Informal Education Series: Family Engagement Beyond Difficult Phone Calls

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When I began my high school teaching career, I felt moderately confident with lesson and unit planning, creating assessments (formative and summative, of course), classroom management, and selecting books that teenagers might actually enjoy (sorry, The Scarlet Letter, but you didn’t make the cut – no offense to the Nathaniel Hawthorne fans out there). 

But what I didn’t feel comfortable with? Family engagement.

Sure, I knew that I had to call home if a student didn’t hand in an essay or if there was a concern around attendance – and wasn’t that enough? 

Well…no

And let me be honest, I dreaded making those calls. Who wants to call a stranger and share bad news? “Hi, um, Ms. Smith? This is Ms. Canada, your child’s English teacher. He hasn’t handed in his most recent assignment.” Yikes.

There weren’t a lot of supports for me or my colleagues, either, even though family engagement needs to be a school-wide practice for administrators, counselors, paraprofessionals, and every other adult in a building. I remember the staff meeting before our first Back-to-School Night, and the principal encouraged us to offer extra credit to students whose families attended the event. I thought to myself, Wait, what? Academic credit for a Back-To-School Night? But look: It was my first year. I was the youngest person on staff. And so I certainly wasn’t pushing back or asking why.

But administration later explained why, and it was a bit…odd: “Parents want to drop their kids off in 9th grade and pick them up at graduation.” I didn’t agree with that, either — I knew that my parents and grandmother, for example, were constantly engaged in my high school experience. Their engagement was important to get me across the finish line. Yet this was how our school perceived the level of engagement that families wanted.

And look, we weren’t alone in thinking that…and if you’re a secondary educator, I’m willing to wager you’ve heard – and maybe believed – this sentiment, too. It’s said a lot in the secondary education space.

But I want to share that this isn’t actually the case. Families do want to be engaged in every grade level. Yes, every grade level. (Let me pause for a moment: I know you’re thinking of an example that might defy that statement – hold that thought! I’ll cover it in our next piece, I promise.) It looks different from elementary school up through high school, but it is vital for all school levels to engage with families.

Family engagement seems so daunting: where do you start? What should you do? What’s the purpose? What’s the point? Who at the school is involved? How much time does this take? And if we host events and families don’t come, isn’t that on them?

You’re not alone if you have any or all of these questions because family engagement is often not covered in educator-prep programs. It wasn’t covered in mine. 

I’m going to tackle these questions, concerns, wonderings, and misconceptions over the course of a few pieces. Family engagement involves regular, ongoing, and purposeful interactions. Stick with me: I’ll include research, resources, and personal anecdotes.

Here’s what we’ll cover, specifically for educators – all educators, which means every adult in a school building:

  • Building Capacity – and Trust – with all Families – Why? And perhaps more important, How?
  • Proactive, Positive Communication – Why? And How? And what about if you have 120 students on your roster? (I see you, high school staff!)
  • Reimagining your Open House/Back-To-School Night – Why? And How?

We’re all in this together. Families are allies and partners – we need to engage with them in order to do our best work as educators. What you, as an educator or a school leader, implement in a classroom, a grade level, and your school can have a significant impact on the learning environment and experiences of your students. Think of family engagement like Mission Control during a space launch: they need engineers, mathematicians, and physicists to make sure the astronauts get into space safely. Families, schools, and communities also need to work together for student’s learning to take off.

And families? I see you, too. I’ll cover strategies and resources for you to engage with your school, even when you feel intimidated. As a recent step(ish) mom, I certainly have an abundance of anecdotes from the “other side” of family engagement.

Liz Canada is our Director of Policy and Practice. Prior to her work at Reaching Higher NH, she taught high school English in Denver, and coached educators and administrators in Family Engagement in Massachusetts. She is also on the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s teaching team for Dr. Karen Mapp’s course “The Why, What, and How of School, Family, and Community Partnerships.”

Have questions about family engagement? Want to debate The Scarlet Letter? Email Liz at liz@reachinghighernh.org. And, share this information with your colleagues.