It takes a village to raise a child. Schools today are recognizing the importance of partnering parents to create a “village”, or a holistic learning environment for our children – one that engages the wider community.
When schools reach out and work with parents, their children feel supported, academically and holistically, according to international research literature. “It helps students like school better, want to come to school and stay in school longer,” says Dr Lana Khong, Lecturer in the Policy and Leadership Studies Academic Group, NIE.
Many schools currently adopt a traditional approach to partnership through parent-teacher meetings and parent support groups (PSG).
“The school sends out the communication and invites parents to come for events,” says Lana. The teacher will also conduct parent-teacher meetings once or twice a year.
“There is, however, another level of partnership that may be required in the 21st century – authentic or empowered partnership,” she continues.
The authentic or empowered partnership can lead to a stronger sense of “village”, a nurturing environment where students can feel they are being supported by all parties.
Now is also the right time to work more closely with parents, says Lana. “Today, parents are much more educated, and are more interested because education is high-stakes and they really want to see their kids to succeed.”
“It is important that a teacher starts early in the year to establish a relationship and build trust with the parents,” says Lana.
Schools differ in the extent to which they engage in parent engagement, and how effective this partnership is will depend on the teacher’s confidence and capacity.
In her project, Lana looks at how a Singapore secondary school is working with parents of a small group of lower achieving students who have been promoted to a higher and more demanding track.
Building the Teacher-parent Relationship
From her research, Lana finds that less educated parents are not often viewed as potential assets to school and learning, even though they could very well be. They are also sometimes stereotyped as being difficult to deal with.
Lana feels that ultimately, the teacher’s mind-set is very important. If the teacher has a positive mind-set and can see a seed of solution or contribution in every complaint or feedback received from a parent, then he or she will be more willing to work with the parent on the solution.
“If teachers are confident enough to engage the parents and work together with them, I think parents will be glad to return that trust and respect to the teacher,” shares Lana. “In this background of mutual trust and respect, you can work together to find good solutions for students.”
“Teachers need to be confident of what they are doing and be open to discussions on how to help the child and not feel threatened about it,” shares Lana.
When teachers are not confident in working with challenging parents, conflicts can happen and the relationship becomes very tense, says Lana.
In such cases, the students, especially the lower achieving ones, suffer. Unlike higher achieving students who tend to have more family support, lower achieving students often lack adequate support from home.
“A lot more can be done to engage the parents of lower achieving students to create a healthier environment for learning and opportunities for them to advance to a higher level of learning” Lana shares. “We all need to work better together to build a culture of support for the lower achieving kids.”
It is important that a teacher starts early in the year to establish a relationship and build trust with the parents.
– Lana Khong, Policy and Leadership Studies Academic Group
Engaging the Heart
What can propel these parent-engagement activities is the heart, says Lana.
“If schools are genuinely welcoming them, parents will want to contribute and be involved in the process,” says Lana. “It’s not just about increasing attendance at events; it’s the heart behind all the activities.”
In turn, Lana feels that parents also need to broaden their perspective to understand and empathize with teachers. When teachers build relational capital with parents, they earn the parents’ trust over time.
Once the parent culture in the school is strong and supportive, parents can even start to reach out to other parents in the community. This village or community engagement can help supplement the role of the school in developing their students.
According to Lana, the role of the school leaders is critical in creating a culture of partnerships. When parents know that they are being heard and their opinions are valued by the school leadership team, they will feel encouraged to partner the school on their child’s development.
At the same time, if the leadership can make them feel that they are “safe” and that the leadership supports them, they will also relax, become less defensive, and be supportive of school processes and programmes. This requires a leader who is constantly on the ground, getting to know his or her teachers and students.
“Having a sense of openness and welcome by the school leader creates a confidence in the teachers and parents,” Lana says. “This allows for strong partnerships to be sustained and the subsequent benefits to flourish for the children in the community.”
Instead of seeing parents as adversaries, see them as allies, and they will in turn be supportive of you.
– Lana, on establishing good parent-teacher relationships.
Doing More With Less
For effective partnerships to take place, teachers must have the positive mind-set of seeing “partnership” work with parents as integral and not extra work. This mind-set change will take some time, but worth the effort in the longer term.
“Establishing good parent-teacher relationships at the start pre-empts certain problems from happening, and makes things easier later,” shares Lana. “Instead of seeing parents as adversaries, see them as allies, and they will in turn be supportive of you.”
Lana hopes that her project on parent engagement will contribute to professional knowledge in the field, especially in the mainstream schools.
“We should not allow for too big an achievement divide between the high- and low-achieving students,” Lana says. “Working closely with parents will help narrow some of these gaps.”
With authentic partnerships being the way to go in schools, one can expect a more holistic learning environment for students – involving not just the parents, but an entire community.