Creating Flexible Yet Significant Parent Volunteer Opportunities

Here’s the catch 22 of parent volunteers: you want them in your classroom, so you provide meaningful opportunities. They want to volunteer, but with other children, sicknesses, and other commitments, they don’t necessarily show up as planned. So teachers make their volunteer opportunities a bit less consequential — or even give up on providing opportunities altogether — so that no-shows won’t cause too much trouble.  And then when parents do come, they feel disappointed at the lackluster opportunity.

If this sounds familiar, you’ve come to the right place.

Here are some suggestions:

1) First, stick with meaningful opportunities. Keep those one-on-one reading slots, small group math work, and science stations. Focus instead on finding a system featuring built-in reminders for parents — with everything else going on, most teachers really don’t have time to send reminders, let alone coordinate cancellations! Keep reading to find an option that might work for you!

2) Rely on room parents. If you have a room parent, leave it up to him or her to coordinate opportunities with volunteers. This might include sending text reminders to parents who have signed up or helping to arrange subs.

3) Leverage Google appointments. Google appointments only work with school or business accounts, and they are wonderfully simple to use! You can add a single slot, or multiple slots with the duration you’ve set. You can also add a description so parents know exactly what they are signing up for! Then, simply give parents the link to your school’s “calendar appointment page” (which will be built in with your school account), and let them sign up. There are even instructions for cancellation. Full details here.

Bonus: use a URL shortener to get a short-link for your calendar appointment page and print it out on a handout to go home to reach parents that don’t check email. Do this throughout the year to remind them of opportunities you’ve added!

4) Use the Remind app. Send texts to all your students’ parents to let them know about volunteer opportunities, whatever your platform.

5) Pick a volunteer sign-up platform. I’ve seen SignUp.com and VolunteerSignUp.org. I’m especially impressed with the simplicity of VolunteerSignUp.org — it is very quick to add opportunities, and it automatically generates an email and a shortened URL to share with parents on social media or on flyers.

6) Work with your working parents. A post in Edutopia gave some great ideas here, including:

  • Scheduling reading circles and volunteer shifts at the start of the day so that parents can help before work
  • Using telecommunication platforms like Skype or Google Hangouts so that parents can read to the class or help with pre-scheduled assignments without being physically present in the classroom
  • Inviting parents to update the class website and social media
  • Preparing learning center materials from home
  • Helping in the school garden on the weekends

7) Solicit for special skills. Perhaps you have a graphics-savvy parent that might be willing to help with logos and posters. Maybe some even have connections with community members that might enhance your students’ unit of study.

8) Focus on cultivating genuine relationships with families. This goes beyond just sending an email when we need volunteers or when a child is struggling with behavior. As eloquently summarized by Larry Ferlazzo on ASCD:

“A school striving for family involvement often leads with its mouth—identifying projects, needs, and goals and then telling parents how they can contribute. A school striving for parent engagement, on the other hand, tends to lead with its ears—listening to what parents think, dream, and worry about. The goal of family engagement is not to serve clients but to gain partners.”

The above article describes possibilities like home visits and doing more listening than talking. I also wrote a few months ago about 10 ways we can partner with parents.

Above all else, we need to remember that we exist to support families, not the other way around. Volunteer work and all other aspects of the home-school relationship will be enhanced when we bear this in mind.

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

On A Sustainable School Year: An Open Letter to Parents I Wish I’d Sent

Dear Parents,

The year is still shiny and new. We’re feeling refreshed after the summer break, and ready to tackle a new year. In your renewal, you may be feeling tempted to sign up for all the programs and pack all the cute lunches and be all the things.

As teachers, we get it. We feel determined to apply for all the grants and find all the flexible seating and be all the buzz words.

And there’s nothing wrong with wanting to do our best for those kids, especially when we feel like we have energy to spare.

But the truth for us all is, as any long distance runner will tell you, starting off at a sprint is just not sustainable. The crash will come, and if you’ve poured in all the energy at the beginning of the year, the crash will be swift and complete.

My personal favorite illustration of this burn-out effect was Jen Hatmaker’s hilarious blog post a few years back:

“[husband] Brandon: “You don’t have to do all that, you know. Just blow it off.”

Me, staring blankly:

“Well, what a lovely thought you’re having there in your brain. How nice for you to be thinking that thought. I want to live in your imaginary world where my failure to do the School Stuff doesn’t mean our kid is the only one not wearing a purple shirt or didn’t have his pictures in the slideshow or didn’t bring in a handmade card for his teacher like every other student. I’ll just ‘blow it off’ and our kids can work it out with their therapists later.”

If we start out feeling like we have to do it all, and do it all perfectly, I will be astonished if any of us make it to the New Year.

This year, let’s set a more sustainable pace from the start. The same blogger posted last Christmas about “Big Day Sabotage,” with suggestions on how to return to a calmer, healthier holiday season, like lowering stimulation, avoiding over-scheduling, casting a simple, manageable vision, and talking about big feelings. These tips absolutely apply to sustainability here as well. Here are a few more to consider:

Be mindful of pace, for your child, for yourself, and for your family. Talk with your students about how they are feeling, talk to them about how you are feeling, and share those feelings with me. While I can’t be all things to all people, I am happy to accommodate your needs the best I can.

Don’t be afraid to opt out. It’s not laziness to opt out of a program or event that doesn’t work for your child or your family. Read about the time I opted out of what I’m sure was a lovely home reading program here.

Work more on your culture of agency than on perfecting details. Instead of trying “keep up” with the level of involvement you might perceive from other kids and their families, focus your energy on letting your child take the reins. If it’s important to her to look like an amazing Amelia Earhart for the wax museum, don’t make it the default for you to do all the work — teach skills like sewing, planning shopping lists, or calling the school office to check for available butcher paper or old cardboard boxes. And be ok with what will inevitably be a messy rendition. (other ideas for a culture of agency at home here).

Stay in touch regarding your needs! I remember when a parent told me that her child had been spending hours on math homework each night. By the time she talked to me, they had clearly been maxed out for some time, and my heart sank — new teacher that I was, it never occurred to me that any of my students would be pouring in that much time on the work I had assigned. I was happy to have the chance to set it straight then, and I learned for the future that I need to consult parents much more thoroughly regarding homework moving forward.

Meanwhile, I will work toward greater sustainability as well by seeking out student voice, putting learning in students hands, and managing self-care.

Let’s work together, not just to “make it,” but to approach learning at a pace and tone that will be sustainable this year, and for many joyful years to come.

Thanks,

Mary Wade

Questions When You Join a PTA Board #TeacherMom

I decided to sign up to help with our local school’s PTA this year as secretary. Especially because I only have a few years left before I return to the classroom, I am excited to dig deeper into the parent side of school.

I’m hoping that because it’s an entirely new board, my continual question-asking will be seen as constructive rather than just annoying. But even as I have started to consider my role, I felt that writing a post might help me synthesize my thinking, as well as to share ideas for others.

  • What makes your school unique? What challenges does the community face, and what are some advantages it possesses? How can you find out more first-hand?
  • What are ways the school already fosters relationships between teachers, parents, and students? What are ways the PTA can facilitate even stronger connections?
  • How might inventorying past and potential events/programs benefit your school?
  • What are the ways parents prefer communication? How might you find out?
  • In what ways can you convey to parents that all their voices matter, even if they can’t attend meetings?
  • In what ways might you be responsive to the needs of parents, teachers, admin, and students as a PTA?
  • How might the PTA collaborate with the administration?

I am hopeful that we can find opportunities to strengthen connections among parents, teachers, and students!

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

On Taking Their Learning Autonomy Seriously #TeacherMom

I watched him eagerly build. Forget that parking garage we’d given him; his backdrop for his car pretend play needed to be a magnificent double castle. It was clear that for him, his make-believe was thoroughly real and satisfying and rich.

And I wondered how often I have not recognized such pretend play for what it really is: self-constructed learning experiences.

Now, as I watch my kids play and explore and learn, I am filled with questions.

Do we recognize their fantastical play of equal or greater value than “real world” play?

Children use fantasy not to get out of, but to get into, the real world. ~John Holt

Do we see a child at play or a person constructing meaning for themselves?

Do we believe that play has its place, but that that place is still below drilling shapes, colors, and counting if the child has reached a certain age?

“Children naturally resist being taught because it undermines their independence and their confidence in their own abilities to figure things out and to ask for help, themselves, when they need it.” ~Peter Gray

Do we allow panic of “readiness lists” (for any grade or age) to override our child’s autonomy over what they’ve indicated they are ready for? 

And most personally relevant: will I avoid the same mistake I made with my oldest (from which her own stubbornness saved us both), assuming that unless I assert my agenda and timetables and learning, my preschooler will fail?

Even as I work to provide a learning environment, I will try to remember an equally, if not more, important role: to trust them enough that I take their own learning autonomy seriously.

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Turning Around “Family as Appendages of an Abstraction”

This phrase, “family as appendages of an abstraction,” leaped from the page as I read John Taylor Gatto’s Dumbing Us Down. While there were several points in the book with which I disagree, this one stands out to me, because it is a harrowing reminder of the ways that once viewed family as an appendage of school, rather than the other way around. This included:

  • Insisting that reading logs be signed by a parent each night, even when a parent told me she knows her daughter reads for hours each day & indicated that the log would not have any value for their situation.
  • Questioning why on earth a parent was opting out of homework so her daughter could focus on her rigorous gymnastics practice/competition schedule.
  • Feeling frustrated when some families expressed dismay when we discontinued math worksheets for homework in favor of what we viewed as a more relevant, choice-based approach (“Can’t they see this is better for their kid than some worksheet?”)
  • Any time I viewed myself as a greater authority on a child’s needs than the parent.

I cringe at these memories. Families are a child’s most lasting community, and parents their most lasting teachers. Gatto writes,

“The deepest purposes of these gigantic networks [like schools] is to regulate and make uniform. Since the logic of family and community is to give scope to variety around a central theme, whenever institutions make a major intervention into personal affairs they cause much damage. By displacing the direction of life from families and communities to institutions and networks we, in effect, anoint a machine our King.”

It’s why I appreciate teachers like Taryn Bond-Clegg who realized that on the homework issue, rather than making mandates for or against, she could ascertain from parents and students themselves what would be most helpful for their families.

It’s why I recently wrote about ways we can truly form partnerships with parents.

And it’s why I loved this response from Chris Tuttell on Bill Ferriter’s “5 Lessons for the Student Teachers In Your Lives:”

“18 years in and I still feel like I have so much to learn. As a beginning teacher I had such an idealistic view – I always knew I wanted to teach in schools that served lower socioeconomic students and I thought I would change their world – I watched ALL the teacher movies – “Dangerous Minds”, ‘Stand and Deliver”, “Lean on Me”, “Freedom Writers”, etc. I thought and said, more times than I care to remember, “Education is your ticket out.”

Can you imagine hearing that as a kid? What was I thinking? Was I really suggesting being educated was more important than the connections the kids had with their family, friends, community? Or worse, that being educated meant you had to leave behind the life and people that matter most? It’s really horrifying isn’t it? I was so ignorant.

Now, all these years later, I focus my efforts on connecting with the families, visiting the community – entering as a learner – seeking to understand by asking questions and truly listening. I try to live by Maya Angelou’s words “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” I don’t succeed everyday but I am trying.”

I, too, am trying to learn & reflect as much as I can & come to know better so that once I return to the classroom, I can do better.

Of course, all this isn’t to suggest that all our kids’ home situations are ideal; far from it. But the point is that every family benefits when we focus on learning how we might support them, “seeking to understand by asking questions and truly listening.”

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

10 Ways for Partnering With Parents #TeacherMom

A friend in my PLN, Aviva Dunsinger, recently wrote about the re-framing of her thinking regarding student vacations during the school year.

“…I think that we have a choice here: we can focus on what children lose due to their absence, or we can look at what they might gain. My thinking is that the stronger the home/school connection, the better the chance that educators, parents, and children can work together to get the most fzrom this away time.”

Her suggestions for offering resources to parents as they take their children on vacation included ideas like offering prompts to elicit discussions. What I appreciate most about these kinds of suggestions is that it sets aside the tone that we know what’s best for their children.

Particularly when we’re facing hostility, this can be an especially difficult task — after all, we are the professionals here. But when we work to view parents through a lens of partnership (and work to walk the talk), we actually preempt those power struggles we fear.

Here are some ideas that might help!

1. Harness social media (that your students’ parents use). Instagram, class Facebook accounts, Twitter — these can all give parents a window into your classroom, which will boost trust via transparency.

2. Share reminders via text to keep parents in the loop on events. Remind is a quality app for this purpose, sending group texts without exchanging actual phone numbers.

3. Seek their input on homework. Taryn Bond-Clegg wrote some time ago about how her approach to homework shifted:

“This year I was planning on having a zero homework policy. Then I realized that it doesn’t have to be an either or… it can be a both and. If I as the teacher mandate homework for all my students, I am neglecting the perspectives of the families who value their time after school for other activities and wish not to have homework. If I as the teacher outlaw homework I am neglecting the perspectives of the families who value extended practice of the academic skills we explore in class.”

Check out the inquiry her class conducted with regards to ascertaining their homework needs.

4. Leverage their expertise. Invite them into the classroom as experts. Assign students to collect data based on parent experiences for various units.

5. Consider getting rid of reading logs. I remember a conversation with a parent of a bookworm student. She asked if she could just pre-sign all their reading logs on the year because her child definitely exceeded the daily minute requirement. Today, I can’t help but wonder if it’s really necessary to put parents (and their children) through this kind of hoop-jumping. It also seems like a good opportunity to build trust, even as we continue to encourage at-home reading. (see Thinking about Those Reading Minutes & Logs)

6. Stay curious. We may have “seen it all.” But families continue to be incredibly diverse with varying needs. Is there one assumption we can drop in favor of asking what resources we might help provide? For instance, we may love our tech-savvy homework assignment, but if you have families that are quite worried about excessive screen time, how might you use it as an opportunity to meet needs?

7. Catch ’em being good. Work to ensure that you communicate more regularly about what their children are doing well than what they are struggling with. This starts by emailing early in the school year if at all possible.

8. Write positive notes to their children. Conveying to their children that we see and appreciate them as individuals is one of the best ways to build relationships with their parents.

9. Organize volunteering. My child’s teacher has a handy sheet-protected class list with boxes you can check as we come in to read with the children. Simple yet efficient way to maximize the time I spend in the classroom.

10. Try to attend the occasional extracurricular event. If anyone understands time constraints, I sure do! But I can attest that when it comes to particularly tricky relationships, attending that game or performance outside of school can do wonders for your rapport.

Yes, we’re professionals. But we’re more likely to have parents respect our expertise when we demonstrate that we respect theirs as their children’s first and longest teachers.

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

When We’re Tired Of Coming Up With It All Ourselves #TeacherMom #IMMOOC

In season 4, episode 2 of the current #IMMOOC running, Angela Watson stressed the importance of not trying to come up with some beautiful, perfect lesson every day:

“[There’s] this self-imposed pressure to reinvent the wheel. It goes back to the notion that ‘kids these days have a short attention span, and they’re so different so they need all these different things, so therefore I need to have the most exciting lesson in the world.’ I can’t possibly do the same thing with them twice or else they’ll be bored and they won’t pay attention. One of the best things we can do as teachers is to develop this core group of activities that are open-ended and naturally differentiated that you can plug into your lessons over and over. So instead of constantly trying to find something new, have a tried-and-true repertoire of maybe 5-6 things as a new teacher, and slowly you add to that over time. Things that kids really enjoy and learn from.”

When I listened to this, it was an instant “aha moment” both as a teacher and as a parent. Sometimes I think Pinterest has warped our views of success to make us think that if there aren’t rainbow sparkles emitting from our pursuits as teachers and parents every day, we’re doing it wrong.

Instead, we can think of what works, and then how we can make that more accessible to kids. And, best of all, we can invite kids in on the discussion every step of the way.

As a teacher example, when I reflect on that repertoire of 5-6 activities that usually worked really well, I think of visible learning. Protocols like:

Once we find protocols that seem to work well in generating quality thinking, sharing, and stretching, the next step is to make sure they are well known enough that when you invite students to help plan, they can easily pick out which ones would be appropriate for upcoming concepts/content. This might come in the form of putting up posters with a summary of what each one involves, or it might simply mean posting a list in your “planning corner” where students can be reminded that they are ready to be put to use.

When I think of my parenting 5-6 go-to’s for my small kids, I think of:

  • Our sensory box (bin full of pinto beans)
  • Playdough
  • Kitchen play
  • Read Alongs
  • Outdoor play
  • Puzzles

Just as with the teacher items, the real magic happens when we let kids in on the planning, ensuring kids remember what activities are within reach. Ownership is shared, energy is multiplied, and fervor is rekindled. I’ve seen this happen when I’ve worked to set the environment so my kids can better plan their own daily activities.

You see, there’s just no need for us to come up with it all ourselves. Maybe those burnt-out feelings are just a good reminder that we can look to the kids we serve to find the very energy we’re looking for!

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto