How Much Parent Involvement Do Educators Really Want?

By TeachMoore

Editor's note: This is the first in a series of four guest blogs on how teachers view parent engagement and involvement in public schools.  Stay tuned for a contribution from teacher-blogger Larry Ferlazzo.

I grew up in a big city and graduated from a magnet high school that had 5,000 students. My teachers barely knew who I was, much less who my parents were. How different from the Mississippi school districts where I’ve taught for nearly two decades. The total population of one town was just under 2,000, and half of them were students in our schools.

Parent involvement takes on a very different meaning when I see the parents of my students every week ringing me up in the grocery store, rinsing me out at the beauty shop, tuning up my car at the local garage, or delivering my mail. I worship with them, bowl with them, sit in the waiting rooms with them. I know them, and they trust me.

Trust is the issue with most parents. Here in the Delta, over 40% of the adults are illiterate; others have

had very little formal education. Even those who finished school often had to do it over significant obstacles. Some parents had horrible educational experiences as children, particularly in the period of transition from the segregated schools. Like our urban colleagues, we have increasing numbers of parents who speak little or no English. Many of our parents simply trust us to do what is best for their children because we are the professionals.

Principal Shannon Flounnory of Stonewall Tell Elementary School in College Park, Georgia puts it this way: “High levels of parental involvement would be an outstanding asset, but if we don’t get it, then we still have a responsibility to the students we serve.”

As part of a classroom research project several years ago, I interviewed many parents and set up a response group. They repeatedly expressed dismay over the increasing number of adults working in the schools who did not take the time to know their children as individuals or to care about them as persons. My husband and I have raised 11 children, all of whom attended public school. Every one of them had different abilities, talents, personalities, and habits. We tried to help their teachers understand how best to work with each of them, but we also expected their teachers to learn about our children for themselves and work with each one appropriately. The good teachers did; the lazy ones wouldn’t.

Despite years of studies and initiatives, educators and administrators across the country are still wringing their hands and shaking their heads over the need for “more parental involvement in our public schools.” But what exactly do we educators mean by “parental involvement”? Two common scenarios seem to prevail:

#1. Send us your child: Clean, well-dressed, fed, disciplined, obedient, eager-to-learn, cooperative, and (preferably) already reading, counting, and computer literate. In 12 years (give or take a few months), we’ll send the little darling back to you ready to use that college trust fund.

#2. Come to school when we call you and deal with your child (this usually means there is a disciplinary problem); send money, supplies, science fair project boards, and your signature when required. You may come on parent night or to special events.

That’s not always what we get, of course. What about…

The parent who believes public education means the public gets to run it. The parent who wants to approve lesson plans, classroom rules, and the reading list. The parent who questions the necessity and logic of homework or class assignments. The parent who demands to see staff credentials, has a copy of the curriculum guide, and highlights the school’s published report card, noting deficiencies. The parent who has the principal’s cell phone number and that of the school board president on speed dial. The parent who visits the classroom frequently--and stays. The parent who never misses PTA meeting and always has questions, suggestions, or criticisms for the staff.

When I hear fellow educators lamenting the lack of parental involvement and blaming parents for not supporting their children’s education, I wonder which of these scenarios they’d rather see? There are some places where meaningful parental involvement is routine. In those places where it is not, there are reasons--and some of those reasons are us, the educators. If we had genuine parental involvement from the majority of our parents, how many of us could really take the pressure?

Some of the best and brightest students I have ever taught had parents who were not just dysfunctional; they were dangerous. Conversely, some of the lowest performing students I know of had parents who were passionately interested in their education. Many things can hinder effective parental involvement; not the least of which is the unwelcoming attitudes of educators or the limits we put on when and how we want parental input. How many educators are using lack of parental involvement (or, lack of the kind of involvement we would like) as an excuse for low expectations and minimal instruction, particularly for the children of the poor or children of color?

After a 12-year career as a freelance journalist, Detroit native Renee Moore moved to rural Mississippi with her minister husband, earned teaching credentials, and taught high school English for 16 years. She now teaches college and high school students at Mississippi Delta Community College and supports a youth ministry. A former Mississippi state Teacher of the Year and winner of the Milken Educator Award, Moore serves on the board of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Her blog TeachMoore can be found at the Teacher Leaders Network website.