Why parents do not get involved at schools
I often receive phone calls at our district office from irate, unhappy parents. Most of these parents have been called to a school meeting to discuss their child's ill-discipline. Other parents report that they had gone to a school to make enquiries about admission or the like. These parents complain to our office about the alleged humiliating experience they had received at the respective school on the day of the visit.
Many of the complaints are about the way parents are treated by the school when they arrive there. Parents feel they are being ignored and spoken down to. When they arrive at the school, they are made to wait for the principal without any explanation. Nobody smiles with them and often they are not told where to wait for the principal or the teacher who requested the meeting. They say they feel small and invisible. The tone of school staff is abrupt and often closed closed questions are asked.
Most of the parents who lodge these complaints, acknowledge that their children are no angels. In fact, you get the sense that they are willing to help the school address the problem and to help find a solution, if the setting was not so threatening. Of course, there are two sides to a story, but an unfriendly atmosphere complicates the issues at hand.
We agree that parents must take responsibility for their child and we don't condone rudeness by parents at all. In fact, I remind parents that the school principal is not only the head of the school, but also one of the most important community leaders. I remind them that our Heads have to ensure that all our children receive the best quality education in a well-managed school. Schools as the standard bearers and community builders cannot be undermined.
The parents who complain, share this view. Herein lies the rub. Ironically, it is often during episodes of parent-school conflict that these parents and their rebellious children, highlight the school's role in inadvertently widening the gap between themselves and their parent constituency. When schools adopt a hostile attitude towards such parents, they forfeit an opportunity to win over more parents. The onus is on the schools to take the lead in building relationships.
Parents and their fears
All the schools I serve are situated in working class areas. Often these parents find schools to be intimidating, although the parents' aggressive actions may belie this fact. The language, dress code and culture of the teachers reflect middle-class symbols which are often foreign to most of the parents. The parents have often only mastered the local language varieties of their own communities. If they have a choice, they would rather stay far away from the school. When they are forced to visit the school to address a problem, they are already in the fight-flight mode. Schools need to recognize this reality.
It doesn't help to say parents should know what is required of them. They may not know how to play an active role at the school. These parents themselves may still have negative experiences of their own school career and many of them may be school dropouts themselves. These parents may be mirroring their own parents's negative attitude towards school. If the main communication between school and parents is say, about report collection, discipline meetings, parents will perceive the school's communication as cold, business transactions. Ironically, schools may be embedding the very negativity they wish to break down by communicating in the main, in this clinical fashion.
The onus is on schools to initiate better relationships with parents
If schools want to build stronger relationships with parents they have to take these psycho-social and cultural factors into account. The big question should therefore be: how can we help and coax parents to become more cooperative and involved at school? How can we change our behaviour in order to win over more of our parents?
Building relationships is a long, arduous process. Changing people's perceptions and behaviour is even harder. But, this is the only way schools are going to bolster parent involvement and parent interest in the school. There are examples of how schools are successfully forging better relationships with their parents. They are doing simple, creative things consistently over a long period and the results are beginning to show.
In the next post, I will share a few creative things that schools are doing to increase their parent involvement.