Stop. Don’t waste another Back To School Night, a rare opportunity when you have many or most of your parents and all of your teachers on campus, a large, diverse swath of community stakeholders. Traditionally we shuffle people as fast as we can from room to room so teachers can hand out sheaves of paper that they could have sent via email or home with students, telling parents about all the content they are going to cram into students’ heads during the year, or begging them to sign up to chaperone a field trip.
What if we use events like Back To School Night to unwrap our community’s shared ethos and interest about great learning? What if we place empathetic understanding of the mutual challenges of parents, students, and teachers at the center of our sense of “community”? What if we listen TO and share ideas AMONGST our customers rather that talking AT them?
On a busy and fast-paced #Edchat the other night, colleagues shared obstacles and ideas about how to better engage their parents in the community of the school. Some complained that parents don’t want to come to campus. Some questioned why faculty would want to open a door for parent complaints. One person even proudly posted that their school provides new teachers with a “Guide to Surviving Parents”. Why the heck would parents want to engage authentically with the school if they are viewed as obstacles and enemies, if when they do come to campus we sit them down, like we do their students so much of the day, and give them a lecture?
Schools that believe in maximizing value for their customer-families use every opportunity when parents are on campus to explore mutual interests that can positively impact learning for their children. They ask expansive questions, listen to the answers, and use them to initiate collaborative discussions amongst diverse sets of stakeholders.
Here is what this looks like, and it takes very little time; you will still have plenty of time for teachers to hand out their syllabi (really?):
- Gather in the biggest open room you have, probably the gym, with lots of tables full of pads of post it notes.
- Ask attendees (mix teachers and parents together!) to write short answers on post it notes to prompts that help unwrap their beliefs about the school. Some I like to start with:
- What does great learning look like to you?
- What does great teaching look like to you?
- What are your hopes and dreams for your children?
- What skills do our students need to succeed after school?
- Ask table groups to organize their responses, look for similarities, discuss, and report back some key findings to the larger room.
- You can do all of the above in 15-20 minutes.
If you have a bit more time, or at a parent coffee some other time, have students and teachers interview parents with questions like:
- “Tell me about a time when this school really succeeded for your child.”
- “Tell me about a time when we really failed.”
- “Tell me about a time when your child was really excited about something we were doing in school.”
- “Tell me about a time that your child hated school that day.”
These are not survey questions with A-D answers; these are real opportunities to express desires, frustrations, and ideas. People who share those with others develop relationships that, when tested by the inevitable challenges of school-community life, will strengthen your ability to react positively.
And here is the real power of this kind of expansive collaboration: go through the same process with your faculty and students. You and they are going to find out something powerful: the groups agree on much more than they disagree. You are going to find out that most stakeholders agree on the fundamentals of a great learning experience, which begins to build a strong foundation for focusing on, or shifting to, a “learning-centric” school.
Don’t reserve this kind of inclusive, empathetic community interaction for Back To School Night. Make it a frequent, short-burst activity every time any group of stakeholders meet: faculty meetings, department meetings, parent coffees, ball games, stage productions. Think up great prompts that tell you what your stakeholders actually feel, and let them tell you in equally short, anonymous bursts.
And then do something about it. Reflect back to the community on what you heard and what you are doing with that knowledge. Then ask and listen some more.