Presentation to English Language School Board School Principals Meeting

At the December meeting of all English Language School Board principals, held at Centre Belle-Alliance in Summerside on Monday, December 1, 2014, I delivered the following presentation on "home-school relations."

Fifty-seven years ago Mrs. J. Gordon MacDonald contributed a piece to The Guardian, at the request of the PEI Teachers Federation, under the headline “Widening Educational Horizons,” about the importance of what she called “home-school relations.”

She wrote, in part:

The past fifty years have taught us about children and how they develop. Thoughtful people for centuries have puzzled over this mystery: but only in recent times has the child been made the object of scientific study. We have employed to good advantage controlled studies, longitudinal studies and objective techniques as well as highly skilled clinical observations. The new insights coming from these studies are one more reason for home-school relations. We know today that children are not just Topsys who just “growed up.” They are helped or hindered by the way little events of their every day lives are handled. Working with children is increasingly considered a job calling for some degree of expertness. Just anyone should not do the job, (be he parent or teacher) operating on hunches and prejudices, and old wive’s tales about what is good and what isn’t, what works and what doesn’t.

We count on close home-school relations to spread as widely as possible our new knowledge about youngsters. We see close relations as a means whereby all children can grow up in homes and schools that are tuned to their nature and to their needs. We have high hopes but again too high hopes build us up for a let-down. Disappointment sets in when we discover that fundamental changes in parent-child relationships can only come about slowly. Wise action comes only when the facts have been absorbed and integrated into a point of view about children. Home-school relations can significantly share in building this philosophy among parents and teachers. But even the best programs in home-school relations cannot quickly build a philosophy of living with children. A philosophy is not built on one parent-teacher meeting: it grows slowly, almost imperceptibly through many experiences through the years.

Mrs. MacDonald went on to enumerate the goals of home-school relations:

To bring about a better understanding between teachers and parents, of what children are like.
To bring about a better understanding between teachers and parents of good education.

When these goals are achieved, she continued, children:

Have a richer, fuller, more nourishing life, in school and out, than would otherwise be open for them. and,
They have more consistent guidance in school and out: they stand a better chance of living up to the peak of their powers.

She concluded:

These are our hopes for our children. They are hopes with ceiling unlimited. None can ever know for sure when the top has been reached. The task is to keep welding a tighter parent-teacher team in shape and on the job continuously. The more unity there is, the more children will benefit.

I could stop right here, as Mrs. MacDonald, 57 years ago, did as good a job as I could ever hope to in describing the central role of home and school to the process of teaching our children.

But I will continue, a little, and try to put this in a modern context reflecting “today’s home and school.”

To begin, it’s important that you understand that throughout the home and school movement there is a deep understanding of the central role that school principals play in establishing a firm foundation on which to build home-school relations.

Any home and school president will tell you that at schools with a principal who understands the importance of building bridges between home and school, who believes in involving parents and teachers in serious discussions about education, who practices true engagement, home and school can thrive, and the entire school community benefits.

Conversely, at schools where principals look to home and school primarily as a “parents’ auxiliary,” as a fundraising arm, and as a body they provide information to but do not engage with, home and school can wither and die, and the school community suffers.

I’m happy to say that in Prince Edward Island we benefit from the former being the predominant approach, and we have those of you in this room to thank for this.

Let me give you some practical examples, from my own experience, of how to go about “welding that tighter parent-teacher team” that Mrs. MacDonald talked about.

Three years ago at Prince Street Elementary, we took a home and school meeting to review the results of the SHAPES survey on student health. We had a good, diverse group of parents along with a few teachers and both administrators, and we went through each of the SHAPES survey sections looking at results for the school and discussed them in detail, talking about what we could do, together, to address areas of concern, and celebrating areas of success. Not only did practical, positive changes result from those discussions, but the sense that we were all working together toward the same end was driven home to everyone present.

At last month’s home and school meeting at Birchwood Intermediate Principal Ron Carragher arranged to have two teachers, one language arts and one math, come and discuss common assessments results with parents. What followed was a very thorough back-and-forth about everything from the rationale for common assessments to the particulars of BIrchwood student’s results. The discussion was free-flowing, parents learned a lot more about the tests and their role, and teachers got a chance to understand more about how parents view testing.

For me, perhaps the greatest example this year of home and school helping to weld that parent-teacher team happened at Miscouche Consolidated where I had the pleasure of helping the local home and school association elect a new executive as part of the “meet the staff” night.

As parents, teachers and staff entered the gymnasium, each was handed a yellow card. I started off my brief presentation about home and school by asking everyone in the room to raise their yellow card, asked them to hold them in the air, and then to take a look around the room: that, I told the group, was home and school… everyone holding up a yellow card was a member, and we were there that night to elect an executive to guide that group.

I am happy to report that a new executive was, indeed, elected, with a teacher and a parent agreeing to be co-chairs; at the social after the formal meeting the mood was positive and collegial.

When we all focus on “bringing about a better understanding between teachers and parents,” great things are possible.

Let me use that story about Miscouche to remind you of an important point that is sometimes forgotten: home and school isn’t a “parents organization,” it’s an organization of parents, guardians, teachers, administrators and staff in each school.  

Home and school is a cooperative organization of all of those parties, and it works best when engagement and dialog are at the core of how the group operates, and when the focus, as in 1957, is the education of our children.

While that focus doesn’t exclude activities we may popularly associate with home and school – bake sales, spring flings, and the like – concentrating on developing a common understanding of teaching and learning is where home and school holds most promise.

Now while home and school isn’t a “parents organization,” parents are certainly a unique part of the home and school because we’re not living and breathing public education every day as teachers, administrators and staff are. And so engaging parents in home and school, and in education in general, is often challenging.

I am famous around the home and school table for, several years ago in a discussion of substance abuse, reminding my fellow board members that home and school includes the pot-smoking parents just as much as any other.

And I was serious: the parents of PEI are as diverse a group as you will find, socio-economically, politically, educationally, and as regards their feelings about public schooling. We have to remember that in everything we do.

I had a great discussion this Saturday with a teacher who had read my column in The Guardian last month where I focused on how parents could prepare ourselves for parent-teacher interviews.

One of the things we chatted about is how for many parents their first parent-teacher interview is the first time they’ve been in a public school since their own public education, and it’s the first time they’ve been in a situation where it’s permissible to admit that teachers have first names. And lives.  And where those teachers are their partners in education.

To say nothing of the notion that many might hold bad or indifferent memories about their own public school days, and the very notion of voluntarily spending time in a school isn’t something they welcome.

Finding a way of building a unity of purpose, of engaging a diverse parent group in a way that optimally benefits children, is a tremendous challenge: combine those misgivings with the perception that attending a home and school meeting is an inevitable route to being volunteered to run the bake sale table, and add in family lives that are busier now than ever before, and you realize quickly that we all need to all work harder to find novel ways of communicating, engaging, meeting, welding.

I want to finish up by leaving you with some practical suggestions on how to do just that:

  1. Encourage your staff, at the intermediate and high school level, to make maximal use of StudentsAchieve. SAS is, everyone knows, far from perfect. But it’s the system we have, and the power it offers to keep parents in the loop is tremendous. We’re encouraging parents to let teachers know that an SAS that’s current and complete is a useful tool; you can help by doing the same, and by encouraging teachers to be as thorough as possible. That means, for example, that a test on World War II is better entered as “Test on World War II” than it is “t1 WW2” as it was in my son’s SAS. And encourage parents to review SAS in the days leading up to parent-teacher interviews so that they go in already prepared for discussions.
  2. Talk about professional development: what happened, why, what are the results. Parents don’t always view professional development with an open mind. One way of changing that perception is to use home and school as a platform for discussion about what activities are planned, and how they will impact on learning. Ideally, parents should understand what every professional development day is planned to accomplish.
  3. Discuss the data. Whether it be SHAPES reports, common assessment results, PISA testing, mould and moisture reports there is a great collection of school-level data that can be fodder for discussions around the home and school table. And that is a far better, more informed table around which those discussions can happen than when discussions happen exclusively in the media, where things quickly get lost in misperceptions and politics.  As in politics, we won’t always all agree, but at least we can disagree about the right things.
  4. Help to bridge the school-to-school transitions. We know that parent engagement falls off in the transition from elementary to intermediate to high school and that’s problematic if only because as students grow they become more complicated, and there is never a better time to be an engaged, informed parent. That’s why we encourage activities and projects that see all of the schools in a family of schools cooperating: the grade 7 “meet the teacher” night shouldn’t be the first night parents are ever inside the intermediate school and yet, for many, that’s exactly the case. My son is going to be at Colonel Gray year after next; I’ve never been invited in the door. Let’s see if we can work to change that.
  5. Use the louder voice home and school offers you. Establishing a consensus amongst parents, teachers, administrators and staff about a given issue and speaking with that common voice presents a much more formidable advocate when working to develop and present substantive suggestions for change to the board and department; the home and school resolution process, which sees resolutions from schools across the province discussed locally and then voted on provincially is an effective policy development tool that can be used to leverage real change.
  6. Move beyond the traditional meeting.  Some parents – perhaps most parents – are simply never going to come to a traditional home and school meeting: 6:30 to 8:00 on a weeknight. But that doesn’t mean that cannot be engaged in home and school. My eyes were opened last year when I canvassed members of a home and school subcommittee about the best time to hold a meeting; I mistakenly added a 9:00 p.m. option to the list, and it turned out that was, by far an away, the most popular meeting time. We held a provincial board meeting last Thursday, a snow day, and two-thirds of our board members participated by Skype.  We need to be creative about the forums for discussion we offer our members, especially because the teacher workday and the parent workday are, in essence, the opposite of each other, which is a problem for an organization that includes both groups.

I’m going to finish today by returning to the words of Mrs. MacDonald from 1957 where she herself finished like this:

Nothing we can hope to do in home-school relations will ever bring back that degree of oneness children had automatically in primitive education. We may come close to that unity if we truly see the significance of our efforts. More certainly we can balance whatever loss there may be if we do the most creative and critical thinking of which we are capable. The children of the past never had the blessing of such thought.

Thank you for the opportunity to come and speak to you today; I encourage you to get in touch if there’s anything the PEI Home and School Federation can do to help weld the parent-teacher team more tightly together. And I encourage you to put Saturday, April 11, 2015 in your datebook today: that’s the date for the Annual Meeting of the PEI Home and School Federation where parents, teachers, administrators and staff converge on Charlottetown for a dynamic day of discussion of education. You will never meet a more engaged, diverse group, and I encourage you to attend as part of your school’s delegation.

Clipping from The Guardian, 1957