Helpers or Co-Creators? Core Dispositions in Family-School Partnerships

Father and mother Walking To School With Children

Most school and district leaders do understand this fact: Parents are important in improving and maintaining student learning. But often in schools, involving parents around academics or instruction resembles more a stiff attempt at some intergalactic transmission than a partnership based on trust, a shared vision, and mutual respect. And to be sure, many parents do feel like aliens when it comes to their children’s education.
In Creative Schools, Ken Robinson describes the experience of his co-author Lou Aronica, a writer and editor, offering to help with writing projects at his children’s school. For a number of years, Aronica’s offers were declined. What frustrates many parents is how hesitant school systems can be when it comes to accepting expertise of parents to offer enhancements to their programs. “Most districts don’t make a great use of – and even shun – these resources,” concludes Ken Robinson.
Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Karen L. Mapp, puts it well: the biggest problem with family-school partnerships is that schools’ staff often “look down on the families they serve, seeing them as hindrances rather than as potential partners.”
A lot has to do with this mindset. Our actions are reflections of our thoughts. What school and district leaders, and consequently, teachers, believe about parents, their aptitudes and roles in learning, will translate into their actions and reactions towards parents. New dispositions have to be nurtured to form a mindset of partnerships.

Seeing parents as experts

Perhaps the first change might come with understanding that schools, and therefore educators, serve the public, and parents are essential part of that public, with a huge vested interest  – their kids. All families have skills to help their children succeed, and most parents are experts when it comes to their children.

Thinking “colleagues”

Partnerships involve relationships among people. When people are nice to each other and non-confrontational, their relationships are congenial. Many teachers and school administrators strive to build congenial relationships inside and outside of school walls. While, of course, there is nothing wrong with nice, partnerships cannot be built on mere congeniality.
Educators and parents have to see each other as partners, rather than friends or acquaintances. Partnerships are collegial relationships based on shared participation and decision-making. To put it simply, in a congenial relationship, a parent might make copies or read with students; in a collegial relation, he or she might give a feedback on the learning process.

Willing to give and share

Alongside, comes the ‘give and take’ nature of any relationship: What do we wish to gain by embracing partnerships? What are we willing to give? Often, administrators and educators work with parents to obtain some help, support, or resources for their practices, schools and classrooms, but have the mental models of MY classroom and MY school.  
Partnerships are based on shared ownership. It is not about parents or community “helping” schools to educate their children. It is about co-creating a system where kids learn.  This implies interdependence, as A. Bryk &  B. Schneider state, when “regardless of how much formal power any given role has in a school community, all participants must remain dependent on others to achieve desired outcomes and feel empowered by their efforts.” In a school setting, this might mean shifting locus of control and sharing power and resources, often including parents in school and district decision-making entities.  

Letting go of defense and walls

Trust among people who are working together in a peer setting is the cornerstone of partnerships. There is a lot of evidence, including a longitudinal study of 400 elementary schools, that relational trust plays the major part in building productive education communities. Trust, especially in a partnership, is a multi-faceted concept that includes benevolence, honesty, openness, reliability, and competence.
Involving parents in district or school governance, for example, mandates trust in their benevolence – that they will be driven by the common goal. Genuinely listening to parental perspectives, and most notably, taking these perspectives into consideration in future actions on academic matters, takes openness and trust in their competence. In trust-based partnerships, following through is viewed as a symbol of honor and promises are kept at all costs, no matter how insignificant they might seem.
“The phenomenon of changing minds is one of the least examined and least understood of familiar human experiences,” points out Howard Gardner in his book Changing Minds. “[…] individuals or groups abandon the way in which they have customarily thought about an issue of importance and henceforth conceive of it in a new way.” There is no question that building partnerships is a two-way process and both schools and families share responsibility for it. Yet, because educators hold the official power in education, it falls on them to model attitudes of partnerships.  To be partners, parents need to be treated as partners.
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Arina Bokas is the Bailey Lake PTA Vice President and the host of the Future of Learning television series on Independence TV.

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1 Comment

Matt Harrell

This is great. I experienced it just this morning. A few key folks from our PTA had a meeting with the Principal at our kids elementary school and it's clear that our principal really values the trust and partnership that's forming between teachers/staff and parents. If every school took this seriously then parent engagement will increase and so will student achievement.

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