A Parents’ Night Recipe

Making family engagement a priority — one batch of cookies at a time

November 2, 2015
Illustration of teacher and family with plate of cookies

It’s 8:10 in the evening, and I still have three more parents to talk with. It’s Parents’ Night at my high school, and from 6 p.m. until now, I’ve been in nonstop conversations with parents, students, and other family members. Three batches of chocolate chip cookies and the tray of Texas sheet cake I made the previous night have been reduced to crumbs.

Engaging and partnering with parents is one of my primary goals for the year. Indeed, I chose this particular high school because many of my students’ parents come from regions where I’ve lived, worked, and taught.

Why should family engagement be a top priority?

Studies are resounding: robust family engagement in schools positively affects student growth, improves test scores, and enhances the overall vibrancy and success of a school.

As a master’s student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, studying under the guidance of Karen Mapp, I heard firsthand from veteran teachers, principals, parents, and policymakers. They spoke as if in unison: partnering with families isn’t just good practice, it’s critical.

Yet rarely do teachers receive meaningful training on how to engage with parents.

Robust family  engagement in schools positively  affects student growth, improves test scores, and enhances the overall vibrancy and success of a school. - Jessica Lander EdM '15 #hgse #usableknowledge @harvardeducation

In the week leading up to Parents’ Night, I heard again and again from veteran teachers not to expect much. Bring work, bring grading, bring lesson plans to revise. If you’re lucky, five parents will trickle in.

Parent engagement often drops off in high school. Perhaps parents believe students should take more ownership of their education; perhaps teachers believe the same. Yet high school might be when children need their parents most. Work by Harvard’s Nancy Hill shows that high school students actually wished their parents would help them navigate both academic and social pressures. (They may not admit it, Hill says in this video, but they want the help.)

In my most recent post, I wrote about the need to encourage teamwork among teachers. Collaboration is also key when it comes to engaging families. My parents are the experts in their children, and if I’m lucky, I will be able to learn from each of them.

So I wrote up invitations, printed them on colorful handmade cardstock, and passed them out to my students. Bring your parents I implored. Bring your grandparents, bring your cousins, your siblings, your uncles or aunts. I reminded my students again, and again, and again.

I think back to my own school days. I went to a small private school where parents were in and out of classrooms daily — leading math clubs, sewing costumes for plays, and teaching lessons making Chinese scrolls.

But this is only one form of family engagement. Helping in the classroom or, as Mapp has written, holding a school bake sale is not the only way for parents to support their children. Too often, though, when parents can’t engage in this way, they are labeled as disengaged. As Mapp and other experts have argued, to build meaningful partnerships that are feasible for all parents, communities, schools, and teachers must first establish what success looks like. From there, they can build effective strategies.

Many of my students’ parents work multiple jobs. Some work in the evenings or overnight, and my students see them only on the weekends. And some parents may feel that school is not always a welcoming place for them. If I am serious about reaching all parents, I will need to head out into the community and offer to meet my students’ parents in their neighborhoods or in their homes.

Even knowing all this, I still hoped to draw a crowd to Parents’ Night, even a small one. Researchers from Vanderbilt University have written of the need to actively invite parents to engage. My handmade cards would be my first invitation.

Parents’ Night had barely begun when the parents of one of my 9th graders poked their heads in my classroom. Very quickly the room filled up. Students brought their mothers or their fathers, or both. Some brought younger brothers or younger sisters. Some brought their own children. I shook hands with uncles, aunts, and even a few cousins.

Many of my students’ parents don’t speak English. They come from Ecuador, Iraq, Nepal, and two dozen other countries. We spoke with the help of their children, my students, who sat with us — some exuberant, and some suddenly shy.

Our conversations were all too brief. There were many parents to speak with. But I hope these conversations will be the first of many — a whole year’s worth of conversations. A yearlong collaboration.

Additional Resources

Watch a video of HGSE Senior Lecturer Karen Mapp discussing the five key ingredients of effective family engagement.

​Illustration by Daniel Vasconcellos

About the Author

Jessica Lander
Jessica Lander, a high school teacher and a 2015 graduate of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, writes about education for Usable Knowledge, the Boston Globe, and other outlets. For two years, she wrote a regular series of blogs for Usable Knowledge about her experiences as a new teacher. With Karen Mapp and Ilene Carver, she is a co-author of Powerful Partnerships: A Teacher’s Guide to Engaging Families for Student Success.  Follow her on Twitter at @jessica_lander
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Usable Knowledge is a trusted source of insight into what works in education — translating new research into easy-to-use stories and strategies for teachers, parents, K-12 leaders, higher ed professionals, and policymakers. Usable Knowledge is produced at the Harvard Graduate School of Education by Bari Walsh (senior editor) and Leah Shafer (staff writer). Contact us at uknow@gse.harvard.edu.