The parent trap: How to get parents on board with school changes
by Alanna Kotler
A school community contains several constituencies—parents, faculty, staff, students—and the hope is that they all work together in the interest of each child. I would argue that each feels very strongly that it does. However, when you listen closely to the conversations that happen within each of these groups, there can be a gap between what is happening in schools and what each thinks is happening.
The gap that is often widest is between where parents are in understanding their child’s education and the trajectory that the school is moving in. As with much of society, education is evolving rapidly and can feel as though it is moving at the speed of light. Teachers and administrators are doing their best to keep up with their ever-changing field and keep students at the center of their efforts. However, parents are often left behind in understanding the why driving changes in education, and many of them judge a “good” education based on what their schooling looked like. The gap between parents and schools widens as decisions and changes are made to the curriculum and parents are not brought into the conversation. What results is a parent community that feels lost, frustrated, and potentially combative about what is (or isn’t) happening in their child’s school.
This has been increasingly common in discussions with parents about changes to math instruction. Educators and researchers have found that conceptual understanding of mathematical ideas cannot be overlooked, and should be foundational to a child’s mastery and understanding of math. For example, instead of starting with an equation (6X9 = 54), math curricula have shifted the focus to understanding what it means to multiply 6 times 9, and how it can be represented with an equation. Parents, on the other hand, feel that their child should just know what 6 times 9 equals. This is where the gap becomes problematic as parents begin to lose faith in a school’s educational approach and philosophy. The issue isn’t with the change in the curriculum, but rather in the school’s ability to bring parents into the conversation about the change and highlight its importance to their child’s learning.
The sparks of change at a school happen from both the grassroots level (teachers and students) or from above (the administration). When an initiative is decided on, there is (hopefully) collaboration among both the teachers and administrators to plan, develop and implement the change. Then the new initiative is celebrated and communicated to parents—and that is usually where the communication ends. There is little beyond that point to explain, discuss, and educate parents—not to mention get their input—on why the school has decided on specific initiatives at a certain time. So, parents fill the gap with their own interpretations and understandings, which can lead to misinterpretation and misunderstanding.
In one school I worked with, information was sent out to parents about a new spelling program that was being implemented, one that was more developmental in its approach and that moved away from “traditional” spelling lists. Students were assessed on their understanding of spelling patterns (i.e. short vowels, long vowels, digraphs) and placed in spelling groups that matched their spelling ability, akin to reading groups. This change generated debate among the parents, causing unnecessary stress to the teachers and administrators who believed that the best way to teach spelling had evolved according to the latest research. This research had not been communicated effectively to the parents and became a battleground rather than a parent-teacher partnership. Instead of focusing on their child’s progress and growth, parents became more concerned about accurate spelling of “expected” words. Others simply didn’t buy in to the approach, leading to a lack of faith in the school and its decision-making.
Ultimately, it is the school’s responsibility to ensure that all constituents feel a part of the community, both socially and educationally. Transparency about decision-making within a school can be unnerving for teachers and administrators. However, as professionals, teachers and school leaders make decisions that (should be) research-based and in the best interest of the students. If those things hold true, then working with parents, educating parents, and partnering with parents should be a priority so that the changes a school makes can be understood and celebrated, not questioned. In doing so, the direction that a school moves will be more fluid, more appreciated and, most important, supported by all constituents.
Alanna Kotler is a Lead Consultant with Educannon Consulting where she works with Jewish day schools in the areas of leadership coaching, curriculum evaluation, and development.