How do we engage with our kids when it comes to their education while building or strengthening a connection to the teachers in the classrooms as parents?
That’s what the research done by three Sun West School Division teachers explored, and the end result saw the trio awarded for their comprehensive efforts.
Amber Thompson, a Grade 4 teacher at Outlook Elementary School, is a part of the award-winning research team, having joined Carly Robson Gilchrist of Walter Aseltine School in Rosetown and Pamela Sawatzky of Westberry Elementary School in Kindersley to come up with their research report entitled, “Promising Practices in Meaningful Family Engagement.” The report looks at ways for educators to engage with families and make it a consistent practice to keep a connection between home and the classroom. The input of more than 40 parents helped the report take shape, and a grant from the McDowell Foundation allowed the trio to move forward on their research.
Through their research, the teachers wanted to identify which engagement practices were most meaningful to parents, and they set out to find what were the critical elements of those practices and which practices were less meaningful and why.
Their research used narrative inquiry because they really wanted to capture the parent voice. Several focus groups were held with parents as well as other teachers. A written questionnaire was developed for parents that couldn’t attend a focus group. In the end, 42 parent voices contributed to their research. The willing participation of these parents was essential to the success of the research.
In their final report, the teachers made the following top five recommendations:
• Communicate – the more the better – early, often, and timely.
• Build an open and welcoming environment that fosters relationships with families.
• Use an online learning platform that makes learning visible and allows two-way communication such as Seesaw or Class Dojo.
• Select building blocks that honour family knowledge such as home learning projects.
• Personalize engagement opportunities to meet the needs of the families in your care. Consider access to technology and work schedules.
For their impressive efforts and detailed work into crafting their research report, the three teachers were recent recipients of the McDowell Foundation Research Award during a ceremony held in Saskatoon on January 31. Present to bestow the award to the trio was the Honourable Russ Mirasty, the Lieutenant Governor of Saskatchewan.
Thompson says such an award win felt like all the hard work by her, Gilchrist and Sawatzky was worth it and that pride is something all three felt about what they came up with.
“We were very honored and of course we were so excited, and we really felt validated by what we were doing that other people were recognizing our research,” said Amber, sitting down with The Outlook in the library at OES. “We’re very proud of what we were doing, and we knew it was meaningful, and it’s nice to know that other people felt that, too.”
It was a program on leadership that would eventually light the fuse and inspire the teachers to pursue their research.
“Quite a few years ago, Sun West had an Aspiring Leadership program that they were offering to teachers and I was involved in that,” Thompson explained. “We all had to choose a project to pursue and then present on that project. We had Dr. Debbie Pushor of the University of Saskatchewan come and talk on family engagement, and she’s kind of the guru on family engagement. I was really inspired by her story, so that was the project that I pursued, family engagement. That year, I had done a bunch of home visits and it was remarkable.
Carly, Pam and I didn’t want to stop, so we kind of looked at each other and we knew the McDowell Foundation existed, so we just really jived from the beginning when we met,” she continued. “The three of us got together and said, ‘Do we want to pursue this?’ A couple of years ago, we met at the Tim Horton’s in Rosetown and we talked for hours, just figuring out what direction we wanted to go. We decided to pursue the McDowell grant, and it was a long process. Probably six months of preparing our application, and we spent the last 18 months just doing the research itself.”
What Amber and her colleagues soon realized is that parents just want to be in the conversation when it comes to what their children are experiencing in the classroom, so one of the big areas of the research soon became a question of, ‘How do you strengthen the connection between home and school?’
“Parents just want to be involved in their kids learning,” said Amber. “Sometimes in education, the school is the ‘Keeper of Knowledge’ and we come here to learn, and then home is different. But they’re not separate; there’s no segmented child. A child learns at school, a child learns at home, a child learns at the hockey rink, the pool, in church, at the grocery store, etc. We were really trying to capture that feeling of, ‘Yes, teachers are the experts of learning and teaching, but parents are the experts of the child.’ We would be so much better off if we opened up our doors so to speak to say, ‘Parents, tell us about your kid!’ The research was so clear that that’s what parents want. One parent said, ‘Communicate with anything’. Random happenings in the classroom, they just want to see what’s going on and be a part of it. One of the things that also came out in the research is how it reduced anxiety for kids, knowing that their parents and teachers were really closely working together.”
To Thompson, the building blocks of connection start with fostering relationships.
“The biggest thing would be relationships, and that’s what society is – it’s all based on relationships and you get nowhere if you don’t have a strong foundational relationship with people,” she said. “After the research when we were collecting our data, we came up with four main foundational areas. We created this pyramid graphic, and the foundational piece to pyramid is Teacher Mindset, followed by Communication, followed with Relationships, and of course, the top of the pyramid is the Child.”
Doing the research and writing the reports ultimately showed Amber that there might be a new thing or two that teachers can learn when it comes to their own classrooms.
“It definitely has changed my teaching practices over the last few years,” she said. “Just being more mindful of telling parents how things are going and not just waiting for report card time. Really making an effort to send positive messages home and having more conversations. When there are more conversations happening, we all feel better and we know what’s going on, and that in turn builds the relationship. If we don’t build those relationships with people like our parents, then we don’t have anything. The whole purpose of doing this is seeing when parents are engaged with their child’s learning, they do better in school, they’re more likely to graduate, and they’re more likely to repeat that as they get older and have their own kids.”
In the end, what matters most is that the child benefits from better engagement between teachers and parents. Kids have many voices coming at them in our increasingly hectic world, so the strongest and most nurturing ones need to come from the home and the classroom.
“Our kids are our most precious resource in the world,” said Amber. “All parents, regardless of their education level and their own situation, they all want what’s best for their kids. We want our kids to have better than what we had when we were kids, right? And it’s not just us and their parents that are helping to mold them into the best human they can be. This has taught me to be more mindful of that, I guess. It’s become so clear that parents just want to be a part of it, even though there are assumptions that parents don’t care. We deeply care about how our kids are learning and parents just need to be invited into the process. It’s a different perspective now after doing the research and having my own children, and just valuing that parent voice.”