5th September 2017

The biggest myth in education: are parents more important than students?

By James Pengelley

Before you run to lynch me for saying this, stop and ask yourself: what are the factors within teachers control that positively impact the learning environment?

This was exactly what John Hattie aimed to answer when he produced a comprehensive list of effect sizes on learning. Going one step further, Hattie then grouped the various factors that influence learning into groups: factors that depend on the students, factors that depend on the teacher, factors that depend on the school environment and those that depend on the home environment.

The take home message is that while students (and their individual attitudes, abilities and circumstances) account for nearly 50% of the differences in school achievement, teachers account for nearly 30%.  What is also interesting is that the home environment is also a significant contributor – and this is something that teachers need to be aware of.

Now this is not to say that teachers should be paying home visits, or pontificating to parents about how to raise their children. It is becoming increasingly important for schools and teachers to work with engaging parents, not just students in the education process because typically, it is the students whose parents are active participants in their children’s learning that have the best educational outcomes.

To this end, communication is key. Consider for a moment how many students leave their classes with a clear, articulate awareness of the objectives of each lesson, a sense of their own progress and areas for improvement. With this in mind, how will parents be able to make any contribution to their child’s educational progress if they are totally reliant on being drip-fed information from their child, who may not necessarily know what or how to explain things to them? One argument might be that just as students need to learn how to learn, parents need to learn how to talk to their children about education in order to engage.

So if we accept that teachers are the keyholders to facilitating parent engagement, if we accept that parents need to learn as much as their children do, if we accept that the role of parent engagement in student achievement is a significant element that teachers can influence, then we can argue that teachers can act as agents of educational change beyond the classroom.

Here are some common, practical ways of developing communicative relationships with parents, even if some teachers rarely have face-to-face contact with parents.

1) Keep a class diary

Many schools use class diaries to facilitate regular communication. This can be especially useful as a way for parents to pass notes and questions on to teachers easily.

The other advantage of class diaries is that it becomes easy for students to earn punishments and rewards in the form of stamps, stickers and notes, and over time, these will create a visible record of student participation and class achievement.  And who doesn’t love an easy one-stop reference to informing end or year reports?

2) Use online communication platforms

Many schools use online platforms in the form of web portals to showcase and record class notes, assignments and discussions. One of the advantages of this is that many platforms can be used to communicate with parents too.

The Guardian has a list of some of the most popular online platforms, many of which are free, that enable parent-teacher communication. Another thing to keep in mind is that often a record of some kind is critical when making changes to or implementing learning and behaviour plans for students. Having a designated place for all communications might be one administrative tip that makes your life significantly easier.

3) Set up a customer service role who relays messages to parents

Other schools don’t actively encourage direct parent-teacher communication. Instead, teachers may be asked to pass all communication through a customer service department, especially in contexts where there may be a language or culture barrier.

If you are concerned that you would like more access to parental communication, it might be worth considering negotiating with the management team to enable the person or people who work in the customer service roles to take on this communication responsibility. It may also save you time on the phone, however, be very careful of messages being lost in translation and ensure that emails are written carefully, clearly, and politely (no matter how you really feel about little Tommy!).

4) Create email groups, and send regular positive feedback

From an administrative point of view, group emails and contact group profiles can save you hours of lost time. If there is no existing infrastructure to enable parent communication with your parents, one idea might be to ask for contact details at the start of the year. Then, using your email programme, create whole-class group email lists that will enable you to send out regular group emails.

Consider building this into your weekly routine, in the form of a weekly newsletter, or information about upcoming assessments, events and projects that students will be working on, and encourage parents to get in touch with you if they have any concerns or questions.

5) Design worksheets for parents to write comments

Similar to the idea of a class diary, this one is perhaps even simpler to set up. Rather than printing off hundreds of diary templates, or asking parents to fork out for another piece of stationery, why not design all of your worksheets with a small box at the bottom of each page? This could be a template you create in the footer of each document, with half of the space reserved for teacher feedback, and half reserved for parent comments and questions.

Part of your feedback routines could be to return work to students, and set them homework to show their work to their parents. Students might then return all worksheets to you, or keep them in a semester portfolio (which is kept at school) to show the parents at the end of the term, or during parent-teacher evenings. In this way, you can avoid any surprises for students and parents, and always have evidence to justify certain grades, comments or results for inquisitive families.

If you'd like to join our professional development sessions for the 2017/18 school year, check out our training calendar for upcoming English language teacher training workshops in Hong Kong.

James Pengelley contributes to the TESOL team as a CertTESOL/DipTESOL trainer as well as one of EFA's digital content managers.  He holds a Cambridge DELTA, Trinity TYLEC and is currently completing a postgraduate diploma in teaching (secondary).  He contributes to English language teaching publications, including the English Australia Journal, The British Council and the International House Journal of Education and Development.