The Wejr Board

…sharing stories that reflect on the present & future system of education


A Principal’s Map For Parent Involvement

I am pleased to once again have Sheila Stewart (@sheilaspeaking) write a guest post for The Wejr Board.  Sheila is one of my mentors on the topic of parent and family engagement in school.

Sheila’s perspectives and advice regarding parent involvement come from a variety of roles and experience in education and working with parents.  She is involved in local and provincial parent networks in Ontario, and she supports newcomer families with English language learning.  In the past 8 years, she has worked collaboratively with a number of principals and administrators to support parent involvement initiatives, consultations, and activities.  She recently presented to principal candidates on school councils and parent involvement.

A Principal’s Map for Parent Involvement* by Sheila Stewart

I think being a principal is an amazing and key role to have in education.  I also recognize the work load of principals—from managing the physical space of the school to the responsibilities they have to the school community—staff, students, and families. The responsibility of establishing parent involvement, outreach and communication strategies at the school will rest a large part on the principal as well.

From Davi Sommerfield

Parent involvement has become a frequent topic of conversation in education lately with the many ways that it is analyzed, interpreted, and deliberated upon.  The visions for and expectations of parents in both their involvement in their own child’s education and in the broader context of school and community may also vary from district to district, and from stakeholder group to stakeholder group—each may want something different in what it looks like and in its outcomes.

So…where to start as new to the principal role, or new to a school?

From the system level (Ministry/Depart. of Ed./District/School Boards) the message may be that the kind of parent involvement to foster and focus on is that which increases student learning and/or specific “achievement” outcomes.  I am not sure there is a set of clear and certain strategies that can be used and measured, but not all should be at loss because of this and nor should parent involvement be dismissed.  I believe that the links with parents and families remain essential to supporting students.

The culture and climate of the school will become apparent quite quickly to a new administrator.  This is the context where a principal will need to navigate various avenues that are suitable to the parents and families of the school’s students.  It is important for principals to find a style that is appropriate to his or her school community, whether the school is large or small, urban or rural, elementary or secondary.  A principal who develops strong relationships with parents and parent groups, will have parents who are more likely to become involved in the school community, and this in turn will have a strong impact on the overall effectiveness and inclusiveness of the school.  The principal will be key in modelling and setting the appropriate positive tone and connections with parents.

As long as principals are familiar with their local policies and mandates regarding parent involvement and parent advisory groups, they should be able to create a suitable and flexible plan for the school community.  Parents will be diverse in the ways they want to be involved, and the best plan for parent involvement should honour this.  Policies and guidelines can be helpful, but there will always be realities to consider.

Before establishing a plan, a principal might want to consider the following:

  • Get to know the ways parents connect to the school currently (e.g. face to face, formal/informal, electronically, social media).
  • Take some time before moving forward with new plans—extra time may be needed to build relationships and trust to support changes you may want to make ahead.
  • Build on what is working well—lead through listening.
  • Help all stakeholders connect to the broader picture of education, while still maintaining that each student matters and has unique needs.
  • Create opportunities and spaces to understand and gain clarity about what parents need, what the comfort zones of involvement are currently, and what barriers exist.

A principal might also want to determine the following:

  • Are parents involved in authentic, engaging ways, or are they receiving mixed messages about the nature or pathway of their involvement?
  • Have parents been receiving information about the positive things and extra efforts that teachers/staff have been doing to support students and the school? (creates confidence and can inspire further support from parents)
  • Has the school demonstrated a welcoming approach and honoured the roles and expertise of parents in their child’s life and in the community?

Communication Comes First!

Regardless of the approach or plan, it will be important to establish clear communication plans and strategies—who, when, how, how often, what—between the school/principal and parents/community, between teachers and parents, and also the parent group with each other and the school’s parents.  Principals are ultimately responsible for school communications, so they need to be clear and strategic in all the various protocols that may be preferred by both teachers and parents. Steve Reifman also has a great list of suggestions on his blog, “9 reasons to communicate frequently with parents”.

It is also important that the school community is aware of how 2-way communications can occur.  This may involve a number of different ways, including electronic communication and/or social media.  Opportunity for 2-way communication often IS the parent engagement.  All else can flow from there, in a much more proactive and realistic way which may also reduce the need for conflict resolution.  On-going input and feedback from parents will also help inform a principal’s decision-making at the school.

Here is what it might look like as you proceed into the school year:

  • Parents who want to support from home will know that it is valued and will still have access to support and 2-way communication channels.
  • Parents who wish to help in the classroom and/or communicate with their child’s teacher will know when and how to do that.
  • Parents who are committed to and interested in the more structured and organized meetings and activities at the school will be valuable and vital for further connections and partnerships with families through shared leadership and outreach.
  • Parents who attend special events, read the school news and blogs will feel connected and will share the good news with others in the community.
  • Parents who cannot attend the school as often will know how to communicate with the school or teacher or parent group.

What is it all for?

Clear and understood channels for communication and an inclusive vision of the different way that parents will support kids should enhance the principal’s ability to facilitate partnerships and positive relationships within the school community that will ultimately support student experiences at the school.  Through various communication and involvement pathways, all parent participation can be valued.  As valued and trusted participants in education, it is more likely that parent involvement will benefit principal leadership, teacher support, and student learning, as well as contribute to an inclusive, vibrant school community.

I hope this framework of ideas is useful and leads to discovering more effective and practical strategies that can be shared further.

*Note: at Kent School, we have a goal of “Family Engagement” as we realize that the support systems of many of our students extend beyond the parents. The ideas from Sheila will be applied to our goal.

Thank you to Sheila Stewart for her efforts and thoughts with this post.  As always, comments and questions for Sheila and others are appreciated and encouraged.


Rewards: 2 Parent Perspectives

As a follow-up to my recent post “My Issue With Rewards”, I wanted to highlight the thoughts of two parents from my PLN on the topic of rewards.  These individuals have caused me to reflect further upon the use of extrinsic rewards/prizes both for me as a parent and as an educator.

Sheila Stewart, a parent from Ontario and @sheilaspeaking on Twitter, commented on my post:

I am not sure exactly when and where and how I first began to learn about motivational theories, but I am thankful that I did come to understand more and that I had time to consider such before I taught and before I became a parent.

My approaches with children may simply have a lot to do with my own upbringing. My parents did not use external rewards in any big way to encourage my behaviour at home or beyond. I was their 4th child, but it seemed we were all just expected to be responsible, do our share and conduct ourselves as members of a family and as members of a community. Modelling, of course, was so important.

I am also glad I studied psychology before education. It gave me further insight into human behaviour and motivation. But then probably a lot of my perspective just has to do with me being me – observing, thinking, and aiming to understand why we do what we do. I am often saddened by how entrenched “reward systems” have become in our schools and society. How can we count on future generations to just do good for themselves, others and our world, if we encourage them so much to look for “What else is in it for me right now (or at the end of the month)?”. But I recognize how hard it can be to establish different strategies and expectations in a class or school if they are different or inconsistent from what a student has become accustomed to elsewhere. I think that is often the biggest challenge to face. So great to read about others committed to staying the course though!

I think we often resort to reward systems and strategies in teaching and parenting not realizing we are doing so for short-term benefits. Having been a supply teacher in the younger grades I can understand how easy it is to use rewards, tickets, etc., to get through a short-term teaching assignment, especially with students you may not have developed relationships with yet. I still had difficulty with resorting to those kinds of methods though, so instead I focused on making activities meaningful and engaging and I encouraged cooperation from the students as the experts of their learning and as “owners” of their classroom environment.

I really hope we can focus mostly on helping kids recognize and experience the “reward” that comes with engaging in their own learning, and also with living harmoniously with others in our schools and communities. I think that is the respectful approach and an important goal.

Goran Kimovski, from Vancouver and @g_kima on Twitter, wrote a thought-provoking piece on the Cooperative Catalyst a few months ago and I felt it would be a good addition to the conversation so I have included his personal story from the post.  For the full blog from Goran, click here.

…I’d like to share a personal story. I thought long about this and I decided it is too important to make teachers and schools stop for a moment and rethink the use of incentives — thus I decided to overcome my original apprehension and write about it!

My 7-year old daughter attends grade 1 in a French Immersion program, within a local public school here in [British Columbia]. To deal with the big number of kids who are not making the effort to speak French in class, and after seeing an interesting and seemingly successful program  that the grade 3 teacher next door ‘swears by’, my daughter’s teacher decided to use classroom ‘cents’ to get all kids to speak French:

We have started a new incentive program in our class to encourage everyone to speak French.  We already earn ‘cents’ for good behaviour and work habits but now we are starting every week with 5 ‘cents’ in our special envelopes taped to our desks.  Whenever we hear someone speaking English in our class we get to ask them for a ‘cent’.  If someone hears us speaking English we must give them a ‘cent’.  Madame has also been handing out ‘cents’ to everyone when she hears them speaking French.  At the end of the week we will count up our ‘cents’ and deposit them in our bank accounts for the class store.  So far this week some of our children have earned over 11 ‘cents’ for all the French they have been speaking.

I find this damaging in many ways and have been actively trying to influence my daughter not to take part in punishing kids when she hears them speaking English — even managed to convince her to give some of her ‘cents’ away to her friends!

…I can’t help but find the use of ‘cents’ deplorable and have hard time accepting that many teachers use similar, if not the same method to motivate kids into compliance!

Admittedly, as a parent, I have fallen into the trap many times — from innocent clapping when my daughter would finally dress up after begging her for 10 minutes, to bribing her with chocolate if she eats her broccoli first. I do know better not to use bribing to get her to read a book, or to convince her to stick to color pencils instead of pastel as a way to avoid making a mess when painting at home, though!

The use of extrinsic rewards (ie. prizes and incentives given from someone using ‘power over’) is deeply embedded in our society because it works to get others to do what you want them to do…. short-term.  However, as educators we need to reflect upon the long-term consequences that these short-term rewards (and punishments) may bring about.  As an educator, and now a new parent, I continue to catch myself relying on the use of extrinsic motivation to try to create actions/behaviours in others.

The most important question we can ask around the use of rewards was stated by psychologist and research Edward Deci (via Larry Ferlazzo’s book Helping Students Motivate Themselves:

How can people create the conditions within which others will motivate themselves?

I encourage us all to reflect upon our actions and contemplate whether they actually create conditions for intrinsic motivation to grow or they create a dependence on an extrinsic reward.

Thank you to Goran and Sheila for the permission to include their thoughts on this post.


Standardized Testing: A Parent Voice


I am pleased to have Sheila Stewart as a guest writer.  I have been introduced to Sheila’s passion around education  through Twitter and although Sheila is from Ontario, her thoughts on technology, standardized testing, and learning reach far beyond that province and her words tie in well with BC’s discussion around the local standardized test, the Foundation Skills Assessment (FSA).

Sheila is a very engaged parent in the world of education.  Her roles include:

  • a parent of 2 teens in Thunder Bay, Ontario
  • School Council Co-Chair at the High School
  • Coordinator, School Council Chairs Network
  • Parent member, Parent Involvement Committee
  • Network member & online community moderator, People for Education, Ontario
  • Follow her on Twitter at @sheilaspeaking

by Sheila Stewart

I shouldn’t let newspaper editorials get to me so…..but…..when they sound so definitive on education like this, Measuring Literacy

….other voices are needed…….so here was my response:

Learning and Measurement

A recent editorial noted the variety of literacy activities highlighted locally during Ontario’s Literacy Week.  The editorial, “Measuring Literacy” (Sun., Jan. 27) touched on technology, literacy, standardized testing, and associated outcomes.  I also believe there are many ways to foster literacy development and demonstrate that learning.  Everything is very connected, and impacts can be both negative and positive.  The influence of technology can be overwhelming, but I have remained willing to consider the positive opportunities for education.  I have continued to see examples of how technology as one tool in the learning environment can provide many opportunities to further support literacy, communication, collaboration, and engaged learning.  As with any new technology, the use of it as a teaching tool can only be as effective as the training and experience of the teacher.  Digital literacy doesn’t necessarily promote the use of sub-standard language skills per se.  As with many things, there are always many variables that can impact skills and outcomes.

I am aware of many educators in Ontario and in other provinces who care deeply about creating authentic learning opportunities to help their students’ strengths, passions, and individual growth as citizens.  There is much more to supporting learners that may not be reflected on a standardized test.  And much more feedback on learning is important for students, and for their parents as well.  If the individuals who spend time in classrooms are expressing concerns about the impact of standardized testing on the learning environment, then I say we should at least have a listen and not conclude that it is only about a fear of being evaluated themselves.  It is my understanding that current standardized testing in Ontario is more of a “system” measure and much less to do with information about individual students and teachers.

I would also be cautious in saying that “parents”, in an all-inclusive way, value the information from standardized tests.  Parents are diverse, as is our province.  I know a number of parents who have become unsupportive of standardized testing and have concern about the impact of so much focus on these outcomes.  Can we feel satisfied that all is well based on reports of one set of data?

There must be something valid to the concerns about standardized testing if so many provinces are involved in a debate about their usefulness in supporting student learning.  I agree with the writer of the editorial, “Good education is essential to Ontario’s future.”  For us in the north, I hope we continue to dialogue with all partners in education and keep asking the questions of why….what does that mean….what else is needed….is that enough….how can we help….as well as, what is possible with technology?

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