I love the work I do to promote the engagement of every family in the educational lives of children. I get to work with educators, parents and families from all just about all walks of life. I feel so honored to do this work and I learn something new each and every time I visit a school, a school district or an organization. What I have learned over the years is that regardless of where I go, there are commonalities with regard to the desires and challenges of engaging every family.
More often than not, the commonalities seem to focus on a school or district desire to do a better job in engaging families and eager to learn concepts, processes and strategies that will create measurable differences in their schools. As a result of my travels, I know that every community values its children and every family wants a better life for their child. Most schools understand the value of engaged families, recognize that not all of their families are engaged, and are eager to learn how to improve.
I particularly enjoy the workshops where there are parents and families sitting along side the educators. So much can begin with regard to communication and relationships just by putting both the families and educators at the same table for one workshop! The discussion begins and before you know it, plans are being made and ideas are being generated. I always ask for feedback after every workshop and in the vast majority of cases, participants are grateful for the information and enjoyed the time spent on family engagement particularly when both parents and educators are at the table from the start.
But then, this week, I get this e-mail:
“I am a parent at (names school, city and state). I attended your workshop here (cites date). Unfortunately, my school did nothing with your presentation – nor your book. Are you familiar with any state or city organization in my area that is proactively involved with family engagement? Thank you for any help you can provide.”
I would like to tell you that e-mails like this one were isolated and rare…they are not. I wish I did not get these kinds of e-mails because I truly do hate them. It reminds me of the work yet left to do in convincing school leaders of the importance of family engagement, convincing that I don’t think should have to continue. This e-mail, and numerous others I receive, is indicative of those cultures that simply do not value the effort to engage families. Why? I have no idea.
For the life of me I cannot figure out why you would choose to attend a workshop, pay for it, bring teachers and parents and then ensure that nothing happens. I can think of no better way to cement the perception of inept leadership. And then many wonder why there is a rise in parent trigger laws and are resentful of what can occur as a result. Not sure why it surprises some people.
Other e-mails I receive are from teachers who lament that while they would love to begin a process of family engagement, they either get no support or are stifled by building or district leadership to do so. In one note I got, the teacher wrote: “When I asked the principal, he said that the last thing we needed were parents running around the school.” I actually had one superintendent call me and say “our school board heard you speak so we are going to bring you in for a day so we can check it off our list.” I didn’t go.
Thank heaven that the vast majority of schools and districts with which I come in contact are not reflected in these kinds of e-mails. I do feel for parents and teachers in schools and districts when they realize the importance of a concept but leadership, for various reasons simply are not interested in pursuing the topic. Is it fear? Apathy? Budget? Overwhelmed with initiatives? Personal biases? Values? Beliefs? I’m not sure.
Wanted: Courageous Leadership
Several years ago, a question was asked of me about successful family engagement programs that had been launched in schools around the country. The question was simple: Was there a commonality between those programs that were successful and those that were not? After pondering this question for a while, the answer was clear: yes. The commonality was courageous, supportive and purposeful leadership. Superintendents and central office staff who stood up and set a vision and direction for a school district that was inclusive of families had better results. Principals and building leaders who championed the cause saw better, more consistent, and measurable results as well. These leaders set the course with strong headwinds of skepticism and reluctance from both internal and external customers.
Of all of the leadership qualities one can possess, it seems courage is an absolute necessity if leaders wish to engage every family. Changing the direction of organizations and having the will to make changes that can begin as uncomfortable are essential ingredients in engaging every family. Courage comes from facing and overcoming fear.
Most people in most organizations fear change. Creating the conditions to engage every family will likely be a significant departure from standard practice at your school or in your district.