Karen Mapp, a longtime evangelist of better parent engagement in schools, shared her thoughts on how districts and states can train more educators to see families as partners.
During a Saturday conference on family engagement in Everett, keynote speaker Karen Mapp asked attendees to raise their hands if they are a current or former teacher.
About a third of the room did, prompting Mapp to ask how many of those educators completed a full course — not just a daylong workshop — on how to partner with parents and families to improve children’s performance.
Just two hands remained in the air. And that’s a number Mapp, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, wants to change.
In a 30-minute interview after her talk, which was part of a daylong event put on by the Washington Family and Community Engagement Trust, Mapp shared what she considers the next phase of her longtime efforts to improve family engagement in schools: Namely, preparing and persuading every educator to actually do it.
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Her responses have been edited for length and clarity.
Q: You want training programs for teachers, principals and superintendents to place more of an emphasis on family and community engagement. How is that being done in different states?
A: I’m actually trying to work with the new National Association for Family, School and Community Engagement to try and see if we can’t do a scan of states to see which actually have family and community engagement standards embedded into both what pre-service teachers need to have and also practicing teachers.
Here’s a story: We have a program at Harvard called the Harvard Teacher Fellows program, and I am fortunate enough to be able to teach in that program. But one of the things the director of that program told me was when he looks at the state guidelines for what his teachers need to know and be able to do right now, family engagement isn’t in there. So if he’s going to go by the book — and I’m sure that’s the way it is in most states — if the (teacher) prep program is going to go by the accreditation standards and if family engagement’s not in there, then they feel no obligation to teach that … unless it’s a part of their core beliefs and core values. And luckily it is a part of our core beliefs and core values at Harvard. So we’re doing it.
Q: How do you convince educators that spending more of their time on family engagement is an important part of their job? Do you point to research that shows it helps improve student outcomes?
A: I think some people respond to the data, but I always think it’s a combination of data plus experience. If you can provide people an opportunity to experience for themselves what it means to engage families. I think that’s really, really important.
There’s an article that just came out about the Denver superintendent, and how his eyes were opened by going on a home visit. If you combine the evidence with actual opportunity for people to experience what family engagement is actually about and its impact, I think that’s how you change hearts and minds and then practice. That’s really what my whole thing is about: changing practice. I want to change what it is people do, how they do it and have them use the most effective strategies to support students and support schools.
Q: What are some examples of policies and programs that schools and districts can use to improve family engagement?
A: I’ll go to some basic school policy. A lot of our schools have policies about (criminal background checks for parent volunteers). For some of our schools, we have families who have been involved with the criminal-justice system. They get the message that, “That’s it. You can’t do anything.” But we have principals and schools that have been very creative and said, “OK, if you’re a parent or someone who has been involved with the criminal-justice system, there may be other ways that we can have you get engaged where you’re not in one-on-one contact with children but you can still support us.” There were a couple of schools I’ve been involved with where dads built an entirely new playground for the kids or they came in on the weekend and built an entirely new library for the kids. Sometimes we take policy and may use it as a way to keep families away. But how can we be creative in thinking up a solution to that?
Q: For families who feel they aren’t welcome or respected at schools, what are some of the more effective ways educators can re-engage with them?
A: First of all, there are very few families who I would say are completely lost and we’re not able to reach. But it takes persistence. And it takes patience. What parents want to see is that you love their children.
We can create opportunities for parents and teachers and other school staff to get together where that staff lets the parents know we love your kids and we love you and want to be connected with you and we need you to be engaged. A lot of times our parents don’t hear that. They don’t hear that we can’t do this without you. They hear, “We got this. Just drop your child off, and from 9-to-3 they’re ours, and we don’t need you.” We don’t let them know that we do need them and at least need their advice or knowledge of their child, and we have to tell that to them face to face.