Editor's Note: Today's post comes from Jenni Bader
While it is true that teaching has been a dream of mine since I was a child, I did not originally enroll in college as an education major. After working for three years as a special education para at an elementary school, I didn't want any part of the bureaucratic red tape I had seen my teacher friends fight their way through day after day. My passion for helping people had grown stronger, but I was convinced there must be some other way to achieve that goal. I had ample opportunity as a para to see the baggage that so many children come to school carrying, and it made me angry that some of this was due to abuse or neglect on the part of parents. Yet, I also saw that most parents do love their children and want to see them succeed in school but that many do not have the resources or have needs and problems of their own that get in the way of helping their children.
With the desire to help both parents and children, I explored social work as an option before settling on psychology as my major. During my year in the psychology program, I took Community Psychology, which, along with some encouragement from my English 101 instructor, eventually led me back to teaching. Through that Community Psychology class, I realized a few things.
That's right, I'm gonna make my dreams come true--doin' it my way.
(Yes, I am old a returning adult student and I watched way too much TV as a child.)
So, imagine my delight upon completing my first reading assignment for my English Methods 2 class titled "Involving Parents and the Community," a chapter from Myths and Realities: Best Practices for English Language Learners by Samway and McKeon. Although the book appears to primarily deal with English language learners, this chapter brings to the forefront questions I had as a parent of children in public school, ideas that emerged from my observations as a para in a rural district with few minorities or ELL students, and issues faced regularly in my student teaching placements in an extremely diverse urban district. I believe the principles and strategies in this brief chapter can be successfully applied anywhere and the potential is tremendous. Uge, I say! Absolutely uge! Make our schools great again!
Too soon? Ah, well, something it is certainly not too soon for is parent and community involvement. In fact, this is a particularly timely topic with an incoming Secretary of Education who touts parent choice in education as reason to institute a voucher system that would take money away from public schools without ensuring increased quality for schools or greater academic gains for students. While it is not my aim to discuss Betsy DeVos' qualifications, further examine her proposed methods, or support in any way the ideas she has put forth, I would like to point to one fault I see in the majority of our public schools that may be helping forward the rhetoric of those who agree with DeVos.
The simple fact is that many schools have failed to use one of the best resources available to them: the very communities from which they draw their student populations and within whose boundaries they reside. While scrambling for government funding, we have forgotten that the best facilities, textbooks, and technology mean nothing unless our students make the best use of whatever resources and opportunities they have access to. In order to get students to the point where they are actively availing themselves of all that schools offer them, families and communities as a whole need to help reinforce the value and necessity of education. Yet schools often push away parents and other community members who should be their best allies rather than welcoming them and encouraging their involvement.
Perhaps educators' defensive stance and habit of presenting themselves as the sole experts and givers of knowledge1 is an understandable reaction to a public constantly questioning teachers' qualifications and effectiveness and too ready to cast the blame for society's ills upon schools.
Perhaps. But the cycle of blame and resentment must end somewhere if we are to work together toward that common goal that parents, educators, and all community members share: raising children to be happy, healthy, and successful individuals, engaged in the community.
As leaders within the community, educators must take the first steps to build bridges between home life and school life and open up the pathways for community involvement within the schools. "Involving Parents and the Community" cites four levels of cooperation first identified by Menacker, Hurwitz, and Weldon (1988) for school personnel to develop: parents as clients, parents as producers, parents as consumers, and parents as governors2. The first level, parents as clients, may be the most familiar to our thinking about schools, although it challenges the typical view of the student as the client with parents largely out of the equation. The next three levels, however, are where we can really expand community involvement and begin to tap the wealth of resources available within our communities.
With parents as producers, educators retain their role with a wider pool of resources as parents and other community members take on responsibilities that help the school function. The chapter lists some jobs that parents frequently volunteer for such as helping in the classroom or on the playground, but help with these tasks becomes less necessary in high schools. Parental involvement in middle schools and high schools can be tricky, too, as teens work to establish their independence, but roles for parent and community volunteers abound. The possibilities are only limited by imagination and the effort we are willing to put into seeking and establishing these opportunities.
Every community has members with knowledge and skills to share, and it is a human conceit that we tend to value those who take an interest in us. When school personnel show their faith in the ability of community members to add something valuable to the school and community, interest in doing so rises. Likewise, when the community shows it values students by investing time, effort, and resources, students see themselves as valuable and gain interest in contributing in turn to the community. Thus begins a virtuous cycle antipodal to the current cycle commonly seen.
The parents as consumers level brings parents and community members into the school on a regular basis for programs that aid or benefit them. This may involve classes that help community members with English language acquisition or teach parents strategies for helping their children succeed in school; support or focus groups for addressing individual, family, or community problems; or partnerships with health clinics and others interested in expanding service within the community to name only a few possibilities. For a number of years these ideas have been implemented with great success in several urban schools, but the idea has yet to catch on in most places.
At the level of parents as governors, parents and community members share in making decisions that affect their local schools. For most of us, this only happens when voting for school board members or on special issues or if a huge controversy is scheduled to be discussed at a school board meeting. Even at these times, community members do not turn out in large numbers to voice their concerns or influence policy. Viewing parents as governors, however, requires schools to actively seek greater participation from community members in setting and implementing policy--something educators and administrators generally balk at. The effort to keep the larger community out of this decision making process, however, has only helped to fuel the flames that people like Betsy DeVos and Sam Brownback try to throw on public education. The answer is not to tighten the ranks and further distance the public the school system is designed to serve but to welcome that public in and tap the wealth of resources it has to offer, and it begins with establishing the first three levels of parents as clients, parents as producers, and parents as consumers so that parents are then informed and capable to become parents as governors.
There are so many more things I would like to write on this topic and links and articles from that Community Psychology class I need to find. For now, I'll close with another cheesy inspirational moment from 1970s television for my fellow student teachers who can turn the world on with a smile.
(Tosses hat into the air) This is it! Only one more semester to go! You're gonna make it after all!
And one more:
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