always groan a little and wonder if this is really the best way to support my child’s education.
That’s the question I tried to chase down, and it lead me to a fabulous book called Beyond the Bake Sale: The Essential Guide to Family-School Partnerships and a conversation with one of the authors, Ms. Anne Henderson. Ms. Henderson currently works with the Annenberg Institute for School Reform and has devoted much of her life to helping parents and schools form strong partnerships. She is passionate about having the “public” be part of public education.
The good news is, you can put away the oven mitt and checkbook because being involved in your child’s education is a lot simpler than you think.
In my conversation with her, Ms. Henderson summed up it by saying that establishing a personal relationship with your child’s teacher is the single most important thing you can do to help your child do well in school. From preschool to high school graduation, kids who have parents who talk to their teachers do better in school. It’s not that those parents are telling the teachers how to do their job or making excuses for why their child can’t get her paper in on time. No, those parents are forging a strong, personal relationship with the teacher which forms a strong triangular relationship—teacher, student and parents—all focused on the same goal.
How does one start such a relationship?
1) Meet face-to-face with your child’s teacher.
The first and most important thing you can do to establish a relationship with your child’s teacher is to meet with them face-to-face. This meeting has two purposes. First and foremost it is get to know the teacher as a person. When your child starts whining, “But my teacher is making me learn fractions because she hates me! My teacher is horrible!” you’ll know that, in fact, the teacher is a nice person who is trying to do her job.
Unfortunately most typical parent-school activities, like Back-to-School or Literacy Nights, are not designed in anyway to help people get to know each other as human beings. Ms. Henderson [AR1] urges parents to go beyond these meetings to try to connect on a personal level. This is the person who is going to spend a year with your child—who are they? Get to know them like you would any partner in an important endeavor. Make a personal appointment with the teacher. All schools have a way to schedule conferences. Keep it light and quick, being mindful of the teacher’s time, but be clear that you are interested in working together.
The second things you want to do in this meeting is to signal your high expectations to the teacher. As Ms. Henderson explains, “Approach the teacher and say things like, ‘I want to work with you, please let me know how my child is doing, and what I can do to help my child be successful.’” If the teacher knows you have high expectations for your child, he/she will be more likely to alert you quickly if your child starts to slide.
Ultimately you want to start this learning team—your child, the teacher, and you—on the right foot and a personal meeting is the best way to do that.
2) Follow up with the teachers in little ways throughout the year.
Ms. Henderson urges parents to look for little ways to continue this relationship. For example, make the most of drop-off and pick-up. Even a quick “hello” is enough to feed the relationship you’re trying to cultivate. These periodic and persistent personal check-ins needn’t be lengthy or complicated. You’re not “hovering” or “smothering” if you’re talking to your child’s teachers. You’re doing your job as a parent.
I have some personal experience with this. My son’s preschool teacher texts the parents at least once week. She gives us a little update on what they are doing in the class, usually with a photo of the kids hard at work (or hard at play—since this is preschool we’re talking about). I cannot tell you my depth of gratitude for this information. It makes it easier for me to talk to my child about his day. It makes me appreciate the hard work of this teacher who is shepherding my child in his first school experience. It makes me feel an integral part of the classroom—which, of course, I am.
As my kids get older, I know that I can’t expect the teachers to send a personal text with photos every other day. But if I send a quick email or text to say “How are things going?” or even better, “My son really enjoyed learning about________ today. Thanks!” I know I can continue building our relationship.
3) Ask teachers to show you student work—not just test scores.
Student work is the intellectual window into a classroom. It helps teachers, students and parents really see what’s going on. For example, I knew my daughter was working on Newton’s Laws of Motion by building some sort of car. But when she finally brought home the blueprints she had designed, I finally understood what she was doing and our conversations about her learning became much richer. Conversely, when my son brings home nothing but worksheets and explanations of the behavior clip system—what am I to make of this classroom?
Ms. Henderson explains that it’s natural for parents to be hungry for a window into the classroom. These are our children. What are they doing all day? But it’s not always natural for teachers to invite parents to really look at student work. Perhaps teachers think we are happy to see nothing more than the letter grade on the top because we don’t ask for anything more.
So parents have to ask for it. Ms. Henderson explains that there is no substitute for the valuable time you will spend if you go in and the teacher explains the skill and learning that the kids are working on this year and how the teacher approaches it. This can be done as a group or one-on-one, but it’s important to get a sense of what they are doing.
If your child’s school is like mine, there isn’t much student work shared. There’s no end-of-the-year portfolio or newsletters with pictures of student science posters. I have to ask to see those things. It takes time and effort, but it helps me peek into the classroom and see more about the actual skills that my kids are working on (for example, understanding that my kids are learning fractions, not just “doing math”). In this way, I can better support them in their learning.
In addition, when the time comes for the school to fundraise for an additional science lab or a garden—I’m more likely to support that. I know what the teachers are doing and how they are teaching so I will gladly contribute.
4) Advocate for parents in the building.
If you haven’t read Beyond the Bake Sale, pick up a copy. It will help you see what a supportive parent community really looks like. It doesn’t mean that you are micro-managing the teachers. Quite the opposite. It means that you actually know what’s going on in the school so you can help teachers do their best job.
Ms. Henderson urges parents to talk with other parents. Now that you know how important personal relationships are, encourage your friends to go in and build that relationship with the teachers until it becomes the norm. Then organize as parents and ask, “What do we want? What information about the classroom do we want?” After you have a list, go to the administrators and say, “We have some ideas about what would support our kids to do better in school. We want to see what they are learning and doing in class.” Then your school community will really start to grow.
5) Help make the school a community.
Ultimately the thing that makes a school successful at educating all children is personal relationships—a collaborative relationship between colleagues in the school, a positive relationship between teachers and children, and an open and respectful relationship between the school and parent community. As Ms. Henderson says, “This is the soil in which everything else takes root.”
But these relationships don’t happen overnight, and they don’t happen with just hard-working teachers. It’s up to us, the “public” in public school, to help make the school a community where our kids can thrive. So show up, speak up and prop up your local school community by building relationships with them.
QUESTION: Do you feel comfortable going into your child’s school? What can you do to feel more welcomed there?
CHALLENGE: Meet with your child’s teacher for a one-on-one chat.