In my five years as a teacher I have been blessed with wave after wave of supportive, generous parents. No kidding, I express a need and it’s met within the day, if not the hour. This fall our listening center CD player stopped working. I put a note out to parents and had a mama at the classroom door before the day was through, box in hand. The call for class snacks yields a veritable avalanche of Goldfish, fruit snacks, pretzels and granola bars. At field day today my whole class wore rad t-shirts, paid for and decorated by two thoughtful parents.
All of these material gifts are wonderful treats, but they are only icing on the cake. The cake is the investment of energy and time parents have made to support the joyful, creative learning environment we all want for their kids. The majority of my students’ parents have spent hours with our class: reading with small groups, helping to edit writing projects, supporting the third grade Economics Fair (from an initial investors’ meeting to counting up the profits on the big day) and serving as chaperones for study trips. As a result, my students know they have a posse of grownups nearby who care about their success. Parents whose work precludes them from coming to school find other ways to offer support and encouragement, by donating snacks and supplies or doing small projects at home. Those folks sometimes need reassurance that all is well and that their students enjoy the experience of getting to know their friends’ parents. I also remind those parents that my own children almost never get to have their mom in their classrooms or on study trips and they seem to be turning out okay so far. 😉
When I first started teaching I was too stressed out to be organized enough to ask for help. I was also under some delusion that asking for help meant I wasn’t a capable or competent teacher. Heading into year four, all that changed. I realized that the unmet needs in my classroom made for meaningful opportunities for parents to connect to the learning process. I felt secure enough to ask for parent support in those key areas. Wisdom found me.
Since our school loops (each teacher spends two years with the same class), I’ve had two years to sow the seeds and watch the abundant rewards that have come in response to simply asking.
This is what I’ve learned:
- Have a meeting with the homeroom parent(s)* early in the year. At that meeting, have a few of those key tasks in mind where you know that extra hands (or eyes, or ears, or voices) would make all the difference. For instance, at the beginning of our second grade year I asked our homeroom mom to set up a rotation of parent volunteers to spend an hour each week reading with students. She made a Sign-Up Genius schedule and we off and running. One parent a week would join us for about an hour, or two rounds of Daily 5 and read with their child’s small group in the first rotation and another group in the second rotation. All of the kids were pumped on Wednesday mornings to see which parent was going to walk through the door and to have the chance to read with him/her. Most parents were able to come at least once in the year, even if just for a half an hour.
- Be specific and flexbile. Be specific about what you need and be sure to share the information necessary to make each task successful. When parents came in to help edit Animal Research Projects, some were overwhelmed at first, but once they knew that students needed help with spelling, punctuation and rereading to ensure sentences made sense, they were on it. If a parent could stay for twenty minutes and help, great! If a parent could stay for an hour, great! If a parent could only come in the morning for a little while, even though writing is after lunch, great!
- Get comfortable with being human. It’s hard having parents in the room sometimes. At first I felt the pressure of wanting to be sure I at least appeared to have it all together, that I was perfectly organized and endlessly patient. But the more time my students and I spent with parent volunteers, the more comfortable we became in the same space. They weren’t there to judge, but to help make their child’s classroom a more productive, peaceful place. I regularly heard words of support – “I don’t know how you do it all day!” or “Let me know what else I can do.” Gold.
- Express thanks regularly, both verbally and in writing. Help the students learn to say thank you and be grateful for all their parents contribute. When I can I write colorful notes of thanks on fun notecards, but emails do just as well. At the end of each school year I buy a simple gift (like a plant or a picture frame or a nice mug) for my homeroom parent and anyone else who has contributed on weekly or bi-weekly basis. I also give a small tokens of thanks to each parent who has come in to read or edit writing with us at any point during the year. Last year I gave chocolate bars to those folks; it doesn’t have to be fancy, but the moment of acknowledging the investment brings a kind of balance to the exchange that feels right.
*I can’t end this post without a shout-out to my current homeroom mom Kelly W., who regularly sends emails saying, “I’m here for you! What do you want to do next?” Kelly, must you really move on with your child next year!?
The end of this two year loop is quickly approaching. I will miss the parents as much as I will miss the kids. Grateful, I am. To have been part of this mystical process of academic and social growth, and for all we’ve accomplished together as a team.