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October 1, 1993
Vol. 51
No. 2

Through the Eyes of Parents

At an elementary school in Colorado, parent observations have become an important part of an overall plan for school improvement.

Instructional Strategies
Early in my first year as principal of Juchem Elementary School, a small group of parents arrived on the playground with video recorders. Having been an elementary school principal for a few years, I was used to surprises, but I immediately knew this was a surprise I didn't need. Two parents had warned me that they didn't like the way the playground was being supervised. Now they were documenting their position on video to prove the school's negligence. This experience prompted me to consider positive ways to use parent observers.
As the year progressed, the faculty and I studied ways that parent participation could benefit both parents and the school. Over the next three years, the FOCUS—Friendly Observations Can Unify a School—project developed very naturally. We had no preconceived ideas about results. At each step, we didn't know what was around the corner. We merely affirmed that what we knew was educationally sound, trusted one another, took risks, and made mistakes.
As a group, the faculty and I agreed on two priorities for our school: (1) to increase the quality of parent-school partnerships, and (2) to model and build students' self-esteem. These two goals led to the development of our parent observation process.

Improving Students' Self-Esteem

We selected building self-esteem as a priority because many students seemed to lack it, as evidenced by excessive discipline problems, student conflicts, and poor achievement. We were familiar with many studies linking a child's success in school to good self-concept. In addition, the Jefferson County Testing Department had frequently encouraged us to assess self-concept in addition to measuring math, science, and language development.
“How is it possible to measure something as elusive as self-concept?” someone asked. We began by identifying our own beliefs. For example, we concluded that exercising personal responsibility helps to build self-esteem, as do mastering knowledge/skills and having experiences that allow for individual differences (see fig. 1).

Figure 1. Juchem Elementary School's 17 Beliefs

We believe that the following practices—grouped in order of frequency observed—enhance students' self-esteem:

  1. A common vision with high reasonable expectations in a supportive environment

  2. Experiences that allow for individual differences

  3. Opportunities to express creativity

  4. Experiences that allow for solitude (but not isolation and aloneness)

  5. Knowledge of our strengths and weaknesses and how to utilize them

  6. Flexible use of standardized tests and alternative evaluation methods

  7. Mastery of knowledge and skills

  8. Viewing mistakes as learning opportunities

  9. Exercising personal responsibility and accepting the consequences of behavior

  10. Having control of our experiences

  11. Support and validation from others

  12. Cooperative experiences and positive peer relationships

  13. Opportunities to exercise different styles of direct communication

  14. A safe/clean learning environment

  15. Occasions to relax and refuel during the school day

  16. Parent involvement in the school

  17. Opportunities for students to bond with school staff

 


Creating a School-Home Partnership

To assist us in building positive school-parent relationship, I enlisted the help of Virginia Shaw-Taylor, a colleague who owns a management consulting business. In the fall of 1989, Shaw-Taylor made some informal observations at Juchem, noting our fear-free school-community relationships. For example, she observed that students, staff, administrators, and parents alike treated one another with warmth and respect.
Until that time, I hadn't given our school climate much thought. By seeing Juchem Elementary through a consultant's eyes, I began to appreciate how cooperation and trust permeated our school. Students helped one another learn. Teachers helped one another teach and frequently shared ideas. The teachers and the principal made decisions in a cooperative manner. Parents were becoming more deeply involved in the school.
To foster more risk-taking, Shaw-Taylor and I accepted an invitation to share our own writing with the 4th grade classes, who were learning to write and share their work with others. I remember feeling vulnerable as we took turns reading our manuscripts to the children and discussing our personal challenges in writing. Then, what a special reward we received when we learned that a student who had never publicly shared his writing did so after our classroom visit.

Preparing for the Observations

In the Jefferson County School District, each school has its own local accountability committee—composed of parents, community members, teachers, and the principal. The committee helps to identify a school's direction and report its progress to the local community and the school district.
We thought it natural to turn to our accountability committee to select parents to observe at our school. The committee appointed two parents to conduct observations. Shaw-Taylor then diligently worked with the newly formed FOCUS Team—composed of the two parent observers, the principal (myself), and two teachers. Working collaboratively, we developed a training guide, an observation outline, goals, objectives, assumptions, and detailed operating agreements for the observations. The primary focus would be on student behavior. During an observation, the parent observer would diagram the physical setting (room arrangements, art, and photographic displays) and describe what he or she saw the students doing and saying in the classroom. The teacher whose classroom was observed would receive a copy of the observation. Then we would compare the results of the observations to our stated beliefs about self-esteem to determine their match.
The team observers agreed to donate their time, and the school would pay for printing, paper, and postage. Our plan was for the two observers to complete 21 classroom observations involving 175 observer hours, plus 10 nonclassroom observations (cafeteria, hallways, and playground). Approximately two-thirds of the classrooms would be observed, with teachers given the option of not having their classrooms observed. The schedule we developed specified when the parents would visit the classrooms.
When the accountability committee initially suggested to teachers that parents observe their classes, the response was one of apprehension. As the faculty representatives on the committee, Joe Munoz and Diane Whigham, observed, “Teachers feel as parents might if several teachers at their school wanted to make a home visit to assess their parenting skills.” With more information, though, the teachers' fears gradually diminished.
Fortunately, the FOCUS project evolved at a time when Jefferson County, through the Cooperative Decision-Making Task Force, had allocated more money for staff development and on-site research. The Juchem staff used the money wisely to document the parent observation process. In addition, the superintendent, area superintendents, the school board, and the district Cooperative Decision-Making Task Force all participated in some way. At the time, the focus on “shared leadership” at the state and national levels also contributed to the success of the effort.
However, before the observations began, the teachers, in their not so subtle way, informed me that we were moving too fast. As a result, we agreed to postpone the training and observations until the fall of 1991. By then, the staff was more fully behind the project.

Expanding Trust at the Faculty Retreat

When fall arrived, feelings were still fragile when someone suggested that we invite the two parent observers, several other parents, and the consultant to our faculty retreat. Again, most of the teachers felt a high degree of apprehension. The wisdom of this decision, turf issues, and socializing outside of school threw many of us out of our comfort zone.
The prospect of parents and teachers spending two days at a conference center participating in open discussions, taking walks, and eating meals together presented untried experiences for us all. None of us was quite prepared for the bond that developed around the common purpose of helping our children and improving our school. Commenting on a trial parent observation that had already occurred, the observed teacher confirmed that the feedback had been helpful and nonthreatening. By the time we left the retreat, everyone realized that we shared the same concerns.

Launching the Observations

When the real classroom observations were scheduled to begin, I had that anxious feeling in my stomach again: “What if it fails?” I knew of no other school that had tried this strategy. We were mapping new territory.
The first round of observations began in October. Shaw-Taylor and the two parent observers, Anne Kitch and Mary Granica, began visiting classrooms and learning from one another in the process. “This is on-the-job training!” Kitch said. We were fortunate to have the experience of Shaw-Taylor in observational research, of Kitch in business management, and of Granica in applied anthropology. The observers continued their observations through November. It is a measure of their expertise that soon after they started, the staff almost forgot they were there.
In December the FOCUS Team received a report of the preliminary findings from the three classroom observers. We compared the observed student behaviors to our original list of beliefs about self-esteem. As a result of this review, we were able to add several new beliefs about self-esteem to our list. We completed the second round of observations, incorporating the new beliefs, by May 1992.
Between the first and second round of observations, Wayne Carle, from the Jefferson County Co-operative Decision-Making Task Force, paid us a visit. His observations provided support for our efforts: The observer aspect of your decision making has evolved to a point where parents have been documenting what they see going on in classrooms. Although this could put teacher-parent relations at risk, it is evident that the process has generated mutual trust and respect. Throughout the observations, we also consulted with Diane Proctor of the district testing office, who supported the idea of specifying actual examples of behaviors that could be coded to each belief. The development of these examples helped us to determine whether behaviors observed in classrooms supported our stated beliefs about building self-esteem. For example, when a teacher coaches students to make their writing personal by using their own thinking, she is supporting the belief that experiences that allow for individual differences contribute to self-esteem.

A Clearer Picture of the Future

As a result of the FOCUS project, we now have a better idea of how well classroom practices are fostering our 17 beliefs about improving students' self-esteem. Figure 1 shows a ranking of the beliefs by frequency.
  • develop specific ways to use the results of this project to enhance learning;
  • ask larger segments of the community to help review, revise, and adopt the list of beliefs, thus expanding understanding of our school's practices; and
  • train more parents as classroom observers.
We now find ourselves wondering if the project will continue to flourish. Will it be a useful alternative assessment method for Juchem and the district? Will teachers and parents continue to see the value of these efforts? At the same time, we know that having answers now would not be consistent with the spontaneous way the project has evolved.
We have seen several positive results, however. First, some teachers are planning to examine their teaching and evaluation methods using these findings as a guide to improve students' performance. The teachers now have information about their own classrooms for reference and a tool for measuring the elusive concept of self-esteem. By taking time to observe and reflect on what is happening, we have a solid starting point for evaluating and improving our school.
Second, the process has brought parents and staff members closer together. We treat one another with more respect, communicate openly, and have a better understanding of how current educational practices affect student learning.
Third, we now know what student behaviors indicating self-esteem occur most and least frequently. For example, parents rarely observed students learning from their mistakes, so we need to create ways to teach this. Perhaps we aren't modeling this practice ourselves. On the other hand, the observers recorded that students were frequently mastering knowledge and skills—something that, as we know from the literature and from teaching experience, enhances self-esteem.
The parent observations are giving us a clearer picture of what we need to continue doing well and what we need to improve. From this picture, both parents and teachers have a better understanding of the complexity of education. As one parent observer said, “I never knew teaching 30 students involved so many difficult steps—or that self-esteem was so hard to measure.”
In retrospect, I owe a big thank you to the parents who brought the video recorder to our playground three years ago. They definitely put us on the right track. Since that day, parents are no longer looking in from the outside. They are on the team.

B. J. Meadows has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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