Family and community engagement by schools

Across Australia there is an increasing awareness of the importance of school–community partnerships and engaging families and the local community. I recently presented a workshop for teachers on community engagement as part of a Teachers’ Visit Day at the University of Newcastle. The following is based on this presentation and there are some notes from the day.

We started with quick introductions to the 22 people in the 50 minute workshop. Even though we didn’t have much time, relationships are at the heart of community engagement and so I think it is worth spending a few minutes finding out who is in the room. I asked people their name, school and (if they wanted) why they came to the workshop. This goes a little way towards building connections (e.g., it is easier to have a chat during the lunch break) and sometimes we discover that someone is from a school we want to know about.

I then asked them to place themselves in the room to show how strongly they agreed or disagreed with the following statements:

  1. As experts in education, teachers need to be able to meet the educational needs of their students without interference from parents.
  2. Parents have knowledge, skills and experience that are important resources for their children’s education.
  3. I would like to involve parents more but it is often more trouble than it is worth.

While there was some variation, the teachers had decided to attend a workshop on engaging families and the local community so the responses were fairly predictable. Some of the issues raised included the notion of “interference” from parents (e.g., what is interference compared to involvement), and whether involving parents was “often” more trouble that it was worth (or only sometimes).

The statements were inspired by Soliman (1995) who presented six statements about school–community relationships:

  1. The teacher as expert, with the appropriate education and training, is in the best position to decide about educational matters.
  2. If control of education is not in the hands of professional teachers, then there will be deterioration in quality and standards.
  3. Parents lack the knowledge and skill to be able to participate in decision-making about education
  4. The main role of parents is to support and reinforce the policies and programs of the school and to supervise their children’s work in the home.
  5. For effective learning, the social and emotional needs of pupils have to be met.
  6. The family, the school and the community are overlapping spheres of influence in the education of children.
  7. Parents have knowledge, skills and experience that are important resources for their children’s academic achievements.

She argued that the first four statements suggest that engaging with families and communities are a “marginal extra,” rather than an integral part of teaching. The last three statements suggest that teaching should be responsive to families and communities. As you can image, I am much more comfortable with the second approach.

The teachers identified a number of reasons they wanted to engage families and the local community including:

  1. Understanding what kids are learning at home
  2. Recognising families are the first teachers
  3. Helping families show their interest and that they value education
  4. Showing difference
  5. It helps in the classroom
  6. They are a fundamental part of the team
  7. Helping not just in the classroom (e.g. fundraising, gardens)
  8. Developing the skills of parents
  9. Helping to create a sense of community
  10. Breaking down barriers
  11. It helps with hard conversations if needed later.

Asking parents what they thinkSome of the ways they currently engage families and the local community include:

  1. A cultural room where activities are held each week
  2. Through a school fete
  3. Painting working bees
  4. Involving parents in “Drop everything and read” (which is well supported by parents)
  5. Inviting Year 10 parents to participate in a school to work program
  6. Students participating in gardening and Wii games in a local retirement home
  7. “Bro Speak and Sister Speak” (a mentoring program)
  8. A community day where students helped in the community.

The following are some other ideas from a similar workshop I ran another time:

  1. One school rings the families of all Year 7 students in the first four weeks of the school year to see how their child has settled in and to answer any questions. The students were divided amongst all the teachers (regardless of faculty) so each teacher had to ring around six students. It was suggested that it could be helpful to ring them again later in the year.
  2. One school held a business breakfast attended by approximately 40 business people. Great links were built although the challenge was finding the time to follow them all up.
  3. When consulting parents it is important to listen and to act on their priorities. The example was given that if they said that painting the car park was a priority, then PAINT THE CAR PARK! It sends an important message that we are listening to them.
  4. It is important to be approachable and to offer practical support. One teacher spoke about being approached by a parent to reprint an award certificate their child had lost. While this might be a simple thing, the parent had spoken to other teachers who hadn’t done it, and it was important in building relationships.
  5. Teachers being out the front of the school to speak to parents.
  6. Ringing each family in the class once a semester when things have being going well with their child. For a primary teacher this would only be one to two phone calls a week.

For me, the main thing is to focus on the strengths and potential of families and communities. If we see them as being dysfunctional or toxic, we are unlikely to make much of an effort to engage them. If we recognise them as having skills, experience, knowledge and passion, then we will be much more likely to find ways to engage them.

The Family-School and Community Partnerships Bureau has a useful one page checklist about family and community engagements. It’s available from http://www.familyschool.org.au/files/3613/7955/4846/TalkTools_checklist.pdf.

There’s also a range of other useful resources including:

If you liked this post you might want to follow my blog (top right-hand corner of the blog),  and you might like to look at:

  1. 10 Ways to build school-community partnerships
  2. Making parents feel welcome in schools
  3. What is asset-based community-driven development (ABCD)?
  4. Building relationship between caravan park (trailer park) residents and school
  5. School community partnerships
  6. A World Cafe in a school – a step-by-step description

References

 

About Graeme Stuart

Lecturer (Family Action Centre, Newcastle Uni), blogger (Sustaining Community), environmentalist, Alternatives to Violence Project facilitator, father. Passionate about families, community development, peace & sustainability.
This entry was posted in Schools, Working with communities and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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