Parents Speak Up: 6 Reasons Engagement is Difficult

July 06, 2016

Everybody is talking about parental engagement right now and believe me, it's a good thing. Districts with engaged parents regularly show stronger and more consistent student outcomes. With that in mind, focusing on parental engagement feels like a no-brainer. And yet, it's never easy.

Parents can be impossible to get on the phone, might respond negatively to outreach, or sometimes don't seem to care at all. Not to mention there is a huge difference between baking cookies for a bake sale and true investment in a child's educational journey. If your district has issues getting parents involved, perhaps there are legitimate reasons you haven't considered. 


For over 10 years, I have worked with the ACET (Association for Compensatory Educators of Texas) conference and its participants. One session at the spring meeting that I found particularly interesting didn't focus so much on educators, rather, it focused on the parents' perspective...the parents' critical/worried/borderline frustrated perspective towards educators, in fact. What follows are 6 common parental complaints that were brought up in that session. These complaints resonated with me, and I hope you will take a moment to consider them when thinking about your school's parental engagement practices. 

1) “Parental engagement should be a two-way street.” 

You might be thinking, "I agree!" because YOU have been struggling to engage parents yourself or for your teachers. Turns out, parents feel the same. Your students' guardians need to know that their input is valued.  Dismissing parental input leads to disengagement. And you might be thinking, "But I DO listen!" If that's the case, perhaps it's time to re-assess your own availability or even approachability. Are you able to listen when a parent calls? Can a parent actually reach you? I'm not saying this is all your fault either- the precious minutes you have during work hours where you could take a call are like magical unicorns (they don't exist). 

2) “When the teachers don’t listen to me because I am not a teacher, that keeps me from being able to trust them.” 

Trust. When it comes to our children, is there any word more potent? We must listen so the foundation of trust can be established. We must encourage our teachers to listen. As an administrator, that means not taking sides. And to be honest, that in itself is an incredible task to pull off successfully. 

3) “I don’t want teachers and principals telling me that I am not a good parent.”  

Nobody likes being told they are doing it wrong. Principals, parents, teachers, the girls I coached on my basketball teams- no one. And when it comes to the interaction between parents and teachers, is that really what we mean to do? Let's make sure we aren't debating parents. Debate produces a winner and a loser, when in reality we are on the same team. What we need to be doing is creating a dialogue. A dialogue is open. A dialogue creates a common goal. Student success is our common goal. 

4) “Why would I need parent training? Who trained THEM to be a parent?”  

Turns out 'parent training' is an easy thing to misconstrue. No one wants to enter into a situation where it is assumed they are doing something wrong. When offering parents training, make sure the training fits the need.

5) “My teachers were like drill sergeants, and I hated every minute of it!" 

So many educators pursued their careers because they LOVED school, or they were inspired by a teacher. But for many people, that experience is simply not the case. School may have been a real struggle, and as we all know, no one graduates without a few emotional scars. When those people grow up and have kids of their own, those negative feelings may be misplaced onto you. Is it fair? No. But recognizing that parents may have embarrassing or painful lingering feelings towards teachers or school might make navigating communication much easier. 

6) “I work two jobs.  The school needs to schedule meetings based on my schedule, not theirs." 

This is a tough one. Who can deny the frantic pace at which most people today lead their lives? When it comes to parent teacher communication, it's time to get creative on how to make interactions happen. Whether it's providing full transparency on things like grades and disciplne or utilizing new forms of software that facilitate communication, we must pursue creative ways to share the task of student acheivement with all those invested. 

Really unpacking these parent complaints makes one thing abundantly clear- the communication space between teachers and parents is complicated, nuanced, and it needs work.  

Research shows that parents with greater involvement, compared to those with low or medium involvement, tend to have children with higher grades and overall scores regardless of family income levels and backgrounds. Student success depends on more than quality test preparation. We work hard on so many areas of education, why do we downplay parental engagement as a real solution? Many of the struggles that teachers face could be alleviated with strong parental engagement, allowing teachers to focus on instructional needs. It is imperative that we work diligently to create space for quality communication with parents.  We are, after all, on the same team. 

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