Why Is Parent Engagement So Hard?
Teachers often tell me parents aren’t supportive, but when I dig a little deeper, I find out what they really mean is that parents don’t provide academic support to their children. There’s a big difference. Many parents, some of whom may have interrupted formal or incomplete schooling themselves, look to the teacher as the expert. They believe the classroom teacher to be infinitely more equipped to meet their child’s educational needs than they are and leave such things to the expert. They “support” their child’s education by making sure their child has eaten breakfast and comes to school, taking care of discipline, and encouraging them to do their best.
Teachers and immigrant parents often have very different ideas about what it means to support a child’s education. Take for example, the teacher who asks for parent volunteers to come in and do tasks like make copies. An parent who works for minimum wage may have to take off work to volunteer. The teacher likely makes more money than the parent anyway. Why would parents take a day off work to go and do the teachers job for her when the teacher makes more than they do? You can see how what might be a common expectation for teachers, seems ludicrous from parents’ point of view. Parents do want what’s best for their children, even if they do not have the emotional, temporal, or financial resources to provide the support we would like to see from home.
Educating parents as to the things they can contribute, like reading nightly with their child (in their native language), is important, but before we can educate parents we have to get them through the door. We must engage parents before we can educate them, and we must educate them so that they are empowered to advocate and encourage other parents to do the same. Getting parents through the school or classroom door is not easy. The four largest deterrents I see for immigrant families are:
- The attitudes towards and treatment of immigrant families by staff. Even with a language barrier, parents can read unwelcoming or frustrated body language which conveys the message they are not welcome.
- Scheduling that disregards parents work schedules. Parent surveys at one of my schools showed parents preferred for events to start at 6:00 or later. Why? Many had to work right up until that time or had to get home and feed siblings before turning around and heading to the school. Events that started earlier were simply impossible for them to attend.
- Lack of transportation. A lack of transportation keeps many parents, who would otherwise attend, home. There are many creative ways to get parents to events including organizing carpooling and/or coordinating with churches or other non-profits to use vans and buses. If that doesn’t work, take the event out into the community, where parents and children can walk.
- Lack of childcare. You may have seen the Gallup poll where Americans rated 2.5 as the ideal number of children. Many families coming from other areas of the globe however, have much larger family groups. If you want these parents to attend events, offering childcare or making the event open to multiple age groups, means that they don’t have to pay for childcare to attend.
If a school can think outside the box and get creative, they can address these issues and increase the likelihood that parents will not only walk through the schools’ doors, but want to stay.