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How Can We Break Old Habits and Improve Parent-Teacher Engagement In Our Schools?

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Sarah Rich, NBC10’s Golden Apple award recipient and 2nd Grade teacher at Paul Cuffee Charter School, Rhode Island, recently sat down to answer questions on the subject of Parent Engagement. Rich shares how digital portfolio technology has helped communicate student progress more efficiently and effectively.

In an accelerated world where parents are busier than ever, Rich demonstrates how the challenge between educators and parents lies mostly in their methods of communication. Technology and more specifically, video documentation, bring a level of comfort through repeated accessibility that makes parents feel closer to the learning process. Rich expands on improved parent communication in her attached paper entitled: Parent Engagement


Rod Berger: How has our approach to parent engagement changed, from your perspective, over the last ten years and have you noticed a difference in the manner that parents communicate with teachers?

Sarah Rich: In today’s world parents still want to be involved in their child’s education. However, families are busier than ever, and this means parents want updates or messages that don’t require a lot of time. I found that in years past I was spending hours over the weekend on my blog, but only ⅓ of the parents were reading it. I had to think about more creative ways to keep them updated and engaged. FreshGrade helped me do that.

Most parents are no longer writing notes or emails. They like to text a question,  notify, or call about a pickup plan and this means teachers have to decide how quickly they will answer texts from parents.

Even with all the technology we have to communicate today, schools are still using too much paper to send notes home. It’s upsetting to see how wasteful we can be. The concern is that not everyone, especially low-income families have the means to check their emails regularly. We need to find a balance here.

RB: Successful parent involvement often relies on communication strategies between teacher and parent accounting for cultural differences and varied expectations of students work. How have you approached this component of your teaching practice and what role has technology played in successfully navigating these waters?

SR: Optional home visits allow teachers to learn more about each student’s cultural background. Often families will prepare food, and sitting down together and eating allows the time to ask questions and get to know them. In this setting, the families feel more at ease speaking to you.

No matter what their cultural background is I stress the importance of working as a team. I want parents to feel comfortable to reach out to me about anything. I make sure that I keep a balance with my communication. I want parents to know when their child is doing well, not just if they are doing poorly. I often have the students call and tell their parents what a great job they did today.

Technology in some ways has broken the language barrier. By sharing real live videos of a science experiment or dance that students created - parents can watch it. It doesn’t matter their language. They can still see what their child created that day.

I often create videos for parents and students, so they know what I expect in a project or homework assignment. Parents participate and support their child more if they understand what is expected.

I have received a lot more parental feedback since I have improved my communication, which has enhanced the quality of my videos and my overall interaction with parents.

RB: How have students and parents evolved in their participation of gathering and discussing data related to their (students) experiences in school with teachers?

SR: Parents now have the option to be much more involved in their child’s education. It is easier for them to be updated on happenings in their child’s classroom as well as how they are progressing academically. They have a choice about how involved they wish to be.  

It also depends on the individual teacher and whether or not they are taking advantages of resources to create digital student portfolios. It’s important to realize that once established it is very easy to keep these updated. I recommend that teachers start off slowly, and add a whole class update to the portfolios once a week. As you get the hang of it and it becomes a part of your routine, you can begin adding individual items to each student’s portfolio.

Parent Engagement | Sarah Rich

Your school year is beginning, and there is so much to accomplish. You’re setting up your classroom, going over your class lists, planning your lessons. But beyond that is a critical dynamic in each student’s success: Their parents. Parent engagement is different every year and is dictated by the makeup of your students. Each year has it’s positive and challenging interaction with parents.

When I began teaching, I compared parents to customers at the restaurant I used to work at years ago. My boss explained to me that each customer that walked through the door was important, their happiness mattered. Parents are the same to me. Depending on the age of your student, parents have different needs and demands. It is our job to ease their worries, inform them on how they can help support their child, and share student’s progress. There is nothing worse for a parent than thinking that their child is doing well, and suddenly at a conference in the Spring they find out that they are not. To avoid this, you should be consistent in your communication all year long.

I teach at an inner city school. Before teaching in Rhode Island, I taught in California which also had a diverse population. Cultural backgrounds are important to consider. I have learned from many families at my school that teachers are one step under parents. Teachers are not to be questioned by a parent or student. Families in different cultures believe that the teacher is their child’s third parent. To bridge these gaps, you must stress the importance of communication and let these parents know you are open to feedback and suggestions. Let them know they are part of the team. With help, they can become more comfortable being a part of their child’s learning experience.

You should think about divorced parents too. Inquire as to the best ways to communicate and include both of them. FreshGrade makes it easier for parents who may only see their child every weekend to stay involved.

Before school begins many teachers send a letter or postcard home welcoming each student. I also like to include a letter to the parents with my contact information and even copies of letters from past students, that way parents and students know what they can expect. At my elementary school, each teacher calls parents to give them the option to come in, meet them, see the classroom, and bring their child if they wish. It is very helpful to see the family dynamic, learn of goals or worries that the parent may have about their child.

Open House/Back To School Night is an important part of making your year a successful one. Parents get to see what their child’s classroom is like. I enjoy creating a video that constantly replays as parents are popping in. It highlights each part of the school day so that parents can see our day in action. If your students happen to be older, they can help you create the video. High school students can have this be their first assignment and create the video themselves.

The open house is a good time to get parents signed up for specific programs you would like them to use with or without their students. For example; computers should be provided where they can sign up for FreshGrade, Remind, Artsonia, or even your class blog. Explain programs in detail so parents know why they are important. Parents are busy and sometimes need to be at two Open Houses on the same night. I keep it brief and send them home with information I think will be valuable for the year, that way they can pop in quickly if that is all time allows.

It’s each teacher’s personal choice as to how they communicate with parents. The teacher must keep in mind that they set a precedent as to how quickly to respond to parents. You want to have that fine line between keeping boundaries and being available. I let families know they can contact me whenever they wish. I will get back to them as soon as I can. If I am busy, I don’t answer.

Try and think like a parent. Stay ahead of questions or wonders they might have. If you’re studying a tough concept from the Common Core, create videos that students and parents can reference at home to review hard concepts. Record conferences you have with students and send these to parents. It allows them to hear the language that you are using with the student, as well as learn strengths and challenges that their child might be having. Try to share a new app or resource every week that they can use with their child or their child can use independently. It’s even better if the app is free! Videos are valuable if you are implementing a new curriculum or creating a blended learning classroom. Sharing videos of what this looks like in your classroom helps parents stay connected. It also gives them something to talk about with their child in the car or at the dinner table. I often step outside my classroom and pretend I’m walking as I'm taking a video. I say what we are working on and then float around recording the projects. I then send the videos via FreshGrade, parents love it!

Handling challenging or parents that are upset can take patience and good listening skills. The key is to listen to what the parent is saying without getting upset or defensive. At this point, if I feel something cannot be resolved on the phone, I will invite them in. It may be best also to ask a colleague, teaching assistant, or administrator to attend this meeting, so someone else is witness to what is discussed. Whether it is over the phone or in person, tell the parent you are sorry they are feeling this way, give them more information to put them at ease, formulate a plan, and thank them for reaching out to you. Usually, it results in a stronger relationship the rest of the school year.

Most importantly, no matter the age of your students, they need to see you communicating and working with their parents to help make their year a success. Showing teamwork helps a student take the initiative to understand the value of working hard in school.

Snip20161018_44Sarah Rich is a founding faculty member and second-grade teacher at the Paul Cuffee School in Providence, Rhode Island. She was instrumental in creating culture, curriculum, and rising to the challenge of building a school. She has been teaching for 17 years. She has taken a year leave from teaching to work as Lead Teacher at Squiggle Park, a Nova Scotia-based company designing literacy apps for young readers.

She is a recent graduate of the Highlander Institutes Fuse RI fellowship program. She has been advising and coaching teachers and administration throughout Rhode Island to help make Blended Personalized Learning happen in their schools. 

In her classroom, Sarah uses a flipped learning model with playlists. Her students use a station rotation model for math and literacy. Sarah’s strengths include classroom management in a 21st-century classroom and parent engagement. 

Sarah recently won the NBC 10 Golden Apple Award for 21st century learning for her use of FreshGrade, which connects her classroom to home, and enables parents to feel like they are a big part of their child’s learning. She assisted her principal in winning the NAESP Digital Leader Early Learning Award for 2016. Follow her on Twitter@edtechSAE

Dr. Rod Berger, a respected leader in education communications, is a global education media personality featured on edCircuit, in EdTech Review India, Scholastic's District Administrator, and Forbes. As an industry personality, Dr. Berger has interviewed Ministers of Education, leading voices like Sir Ken Robinson, U.S. Secretary Arne Duncan, AFT President Randi Weingarten, and others.

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in Down the Hall are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.