When I first began teaching I was extremely intimidated by parents; would they judge my ability to teach their child, would I say the wrong thing, or would they question my actions within the classroom based on teaching methodology. However, when I began teaching Kindergarten the parents of my students were supportive, yet stayed “out of the way,” with the few exceptions throughout the year. I was the teacher that I thought I was supposed to be towards parents and families: making phone calls home when their child misbehaved, having organized interviews that outlined the child’s progress without digressing to their life outside of school, and greeting parents at the beginning and end of the day outside of the classroom doors.
By my second year of teaching Kindergarten I felt more comfortable in my own ability as a teacher. I did not feel that I was planning day by day, but knew and understood what I wanted the students to learn and achieve by the end of the year. I was fortunate enough going into this second year to attend a conference in Medicine Hat that focused on the Reggio Emilia approach. (You can read about my experience and how it kick-started my love for Reggio Emilia in my post.) This gave me the confidence in documenting to parents and engaging them within the classroom community. I returned home from the conference invigorated, but also disappointed in the choices that I had made the previous year regarding parents and students. I began creating individual documentation books for the children that were displayed in the classroom for the children to explore and the parents to read with their child. They were a staple in our interview evenings and I found myself laughing with parents about the stories that were told in their child’s folder. Each child received a “learning story” that documented the learning that they had achieved during a centre activity such as “The Projector Project,” “Ben, the Welder,” and “Play-Doh Days.” I could sense that parents were comfortable in my classroom and readily came to me to talk through family issues, problems at home, and most importantly came to me when they needed help. I had a truly amazing bond with many families within my classroom and felt that I was better able to teach their child.
Then I moved grades and schools. This is common with new teachers, but I was terrified and devastated. I had finally become comfortable with my teaching and grade level and was starting to have fun as a teacher. I moved from a community-oriented school where parents believed in the teachers’ ability, to a school that is situated in an affluent community. I was warned about the “fishbowl” that I was going to be swimming in that year, and dreaded the weeks that led to the start of my year. Honestly, I really struggled the first few months of coming to the new school. I felt out of my element: a Kindergarten teacher teaching Grade One, and felt that I was not only being judged, but evaluated by parents and staff. I lost who I had become as a teacher. I no longer practiced Reggio Emilia, because it was “frowned upon” and I found myself photocopying worksheets and paper crafts that all look the same when they are done. By the Easter break I was sure I was not going to go back and contemplated asking for a transfer or moving school divisions. My classroom was filled with behaviour problems and questioning parents, pushing to know why their child did not get and “E” on their report card, when they had received phone call after phone call about their poor choices that they continued to make at school, and had been called for numerous parent meetings, only to tear me apart.
It was draining to say the least, and I left for summer break that year feeling discouraged and unsure. I did a lot of thinking and a lot of reading that summer. I knew that I would be teaching Grade 2 in the fall and I needed to determine how I was going to tackle this year. I turned to reading for inspiration and picked up a copy of “Inspiring Spaces.” This book focuses on the classroom environment and how to create an inspiring space. (You can find it in my Amazon aStore in the side bar menu, or follow the link.) It was just what I needed and I felt liberated. I made the choice to call my principal and tell him that I was going full Reggio in my classroom and was going to change my teaching completely. To my surprise and excitement, he agreed and said that I should give it a try. I spent the rest of the summer moving in comfortable furniture, hanging curtains, lamps, laying rugs and creating a space that was welcoming and inviting. I wanted to go back to documenting students work and displaying it for parents, staff, and other students to see and admire. I began the year invigorated and relieved that I did not have to walk away from what I loved to do. Although I still felt like a Kindergarten teacher, teaching Grade 2, I felt like I could be a Kindergarten teacher that could teach Grade 2 in a way that the students would be engaged.
I was pleasantly surprised by the reaction I received from parents throughout the year. They enjoyed reading the latest documentation, loved being a part of the classroom during the week. I went from not having any parents volunteer my first year at my new school, to having a parent in the classroom daily. They helped with questioning when students visited an invitation, helped student’s research and create jot notes, as well as work on projects. I went from having the worst year, to having the best year with a group of parents that were supportive and truly engaged in their child’s learning.
I realized throughout that year that parents want their best for their child and their child succeeded in school because their parents were present and involved. The evidence is consistent, positive, and convincing: families have a major influence on their children’s achievement. When schools, families, and community groups work together to support learning, children tend to do better in school, stay in school longer, and like school more. (Henderson, Mapp, Johnson, & Davies, 2007, p. 2)
I had children in our classroom that had struggled horribly in Grade 1 and their teacher before me told me that were “weak” and “would need a lot of intervention.” I witnessed these children thrive in this type of environment. They were encouraged to try new things, go outside of the box and be inspired by the environment that surrounded us. The children new that we shaped our curriculum together. I shared with them what we needed to learn, but we determined together how we would make that learning connection. As a teacher, that year was emotional. With the help of my students and their families I rediscovered my passion for teaching.
What the research is telling us is that we need to focus our efforts differently, that our well-intentioned plans to increase parental involvement in traditional “get them to the school” events are missing the critical connection amoung educators, families, and students (Allen, 2007, p.6).
The beliefs and assumptions that I held about parents and families have changed throughout my career and will continue to change as my career progresses. I hope to work with families closer and make changes within my classroom and the school staff to create a strong partnership with families and the community.