Chapter Eight: Parents and Families, Communities and Schools
Jan and Gordon left the staff meeting together and walked down the corridor to the general office. Picking up a cup of stale coffee, they went into Jan’s crowded office, cleared off a couple of chairs, and sat down. At the staff meeting, Gordon, the principal of Fernwood Elementary School, had presented the board’s budget projections for the next year; they were going to require some cutbacks in staff positions. On top of these general cutbacks, the board had informed him that the funding for Jan’s position of community liaison worker would no longer be provided separately by the board, but instead would have to come out of the school’s general staffing budget.
Gordon had told everyone at the meeting that he would be initiating a series of discussions over the next few days with all of the staff before any decisions were made about the plans for next year. However, from the discussions that followed his announcement there emerged many different opinions among the group over staffing priorities. Furthermore, while Jan was a well-respected staff member at the school, it was clear that her position was, once again, in jeopardy. While Rina and Wayne, the early childhood teachers, had stated that they simply couldn’t run their program without her, other teachers had made their own claims for support positions, including instructional assistants for their classes, guidance teachers, and librarians.
“Well,” said Gordon, “this is going to be a tough few weeks. So, what else is new! One of these years maybe we’ll get a budget that actually lets us do our job. You know, it’s ironic, we have built a program of parent and community involvement here that really works, and yet every year we’ve had to fight to keep the funding for your position. And without you, or at least without your position, it would be really difficult to do half of what we’re doing now. Even our own teachers, who know how important you are, still seem to see what you do as different from the heart of our job as educators. It says something about what we think schools are, and how children learn.”
“Yeah, we really do need the position,” replied Jan now. “You know, there are days when I really don’t think that I’ve achieved anything, but when you look back over what we’ve been able to put in place over the last five years, we do have something to be proud of here. The early childhood centre, the volunteer program, the preschool and before-and-after-school day cares, the job training programs, the parents’ association, and all the other stuff. I think we really have built strong connections with our communities. You know we had over 100 parent volunteers in our school last year—that’s nearly a quarter of all students’ families. And it makes a big difference: the teachers appreciate the help, and they notice the positive effects it has on the kids when they see mums and dads working together with the teachers. But if individual teachers have to do all the recruiting, organizing, and coordinating on their own, it won’t work as well; they just don’t have the time to do it all, especially when there are problems to be resolved. And if the parents don’t feel that they are both welcomed and put to good use, they’re not going to keep volunteering. By the way, I need your signature on the funding application to the Phillips Foundation for our summer school program. That’s looking quite promising.”
At that moment, Rina and Wayne knocked on the open door and walked into the office. “Ok,” Rina said abruptly, “we’ve got to get organized here. We can’t lose Jan, period. Our early childhood centre is absolutely essential to everything else that happens in this school, and we need Jan’s help to make it work.”
The centre, a large multipurpose room in the school, was funded by a special grant from the province and specialized in providing learning activities for children from birth to age 8. Its two full-time staff were also responsible for maintaining a drop-in centre for parents with infants, organizing play groups for preschool children and their parents, and co-ordinating the “book mates” home-reading program at the school. They also organized parent workshops and worked collaboratively with the primary-grade teachers to provide supplementary learning activities.
“And,” Rina continued, “if the Grades 5 and 6 teachers don’t see how vital these activities are, then we’ve got some consciousness-raising to do in the next little while.”
Gordon got up to leave. “OK, look, we’ll get back to this and keep talking. You know where I stand on the importance of parent and community involvement. You know, I think we really need to rethink the way in which most teachers and parents view each other. It’s so out of touch with the needs of schooling today. Perhaps it all has to begin with the faculties of education and the ways we train and socialize our new teachers.”
It is largely taken for granted that families and schools are both primary institutions involved in the socialization and education of society’s youth; it is also well documented that home influences have a substantial impact on school success. But in spite of this intertwining of objectives, and the interactive effects of each institution on the other, the relationships between parents and teachers are most often characterized by distance and suspicion rather than close collaboration. In this chapter the terms ‘parent’ and ‘parent/caregiver’ used interchangeably as an umbrella term that needs to include those people who constitute the primary caregivers for children in schools which may often include grandparents, guardians, and sometimes elder siblings. This appreciation is central to the discussion of effective home-school relationships. Beginning teachers at all grade levels have ranked relations with parents/caregivers as one of the most difficult aspects of their work, along with classroom management, student motivation, and responding to individual differences.
For many years now in Canada, and internationally, there have been calls for a much greater degree of school-initiated co-operation and collaboration between parents and teachers. A growing body of research is being cited to support the assumption that teachers and parents are “co-producers” of student learning – that they share common objectives for children that are best achieved when they can work together. The first part of this chapter examines those issues with respect to the following questions:
- How do families affect school experiences and school success?
- How do families and schools normally interact?
- What models exist for restructuring parent–teacher relationships, and what claims are made to support them?
While parent/family and teacher linkages are important aspects of school life, and critical to the role of the teacher, there is a broader context to be considered. Families do not exist in isolation; they live with other families in groups that might loosely be referred to as communities. Several authors (e.g., Coleman, 1988, Kretzmann & McKnight, 1993; Robson, 2013) have drawn attention to the significance of an understanding of community expectations and community “social capital” to the production of effective schools. Accordingly, in the second part of this chapter, we examine the relationship between schools and families in their capacity as communities.