Saturday, October 31, 2015

Tapping Into Parent Power- A Not So Scary Tale for Halloween

     I distinctly remember as a new teacher a phone call that I received one night. I had wanted to provide my parents and students access to me and had given them my personal phone number so that they could call me at anytime with questions or concerns. On this particular evening, my brother and I were relaxing and enjoying a great conversation together. The phone rang. I answered it and it was the father of one of my students. He immediately went into “attack-dog-mode” and called me every name in the book and some names that I hadn’t even heard before. Paralyzed with not knowing what to do, I listened as this parent berated me for something that I had not done. Tears streamed down my cheek. I couldn’t speak. My brother watched intently at my expression, paralyzed state, and tried to make sense of the yelling voice on the other end of the line. I managed to say, “I’m sorry!” before the angry parent hung up the phone. Luckily, he did hang up because my brother was about to grab the phone from me and say a few of his own feelings about how this person had treated me. That would have been a disaster!
     Needless to say, my relationship with parents after that experience was somewhat of a love/semi-intimidated relationship. For some kids, I looked forward to conferences. But for most, I didn’t. Although conferences usually came and went without incident, I always felt a little nervous talking with parents. Overall, for much of my career, parents came to the school for holiday parties, field trips, fundraisers, programs, and conferences. They also came to help prepare lesson materials, read with kids, or other tasks that I “deemed as something a parent could do.” But, it didn’t take long for the regular visits to fizzle out. No wonder, because I certainly didn’t go out of my way to engage them in classroom happenings. Honestly, there were times when I didn’t want anything to do with parents. It was more work to have them come into the classroom than it was worth. I only went along with “the PR game” because that’s what teachers were supposed to do. And then, I’d get frustrated when they didn’t show and blame them for being “unreliable”. Shame on me! It’s an attitude that I’m not proud of having but all too common. I even feel more ashamed because I have always been blessed with good parents that genuinely wanted the best for their kids. Many parents of my former students are my personal friends. They supported me, but I failed to tap into their power.
     My relationship with parents is changing in large part to the inspiration of my PLN. I can’t think of a time when I didn’t say, “Parents are my partners in educating their child. They are the first and most influential teacher.” It's easy to talk and say that parents are vital to their child's education. However, I feel like my relationships are changing and moving to a different level. This change has happened mostly during the last two years. It’s one of the many changes since being connected via Twitter.
      Last Spring as people were nominating colleagues for the Bammy Awards, I saw a tweet by Dr. Jim Detweiler @jimdetweiler1 about the lack of nomination for parents. It was something to the effect of, “Educators, can’t we do a better job of recognizing our parents?” It hit me like a rock in the head! “Yes,” I thought. “Here is a chance for you to recognize one of the amazing parents that have helped you this year.” I quickly wrote a nomination. Sadly, there weren’t very many nominations. But for me, it was great because this wonderful parent volunteer made it to the final five. I can’t even begin to tell you the positive reactions and the ripple effect that this had in our school community. It was just the tip of the iceberg.
     I have been greatly blessed this year with a whole group of forward thinking parents. I don’t have a single parent who has not been onboard with me to risk and try some new things in the classroom. My relationship with each parent has only strengthened as the year progresses.
     A couple of weeks ago, our fifth grade went to Hogle Zoo as part of our science studies about animal adaptations. I had 17 of my 30 parents spend the whole day with us! It was a bonding experience to be in an atmosphere outside of school, but watching the kids interact and apply their learning. Immediately following our trip to the zoo were two days of conferences. Students led their conference and showed their data that they were tracking, their progress, and their goals. It was honestly two of the best days of conferences that I’ve ever had during my whole career. I felt like the parents were truly my partners in education with actions and not just words. My students were empowered by discussing their progress. It was a celebration! Our focus was on growth instead of grades. It was an amazing experience! Student-led conferences are not new to me, but conferences without a focus on grades are new. I loved it! My students enjoyed the experience, and the parents appreciated seeing their child take ownership of their learning.
     Yesterday, for some unknown reason, the Halloween parade ended about 45 minutes early at 9:15 am.  I had over a dozen parent volunteers come to my classroom after the parade, but the one parent in charge of the party was not there. She had planned on coming shortly before 10:00 am to set-up the activities. I had activities that I could have done, but it was sunny outside. A dad volunteered to supervise and play with the kids outside while the rest of us did a few things to get ready for the Halloween party. For those 45 minutes, we had an incredible discussion about school culture, preparing kids for the future, testing, risk-taking, and the things that I was trying to implement in the classroom. (Last year the school boundaries changed. Our school now includes three different communities.) We talked about the blending of three communities and how the various schools and teachers compared. I can’t even express in words how the affirmations of the parents strengthened me as their child’s teacher. It was almost a testimony meeting as each parent expressed to me their love of me and how they saw incredible growth in their child/children already. (I have two sets of twins.) They expressed their thankfulness for truly feeling like they were making a difference the classroom. I’ve had them work with small groups with specific learning targets. They’ve helped me to track data and to better meet individual student needs. In turn, I was able to express my gratitude for their trust in me and my trust in them to help me teach these incredible kids. There were a lot of hugs and even some tears. In that moment, we became a true team with a common vision and mission. They totally support my integration of technology, creating a student-led classroom, less emphasis on grades, and many other facets of the curriculum. I am blessed and grateful! Working on my Masters/Admin degree is one of the most difficult challenges that I’ve faced- not because of the classes, but because I expend so much energy during the day with my kids. It’s nice to know that I have a whole team of parents that have my back. I’m finally tapping into their talents and expertise on a daily basis, and it’s making an impact!
     Truly engaging parents in the education of their children is a process. It’s not perfect in my classroom. I’m tweaking all of the time. I’m trying to make sure that parents know how valuable they are to me. It hasn’t happened overnight. Many of the parents that I’m working with this year are parents of my former students. The relationships that I’ve taken the time to build are paying off. Parents are still a largely untapped resource that I hope more teachers will embrace.
Specifically, I’m trying to improve two-way communication. It’s a never-ending challenge, but I’m committed. My PLN inspires me and holds me accountable. I’m a work in progress. I’m looking forward to looking back on this year- to reflect on the growth of my kids due to parents being more involved, engaged, and hopefully more empowered (at least for what happened in our classroom). This is the blog post that I can’t wait to write.

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