On Parents' Involvement in Our Coop

A Conversation With Jane


Thank you for taking the time to be here tonight. I know how busy everyone is and we appreciate that you would spend the evening with us here at school.

When I was in graduate school I had a teacher who was fond of saying, "teaching is about relationships". It was her mantra. And it has become mine - not only about teaching, but really, for me, about life itself. The idea that teaching is about relationships is one of our fundamental beliefs here at Park West. You may remember that at our parent orientation meeting on the 8th we handed out a little leaflet from NAEYC - the National Association for the Education of Young Children. NAEYC is the professional organization that accredits nursery school programs. Park West has been accredited by NAEYC for almost 20 years. Every three years an extensive self-study process is required culminating in visits by validators. We went through this process last year.

Though validators were pleased with what they saw at Park West, what they were most impressed with was the relationship between teachers and children and the level and quality of their interactions.

A number rating system is used with 3 being the highest rating. All interactions between teachers and children at Park West, for every team and each individual teacher, was rated a 3. And I should say there were many criterion at least 10, about these interactions, not just one question, but many questions, multiple ways of getting at and examining how these interactions play out. We had two validators visit us last year, and they were here for about 10 hours. One of the validators visits a few sites every week and has been doing so for many years. She shared with me that she didn't really think she had ever given another school all 3s for every teacher on all interaction criterion.

This was quite a testament to our teachers, though it didn't surprise me at all. One of Park West's biggest strengths is our teachers, their experience, their unflagging sense of professionalism, their genuine concern for our students and families, and teachers' continual self and group reflection on children, how they learn, and what we do and how we do things here at school. How we set up our schedule in the beginning days of school, how we do orientation, visits, staggered start, this meeting tonight, pot lucks, and so on is partly about getting all of these multi-directional relationships off the ground. I think having regular contact with parents while they assist further encourages that kind of thinking, that we are a team with a common purpose and that all parties, all of the protagonists, as it were, offer vital contributions.

Besides visiting schools and accrediting them, NAEYC also produces a monthly professional magazine, publishes and promotes books about child development, sponsors conferences and seminars, and also holds an annual convention. The convention lasts 3 days with multiple speakers scheduled though out the convention. In the past years about 50,000 education professionals have attended these annual conventions. I have attended for a few years now. Last year the convention was held in Chicago and we closed school for two days so that all of our staff could attend. After attending the convention a couple of the teachers and I brainstormed about doing a presentation ourselves. Approximately 3500 proposals were submitted for this year's convention. 750 were accepted and I'm happy to say that one of those was our presentation. Our presentation is about how parent involvement impacts the lives of children, families, and staff. And that's what I'd like to speak with you about tonight.

The way Park West is organized honors the importance of relationships.

Having two teachers in each class, co-teachers, is indicative of the importance of working with another person. The co-teachers in each room act as a model for working in tandem with others: sharing observations and ideas, working through differences, laughing together when things go awry, acknowledging mistakes, equitably distributing work and shouldering responsibility together. This sets the stage for teachers working with parents, for parents working with other parents, and for children working together with peers and also with their teachers.

So what is the impact of parental involvement? We feel there are many, many benefits. I'd like to focus in particular on the parent-teacher relationship. Working closely together helps teacher and parent develop a stronger bond. Ongoing contact can demystify the parent-teacher relationship. It lets each party come to know the other not only in their parent/teacher role, but also as just people with likes and dislikes. Parents can have a greater feeling of confidence in a teacher they know and have seen work. This can lead to better communication and franker discussions. If you feel at ease with each other, if you feel you're part of a team, chances are you will feel more comfortable bringing up what may really be on your mind. This can make conferences more fruitful and to the point.

Working in the classroom with teachers helps parents better understand what I call the subtext of what we do in the classroom. Not only what we offer to children, but also why we offer the activities we do, why sign-up sheets are important, why sand and water have a greater significance for young children than just a fun activity. It can help parents understand the philosophical underpinnings of what we do - how we think children learn.  Parents also can use teachers as role models of appropriate interactions with children and responding to children's inquiries and behaviors. Often parents will begin to use the same language or wording that teachers use. Children will do this as well, often in the same inflection as teachers.  So working in the classroom can give parents some new, practical tools to use with children.

Being in the classroom can also widen a parent's point of view and help them come to grips with their own child now being one of many in the classroom - not the only shining star but one of many shining stars.

It also helps parents come to a deeper understanding of teachers' attempts to balance the needs of the individual with the needs of the group as a whole. Parents also may get to see their own child in a different light - how one's own child behaves in a group setting. This can be quite different than how things go at home. Seeing one's own child navigate in a group can lead a parent to see a new side of their child - their strengths and challenges. Parents can come to a better understanding of child development through their experiences working in the classroom, observing and having close contact with many children. One Dad, who did the assisting for his family, told me how often a child would need to go to the bathroom right at dismissal time and that then every child would decide that yes, they needed to go as well. He wondered how could we ever dismiss on time.

Parents get to observe teachers reactions to children's needs and behaviors and can be reassured that teachers do notice each individual child - that teachers respond to the needs of the individual, whether helping a reticent child enter play or helping an overly stimulated child calm down and approach others in a more successful way. When parents work with teachers in the classroom, parents are able to observe teachers in action and the many challenges and decisions teachers face each day. Not only the challenge of keeping up with children, the energy and physical stamina needed, but also the intellectual clarity needed and the emotional resilience needed to cope with the needs and desires of 18 children - two different groups of 18 children each day.

Working in a relationship model not only helps teachers and parents form close relationships, it also encourages parents to form close relationships with each other.

I still have dinner from time to time with the women I served on the Park West board with - and our children are now in their twenties. Creating bonds with other parents is especially important for parents who may not have their own families in this area. Parents here become each other's support system. A parent sent me a lovely end of the year note complimenting staff and letting me know how wonderful her family's experience had been. She explained that she had expected her child to make friends at school. What she hadn't anticipated were the wonderful friends she and her husband had made here. So deep friendships can be formed and I think working in the relationship model really promotes that in acknowledging our deep need as humans for social contact.

One of the benefits of parental involvement in the classroom and working on committees and the board of directors is that it encourages and empowers parents to get involved in their children's future schools. Involvement in the administration of Park West and serving on committees demonstrates to parents that they can and should have a voice about schools and school policy. It encourages parents to feel entitled to information from and input into their child's school. Taking an active role in nursery school helps prepare parents to take more of a leadership role in their child's elementary school as parents have the opportunity here to discover and refine their skills and understanding of what they can offer.

Parents' experiences at the coop are almost an internship in management and leadership training. Our parents now are local school council and PTA presidents at many schools. Two of our parents recently set up 4 bus routes for Sacred Heart School and I know that one of them won't even be using the buses for her children. But there was a need for the buses and our parents had the skills, the drive, and the work ethic to make it happen - not for their own family, but for their children's school.

Elementary schools are starting to realize this - not only are our children prepared for grammar school, but so are our involved parents.

I'd also like to make my pitch that the structure of our cooperative is a model for parents of how an ethical organization operates and can exist. A former parent has actually written a book about ethical leadership and values based business practices. And working in a cooperative, with many different kinds of people with many different needs gives parents a unique perspective on the problems faced by parents and the need for better support systems for families. This can spur people on to social action and working for children and families on a larger scale.

Though I've been speaking about the benefits parents experience, obviously all of the protagonists: parents, children, and staff reap the rewards. What strengthens one party strengthens all parties. All of the benefits of parents and teachers working closely together naturally benefit the children - for all of the previously stated reasons. It also sends the message to the children that they and their school are important - so important that mom and dad come to work at school and go to meetings about school and have conferences with teachers about what children do at school. Parents and children can have much to talk about after an assisting day. They can share some classroom experiences together. Parents understanding of how the classroom works and what teachers are trying to accomplish supports children and helps to re-enforce our school culture, our philosophy, and our way of working. This boosts children's self esteem and security. Children are so proud to have their parents working at school, and I think proud that parents and teachers work together as a team.

And certainly the relationship model has tremendous impact on the teacher-child relationship.

The genuine caring of one for the other- teacher for child and child for teacher is remarkable with teacher and child each reaching out to the other over and over again replenishing and caring for each other. A former parent shared with me that she felt one of the greatest gifts Park West gave to her children was that they moved on to elementary school with the assumption that a teacher is someone who helps you. Someone you can turn to when you need some help, guidance, or support. The teacher child relationship like that of the teacher and parent is based on trust, predictability of support, and, especially for children, emotional security.

I am known for sprinkling my talks with stories from the classroom, and I feel I haven't given you many stories tonight, so I'd like to end - and I'm ending this soon - with just two brief stories that illustrate the impact and importance of the teacher child relationship. Sometimes a child's view of the power of teachers can be a bit over blown. One year when I was teaching JK I was sitting at group time with a child on my lap. Our class was in the 1st floor classroom. The weekend before the crab apple trees had bloomed. There were just small buds the last time JK had met. As this child sat on my lap I could tell when he noticed the beautiful and plentiful flowers. He sat up straighter in my lap, moving his head to get a better look. Finally he turned and looked at me and said, "How did you do that?" If only I really was that powerful.

One last story about the relationship between teachers and children.

And it's one I've told before so returning parents bear with me. One year, again in a JK class, a teacher overheard a child making a plan with another child and saying that there were no adults in the room. The teacher, who was almost 60, asked the child what she meant. What about the three teachers in the room. Did she think they were adults? And the child answered no, you can't be adults because you don't boss kids around. The teacher, still intrigued, asked well then, if we're not adults what are we? The child thought for a moment and then replied, well, I guess you're just old teenagers. What a compliment to those teachers - to not be seen as impediments or adults who boss kids around, rather to be seen as helpers, co-workers, maybe cheerleaders - to keep the teen analogy – of children and their ideas. That child understood that teachers here pay attention to and value the ideas of children. What a wonderful relationship.

The benefits of working in a relationship model don't just happen...

Though as I've stated we all do what we can as an organization and as individuals to create successful bonds with one another.. There are many challenges: being able to communicate clearly, being able to really listen to another person, trusting another person, being open to another, different point of view, and sometimes accepting that even after listening and explaining there may still not be agreement on every issue. Building relationships can take time, but regular, respectful interactions make the possibility of achieving all the benefits I've mentioned more likely and in my experience very attainable.

We are, all of us, in relationships with each other. We have made a social contract with one another. I hope this year to support all of you, as I will, in turn, rely on all of you as well.