One big, happy family

An experiment with deeper teacher-family relationships

Dinoo Kelleghan

Clayton Reedie at Harvard during his course

Clayton Reedie came home from Harvard determined to co-opt families as teaching partners in the education of their children.

Mr Reedie, principal of Dalmeny Public in southwestern Sydney, who went to Harvard on a scholarship in July along with other 170 principals from around the world, says the most compelling instruction he received from lectures on school leadership and organisational success was to end the disengagement of families from their children’s schooling.

The inspiration came from Harvard senior lecturer in education Karen Mapp, whose framework for Family-School Partnerships was adopted by the United States Education Department and released two years ago as a downloadable model for schools and districts.

Ms Mapp found two major blocks to effective engagement: first, “none of the stakeholders have really had any good guidance”; second, staff had been left behind in the focus on getting families to the table: “They’re not providing that same kind of development and support for their staff”, she said in an article published by Harvard University.

Mr Reedie plans to start a pilot project at his school next year based on Ms Mapp’s framework. The glow in his eyes hasn’t blinded him to the complexities of the task both with teachers, with their plethora of duties, and the students’ families.

“I haven’t spoken to staff about it yet,” he said, “and I’m not going to stand up in front of teachers and say, ‘From next year, we’ll …’. I’m mindful of their workload.

“I would never have an expectation that teachers would automatically engage with this. It would be voluntary.” He will discuss strategies individually with anyone interested once he’s mapped them out in more detail.

In broad terms, teachers could engage with families in a specific area such as reading. Going beyond the usual parent-teacher interviews, a teacher would systematically “provide parents with data on their children’s academic progress to move to a deeper level of family involvement with children’s learning”.

In the reading scenario, families would be instructed on the level of their children’s reading, their fluency, the number of read words per minute and the benchmark expectations for these abilities. Families would be supported with resources so that they understand what the teachers are trying to achieve and what they can do together with the teachers to help their children.

“We’ll provide written support and scaffolding that parents can use. There’s some budget flexibility to start on this,” Mr Reedie said.

The school will look beyond parents to a brother or sister, grandparents, building positive relationships with each family.

Securing family engagement won’t be easy: even though the school has 1030 students only 15 parents turned up recently for a workshop for parents. “I’ll be honest,” Mr Reedie said, “we have Meet the Teacher afternoons where I get just 10 of 30 parents turning up.

“My goal will be to start very small.”

Karen Mapp is forthright, saying parents like to come in when they feel respected by staff and that principals and teachers must ask themselves whether they have built a solid relationship with families, not just contacting them when there’s a problem with a child’s progress or sending them a flyer about a parent workshop.

“Why, in fact, are parents not very involved in their children’s schooling?” asks University of Verona Professor Paola Dusi in a 2012 study, The Family-School Relationships in Europe: A Research Review. For an infinite number of reasons … from time to energy, from economic resources to a lack of familiarity with the school system, from the knowledge of curriculum to trust in the true ability to be of help to one’s child; from convictions regarding what parenting means and to the functions related to the changing ages of the child and personal experience of a parent’s own schooling and with teachers.”

Professor Dusi reported studies showed that "parents received contradictory messages from teachers" — that when they are absent they are judged inadequate but that they are a hindrance if “overly present”. Worse, teachers sometimes saw low-income and minority group families as “part of the problem” and in no way as possible co-partners in their children’s education.

Schools have to offer programs that families want, Ms Mapp emphasises. “Don’t make assumptions about what families need and want without asking them first. You not only have to ask about the content of workshops and training but also what supports parents need in order to attend those events, such as childcare and translation services.”

These are just some of the issues that will stretch Mr Reedie’s staff and budget but the results will be worth it: in Karen Mapp’s words, he will have “staff who can honour and recognise the wealth of knowledge that families possess, which can in turn assist schools with pedagogical priorities; and families that can negotiate multiple roles — as supporters, monitors, advocates and decision-makers for their children.”

Clayton Reedie won the 2016 Harvard Scholarship through the Public Education Foundation, funded by Teachers Mutual Bank. He is principal of Dalmeny PS and was previously principal at Hinchinbrook, Chipping Norton and Mount Hunter public schools.

Click here for PDF of this story