Rethinking our Village

 When the first days of school closure occurred, I -- like so many school leaders -- began to ponder how the needs of students would be met. As a Big Picture school, these complex needs (social, emotional, physical, etc.) are addressed one student at a time with an unapologetic focus on the students’ interests and passions  Our normal day to day instructional design allows this type of work to be built around the student’s advisor and those relationships that are fostered with peers in their advisory each day. But in a twenty-four-hour period, things changed. Our students no longer have the joy of arriving in their comfortable classrooms designed by and for the advisory. Absent are the welcoming smiles of their peers and assuring hugs of their advisor each day. The person(s) who is perhaps closer than the student’s advisor and who knows the student even better now has been handed the baton to do the heavy lifting in a way that they probably feel inadequate or unprepared to assume. These are our parents. Forged in this time of uncertainty is an opportunity to develop authentic partnerships with our parents in a way that schools have never experienced before. For the first time, educators must truly listen to our parents and figure out together how to work towards a common goal -- loving and educating our children.

During the first few weeks of the school closure, our leadership team made a diligent effort to connect with our advisors and our students to hear their voices; determine physical and/or emotional needs and to begin devising a distance learning plan. However, it was during the week following spring break that I realized that the success of any distance learning plan would hinge solely on leveraging the relationships with our parents while also hearing their voices and supporting them in real time. Of course, I wish I could say that this epiphany came to us naturally. On the contrary, it came from a parent via email.

Even though I knew our methods of how we would educate students was changing rapidly with the new dependence on virtual technology there was one important area we had miscalculated. It took one email to help me realize that this was not business as usual.

I am a single mom and I am still working an 8 hour shift each day. I have three (3) children. Each of them at three different schools with information coming from at least five teachers for each of them. I don’t want to sound ungrateful, and I appreciate what you all are trying to do. But I am overwhelmed, and I don’t have a clue how to manage this. I need help!!

While reading this mother’s email, I felt the sheer desperation and I realized that I had greatly underestimated what some -- if not most --  of our parents were experiencing. It became apparent that my role to partner with parents during this pandemic would require an entirely different approach. The regular approach of engaging parents with school updates; resources to support their student; addressing student behavior issues; completing college applications; recommending quality internships; or encouraging exhibition participation became irrelevant. To address the pressing needs during today’s everchanging landscape caused by the pandemic, it would require schools to leverage the relationships that were built prior to COVID 19. The uniqueness of a Big Picture school is that we not only know our students’ passions/interests, we also take the time to know our families. This is the foundation of our approach to parent engagement. Therefore, when the doors of our school closed, we made a deliberate decision to rethink our parent engagement approaches to address the new reality of how we would meet the needs of our students.  

Here are some of the insights that we have learned so far about parent engagement since we have been in our new virtual educational environment:

Acknowledge to yourself and your parents that we are all learning together. Acknowledge to parents that they are the first teachers of their children and they know their children's needs better than us. One of the best ways to develop trust is to be willing to be vulnerable. Take the time to assess the needs of your families/parents. This can be in a digital survey. But nothing supersedes a face-to-face dialogue—even if it is virtual. After communicating to parents in email during the first few days of the closure, I knew it would be necessary to allow our parents to hear from me directly. During a virtual community meeting with our parents I was able to share what I knew; what information would be forthcoming; and I provided parents with an opportunity to ask questions. By holding this forum, our parents were able to receive first-hand information. This included information about how to access resources; social-emotional learning support; distance learning plans; communication plans; etc.
Adapt your role as a leader and the role of advisors/teachers to support parents in the new responsibilities they are embracing in their homes. Let’s be honest, because of our roles as educators we quickly began to supply parents with virtual learning opportunities and paper packets, so they can begin teaching their children at home. Although I believe all parents want to do the very best they can for their children, all are not able to do this type of focused instruction for their child. Therefore, we must be willing to adapt our expectations to meet the varied needs of our families. This means we must connect and listen to our parents. If a parent is unable to provide instruction using the material that we provide, then we should adapt the learning based on what parents can do and what students are able to do. If that means cooking; cleaning; babysitting; doing laundry; helping with an elderly parent, then that is how we adapt the learning to support families. In our roles we are now coaches and cheerleaders to our parents. Our willingness to be flexible will encourage our parents to share their struggles and trust us to help figure out strategies together to educate our children. Our parent engagement approach has become one parent/family at a time.
Appreciate parents often and genuinely. With every parent contact or communication, as educators it is pertinent that we offer sincere encouragement. Remind them consistently that we think about them and that we are aware of the difficult task they are encountering during this unprecedented time. This can be done through social media posts; weekly electronic messages; cards in the mail; personal phone calls; etc. Parents are balancing their daily lives while trying to figure out how to manage the educational needs of their children. Don’t be afraid to let them know that they are loved and appreciated. Regrettably, some of our parents won’t hear this unless it comes from us. Go ahead and call or connect with a parent today and say thank you!!
Accessibility is by far the one of the most important parent engagement practices that a school leader and her team can give to their parents, especially during this global crisis. Parents have a lot of questions related to resources, academics, strategies, district requirements, grades, transcripts, college enrollment questions, project/exhibitions, internships, community service opportunities, technology, community information, graduation, refunds, school building access, driver license forms, student records, plans for next year, etc. You get the point. In a normal time, parents could drop by or simply call the front office, but COVID 19 has changed that. Some practices to increase accessibility include having a dedicated phone number (I use a Google number) for parents to text or call and all advisors (teachers)/counselor share their phone number as well with students and families. Updating social media accounts multiple times during the day and a one-stop website or other virtual source for parents to access information is essential. It is also essential that emails and voicemails are answered timely. Many families’ situations are changing constantly, so a response may be crucial in helping a family navigate anything from housing, health, meals or safety.
Affirm to parents/families that they are not alone and that together we will survive this current situation. More than ever, our parents need to hear positivity. They need to hear they are doing the best they can for their children. Earlier, I shared with you the email that I received from a mother who was feeling overwhelmed and in so many ways expressing hopelessness in her ability to meet the educational needs of her children. The affirmation I gave to her was simple. I affirmed to her that she was doing her best and that we are committed to stand with her. At that moment, I wanted to provide her with assurance that her work as a mother is to love/care for her children and that supersedes any project, worksheet or zoom meeting.  

On a final note, Merriam Webster defines engagement as “an arrangement to meet or be present at a specified time and place….an emotional involvement or commitment.” Today more than ever as educators we are being called to dig a little deeper; connect in new ways and rethink how we approach our work of educating children. Sadly, our parents have sometimes been overlooked or ignored in the past. Due to our present circumstances we can no longer ignore the promise we made to parents: the promise to meet; to be present; to commit. It has been proven time and time again that to educate students effectively parent engagement is necessary. If we didn’t know it before, we know it now. Let’s get Engaged!!