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PD Corner

Building Stronger School-Family Partnerships: A Culture of Care

by Carol Calil |

Many, if not all, of us are familiar with the African proverb that says: “It takes a village to raise a child.” Well, sometimes that village is quite a challenge for teachers to handle! In times when information gets home before the child has even crossed the door, how can we build bridges so that parent-teacher organizations (PTOs) do not become battlefields?

With family-teacher communication apps, cameras broadcasting classrooms in real-time, and the threat of lawsuits becoming more and more common, modern-day education seems to have done little in the sense of building partnerships that actually benefit the children. Through generations in all parts of the world, families have banned together to partner with their children’s schools, hoping to improve student experiences and outcomes (e.g., those who founded and constructed the Reggio Emilia preschool system in the aftermath of World War II; the Finnish Parents’ League, which promotes debates on the future of education, and even the group of small-town families who promoted the bake sale that raised funds for my class trip to Canada when I was a child).

Principles of Family Engagement

The Family Engagement Center, an initiative of the U.S. National PTA initiative, suggests four “I”s as the guiding principles to transform family engagement. They advocate that parent-teacher organizations be the following:

    1. Inclusive: embracing and valuing diverse perspectives
    2. Individualized: meeting the unique needs of every family and child
    3. Integrated: connected and aligned with the educational system
    4. Impactful: empowering families to support their child’s success

I would add another “I” and a “T” to the mix: informative and transparent:

    1. Informative: providing quality information to the community
    2. Transparent: using transparent communication

It’s not hard to see how far from those “I”s and “T” we are. If you are willing to spend some time in the teachers’ lounge, you’ll soon hear one of the following:

    • “Parents expect schools to educate their kids for them.”
    • “Families don’t come to meetings.”
    • “Our problem is the family, not the student.”
    • “Those parents think they know better than the school.”

Because there are two sides to every story, it’s not uncommon to hear the other side complain as well:

    • “That teacher picks on my kid.”
    • “The test wasn’t fair.”
    • “The teacher is biased.”
    • “The other kid received special treatment.”
    • “There’s too much/too little homework.”

Education is a shared effort between people with a common purpose: to care. Care is the cornerstone of the great village we call school. A culture of care is built on many different levels: in assuring the physical well-being and integrity of students and teachers, and in the way we communicate with each other to ensure respectful interaction, even (or especially) when opinions differ. So, as long as we have a common goal, and are willing to set judgment aside, there’s room to start anew.

Building a Culture of Care

First and foremost, caring means welcoming the students as they come, even before we know them. This should happen regardless of the support they may or may not have at home, to ensure that social inequality does not become a scholarly disadvantage—and while at it, why not dream a little and turn inequality into opportunity? A community that understands and respects difference fosters the ability to read the world in a more reflective and ethical way. Why is that important? Because, like teachers, families come in all shapes and forms. There is no longer a one-size-fits-all family model, and there has not been for quite a while, if there was ever one. Families come to be under different circumstances, and they are as plural as life itself: single-parent families, families by surrogacy, adoption, foster families, same-sex families, families that are rebuilt, families that separate…and the list goes on.

The same goes for schools: some value family input, and others underestimate it; some focus primarily on academic success, and others focus on whole child development. One thing is certain—schools cannot become islands, because there is no school without students and families.

Tips for Stronger School-Family Partnerships

With that in mind, here are a few tips that can help your team take a step in the right direction:

    1. Get to know your community: Take some time to get to know your students and their families. Plan meetings to get to know the families, their hopes and dreams for their children, their greatest challenges, and what they expect from the school. The closer you are, the better you will understand their wants and needs.
    2. Work on nonviolent communication: Think observation, feeling, need, and request. If both parties are able to express themselves without judgment, recognize their feelings and needs, and make clear, positive requests, there is not much room left for conflict. Teachers and staff can engage in the practical exercise of role-playing solutions to the most common problems, or the exercise of discussing possible replies to families’ messages, during team meetings or professional development sessions. This can give them the confidence and repertoire to respond promptly to families’ needs and concerns.
    3. Be transparent in your communication: Families react better when they are “in the know.” If situations that happen during the school period reach families through unofficial channels, they may feel as if the school is trying to hide something from them, and this leads to feelings of distrust and defensiveness.
    4. Build a safe space: Be receptive to feedback and open to criticism so that families feel comfortable coming to you first. Another way of helping families is by having a support group for families of atypical children; specialized help can be expensive and difficult to find.
    5. Find a format that works for your school: Be it tea with the staff, a cooking lesson with the headmaster, arts and crafts with the teachers, or a book club with the librarian, invest in building a neutral environment where teachers and families can let their guard down and make room for the connections that matter.
    6. Invite specialists from the community: Once you know the families, you will be able to identify the talents within your community. Invite the local nutritionist to a talk about healthy eating, or the yoga instructor for a meditation session with the families. The more involved the community is, the tighter the bond will be.
    7. Make a list of needs—and check it twice: You will only know if the topics you are proposing match the needs of your community if you validate them beforehand. Also, keep in mind that those needs may change throughout the year. What is a hot topic at one point may no longer be shortly after that.
    8. Use social media to your benefit: Make learning visible to families. Remember they are not in school all day; if you give them a peek at what is going on inside, they will be happy to be aware of classroom activities and feel more comfortable knowing what their student is learning.
    9. Involve the staff: Involve the staff so that they feel coresponsible for getting families motivated to take part in school events and meetings. Simple actions, like discussing the importance of an event during morning assembly, can help spread the word at home and get students excited to join.
    10. Be flexible, and some: None of this effort will pay off if the meetings are held at a time most families are busy. Poll families to find out when they’re most available and how they’d like to meet. Not every session has to be face-to-face—use technology to your advantage, especially if families prefer virtual meetings.

In almost 25 years of working in schools, I can only say that there is no surefire way of strengthening school-family partnerships. There is, however, a way to guarantee that it will not happen, and that is by not taking into consideration all the people involved in the partnership.

Strengthening connections with families requires challenging power relationships to enhance collaboration and communication, and to ultimately promote education that is transformative in all its dimensions: intellectual, physical, emotional, social, and cultural. That, too, requires the effort of a village, a village willing to let go of the need for control to prepare children to be whoever they want to be.

About the author

Carol Calil

Carol Calil is a passionate educator with 24+ years of English language teaching experience, a master's degree in applied linguistics, and an MBA in school management. She has focused her career on building strong and cohesive language teams that make learning happen beyond the classroom walls. Currently working as a school coordinator, Carol’s mission is to help teachers with the design of great learning experiences.

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