My parents used to make 2 appointments for me at the dentist...one for the cleaning and one to get the inevitable cavities filled. It was easier to schedule both at the same time knowing they would happen. Needless to say, every time I have walked into a dentist's office since I was a kid is fraught with reminiscent feelings of early morning appointments that ended in 1 side of my face being numb and food tasting like metal for a day. This is not a Seinfeld "Anti-Dentite" rant (I’ll save that for a down month in the summer), but there is a parallel here. Though the work done on my teeth covered the cost of annual Country Club membership dues, and perhaps the purchase of a small island, I would rather focus on the connection to schools.
My guess is that people who worked in that dentist's office don't have the same recollection of my visits. The hope for me is that walking into our school does not feel like a long walk to the dentist chair. The reality is that everyone had a different experience in school and, like it or not, those experiences shape the attitude that our public has when it walks through the hallways. I love walking into our school every day, but I have to understand that a number of people do not have that same sense of comfort. Administrators, think about the makeup of your staff. Likely, the majority of teachers in your building had a relatively good experience in school. People don’t choose to spend their careers in a place where they had a bad experience. This is why dental school and miniature pony ranch hand were never an option for me! The experiences that our staff members had in school are not always the same as those of the parents who send their most prized possessions to us every day.
There are feelings in schools…we have all had them. When visiting other schools I think you can get a pretty good indication of the environment upon entering the building. The first contact…from secretarial help, to seeing a teacher in the hallway, to a custodian in the entrance can shape the relationships we have with parents. We need to trust our staff to engage the public when they enter our building. As leaders in the building it is imperative that we relay the importance of the first contact with parents to our staff members. When parents enter the building the default feeling can be how they felt as a kid. If our first contact is welcoming, we can make them feel like they are a part of something bigger than dropping off in the morning and picking up at the end of the day.
There are a number of resources out there for schools looking to engage parents in more inviting manner. Joe Mazza (https://twitter.com/Joe_Mazza) moderates a weekly chat tagged #ptchat on Wednesdays at 9 PM EST. This has been an outstanding resource for finding a number of ideas to help your staff engage parents. The questions posed are challenging and stretch the thinking of those involved. Dr. Marilyn Price-Mitchell (https://twitter.com/DrPriceMitchell) seems to have unlimited parenting suggestions and #Parenting News Daily has been an amazing resource that I share with our staff often. Jerry Blumengarten (https://twitter.com/cybraryman1) has a fantastic Parent Resource page on his website that can be found at http://cybraryman.com/0_parents1.htm. Larry Ferlazzo (https://twitter.com/Larryferlazzo) just posted his best parent educational blog posts from 2012…wonderful perspectives from a number of people across the world. Part 1 found at http://engagingparentsinschool.edublogs.org/2012/06/22/my-best-posts-on-building-parent-engagement-in-schools-2012-so-far/ and Part 2 at http://engagingparentsinschool.edublogs.org/2012/11/22/my-best-posts-on-building-parent-engagement-in-schools-2012-part-two/.
Beyond First Contact, I offer 2 other suggestions…Call and Listen. Call…I ask our staff to call parents within three days of the start of the year. The first call to parents can be short, but has to be positive. I also ask our administrators to make positive calls (we set the goal at 4 per week) to parents regarding ANYTHING a student is doing well at school. The power of these calls has been fantastic. The 4 calls take an hour every week…at the most. The idea of first contact doesn’t need to be relegated to the physical school building. If our first contact is positive, regardless of venue, we will be in a better spot. Listen…behind the volume and vigor of parent complaints is a message. Sometimes we can’t find the message through the tone, but it is there and is always an opportunity to get better. I am not advocating that we put all suggestions or complaints into action…but we do need to hear where they are coming from and honestly reflect on what we are doing.
Parents come in with a wide range of feelings regarding schools. Some good, some great, some terrible…and we have to embrace all of those. I don’t know if a dentist calling me or making me feel welcome when I got to the office would have offset the drilling, needles, and inevitable numbing of the face…but it couldn't hurt! Sometimes thinking that “it couldn't hurt” is the start we need.