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February 1, 1997
Vol. 54
No. 5

Recruiting Parents and the Community

A mother oversees a chemistry experiment, a physical therapist fields questions about muscles, 8- and 9-year-olds noisily plan family night. It's an average day in this Oregon classroom.

Close your eyes and imagine your ideal teaching scenario. Do you see parents who understand how and why you teach various lessons? Parents who help out in the classroom and extend what you're doing by taking their kids to the library or on weekend trips? Community members who are involved and convinced that students are learning?
Last year this daydream came true for me; it was the best teaching year of my career. I attribute my success with the 6-, 7-, 8-, and 9-year-olds in my multiage class to the involvement of parents and other members of our Aloha, Oregon, community. They took advantage of four major ways to get involved—communicating through voice mail, sharing expertise in the classroom, helping me gather lesson materials, and participating in our monthly learning celebrations.
The district itself offers parents and others a brief glance at what's happening in schools through weekly newsletters, semester conferences, a community week, and fall and spring socials. But these activities reach only a fraction of parents and community members. I wanted to involve more of them.

Dial-a-Teacher: Voice Mail

Fashioned after the local ski report, my one-minute voice mail message tells callers what's happening in class that day. I update the messages daily by scanning my plan book for special highlights, skills we've worked on, homework, and what's coming up. I sometimes add a list of items we need for class—everything from a pound of salt to toilet paper rolls. Both parents and students call. I find that this 60-second reminder helps kids articulate what went on in class so that their parents hear firsthand that we did more than "Oh, nothing."
At the end of the recorded message, parents or children may leave messages of their own, and they do. I look forward to checking these messages. Parents often give me specific feedback about their child's classroom experience, and the many thank-you's are exhilarating. Parents also find ways to extend what's happening in the classroom. They send us books, take trips, or discuss our unit of study around the dinner table.

Teacher for a Day

Parents also create their own plans, projects, and assessments to fit in with our themes. One parent, for example, led science investigations for a year. Afterward she told me how gratifying it had been; it challenged her professional skills and gave her something to look forward to each week.
Each fall, I meet with the volunteers and we discuss the district and state curriculum goals and essential skills. I ask parents (and grandparents) to think about their interests or areas of expertise and how they might merge these with our curriculum. They have been involved in virtually every activity, from writing and science groups to lessons in art, piano, carpentry, French, and math problem solving. Parents can be reluctant volunteers. If they know they will merely copy materials or cut patterns all day, they are even more reluctant. By letting them know that they can do more, you encourage them to participate.
I share my resources with parents, including access to our professional library. They, in turn, bring in materials and set group size for their projects. Then, together, we make sure the plans will be a success with our students. Because most of my parent volunteers work outside the home, I must be especially careful to respect their time and support their involvement.
During the 1995-96 school year, every one of my parent volunteers worked outside the home. Their commitment to get time off to share something special with us showed their employers that schools and students are worthy of investment.

Pitching In

Friday nights used to be my work-until-you-drop night, when all the paperwork, preparation, errand running, and tasks of the week remained to be done. One evening, I drew up a list of jobs that were driving me crazy and taking away from my family time: shop for science projects, spray beans, gather library books, scan the newspaper for articles of interest, and so on. I then wrote a brief description of each job and ended up with a four-page list. Across the top I wrote "Help Wanted." This exercise alone was therapeutic!
On Monday, I sent a copy of the list home with each of my students. Within two days parents expressed interest in every job listed. To my surprise, working parents were particularly enthusiastic about doing something for their child's class. Their kids, in turn, took pride in knowing that their parents were helping out. An added bonus was that parents learned just how much work goes into compelling lessons.

Ask the Expert

A record number of guests visit our classroom each year, sharing their knowledge while learning about our school. All our themes relate to some profession. So when we begin a unit, students and their parents go through the phone book or brainstorm to find people, professions, or companies they'd like to learn more about. No one has ever turned down our invitation.
During our unit on the human body, for example, we enjoyed talks by a pathologist, a detective, a masseur, a dental hygienist, an infection control specialist, a polygraph expert, an acupuncturist, a nutritionist, an ophthalmologist, and some chiropractic students, medics, and physical therapists. When we studied transportation, we hosted a total of 70 operators of different vehicles. You name it—helicopters, 18-wheelers, fire engines, emergency vans, dump trucks, towing trucks, garbage trucks, milk trucks, even motorcycles. The drivers spoke, answered questions, and let students inspect their vehicles.
I'm always amazed at how eager these people are to spend their lunch hour at our school. Many of them even ask me to spread the word that they are willing volunteers. Because they're all experts in their field, they can answer questions and fascinate the children in ways that I cannot. Our speakers also show students that everything we study—from language arts to math to interpersonal skills—can be applied in the real world.
After the visits, our students write thank-you letters. They include detailed reviews of what they learned, illustrating their descriptions with drawings. Writing for an audience is especially helpful for emergent writers. We sometimes photocopy the letters and bind them with ribbons in a book that students carry home.
  • In your invitation, specify your expectations, time frames, the best times to reach you, and so on, and include a child's invitation.
  • Use a database and mail merge feature to prepare the letters.
  • Reserve one time period for the speakers (for our class it is Tuesdays and Thursdays, 12:45 to 1:55 p.m.).
  • Let parents know what you're doing; often they can recommend people to invite.
  • Have a calendar handy when you're on the phone to avoid overbooking.
  • Never leave the class alone with your visitor. In addition to safety considerations, visitors are apt to panic when they find they're alone with the students.

Celebrating Learning

One evening a month, students and their families come to school for an hour of learning together. I may set out science projects or math games for families to explore. Or, we may show what we've learned and celebrate it at the conclusion of a theme, inviting our expert guests as well as families. The students themselves form a committee to plan a project or performance for the big event. Each family brings a packaged snack to share.
The focus at the start of the hour is the learning experience, but as the kids inevitably become engrossed in learning together, their parents begin to visit with one another. By the end of the evening, a genuine sense of community has developed. I bring along my own husband, children, and grandmother, and they have as much fun as I do.
Evening celebrations are best attended, but celebrations before school, at lunchtime, or at other times work just as well. Like the three other activities, these one-hour sessions reap big benefits in parent support and understanding. Parents get a chance to see how I teach various concepts and I enjoy meeting them and watching families interact.

Teresa Jo Clemens-Brower has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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