Roll Out the Welcome Mat
As educators, we know that creating a culture of inclusivity on school campuses is a key factor in preventing bullying. However, sometimes we focus so much on creating this culture among students that we forget about another critical group: parents.
When I was teaching in a low-performing school in San Diego, one afternoon, the mother of one of my students didn’t show up for a pre-arranged, after-school meeting. The next day, I asked the student why his mother hadn’t shown up, and he simply shrugged his shoulders. “Where was she?” I asked. “At home,” the student replied. “Does she usually miss things?” I asked. “She goes to church every Tuesday and Sunday!” he answered.
Normally, I may have brushed this off as “typical” for a parent of an at-risk student; but this time, I realized I needed to take a hard look in the mirror. This parent was certainly attending functions (like church) in her community; she just wasn’t attending our functions at school.
Her church was most likely doing many things that make her feel welcome there. And I had to ask: Are we doing the same on our campuses, especially for the parents who struggled in school themselves? If not, we need to be. Engaged parents can make a huge impact on bullying prevention, and forming relationships with parents is an important part of our job in helping students be safe and successful in school.
So, how can we help parents feel included, welcomed and invested in our school campuses? Here are four simple ways to start:
- Pay Attention to the Signs
For many parents, a school campus can be a confusing, bewildering place. Simply finding the office, or a specific classroom, can be daunting. The signs indicating where a front office is may be obvious to those of us who work here, but not necessarily to a first-time visitor. Take another look at the signage around your school’s points of entry. Do they all clearly indicate where a visitor should go?
Also, what languages do the parents of your school’s current students speak? Creating a sign that says “Office” in several different languages can make all the difference for a confused visitor, and creates an exciting opportunity to demonstrate a school’s commitment to the diversity of its student population.
Another idea: when a parent checks in, are they required to wear a “Visitor” sticker or badge? Consider also making a sticker/badge that says “Parent,” so school staff can welcome them as valued and highly esteemed guests.(And be sure to train school staff to greet parent visitors warmly.)
- Manage First Impressions
I once worked at a school where a very nice woman sat behind the desk that parents first encountered upon entering the front office. The problem, however, was that this nice woman did not speak any Spanish, yet most of the parents who entered spoke only Spanish. The first minute of every encounter was spent in the awkward situation of the parent having to ask if anyone in the office spoke Spanish, and the nice lady having to go find someone.
While individual occurrences may not have seemed like a big deal, over the course of the day (and school year), a culture was created within that office that was not inviting. Having the right people in the right roles is critical to establishing a welcoming climate where parents aren’t made to feel awkward or embarrassed.
Ask yourself, who and what do parents see immediately upon entering your school’s office? I also worked at a school where college paraphernalia adorned the walls, and sent a clear message to all who entered—the purpose of this school is to prepare students for college. Whatever message your school chooses to send, make sure that it is one that is inclusive, intentional, clear, and friendly.
- Utilize technology.
Often, there are parents who just can’t make it into onto campus, for whatever reason. Ask, then, how can we include parents via technology they’re already using?
Consider setting up a Classroom Facebook Page for parents, which highlights some of what happens throughout the day. (Label it “secret” so it’s only visible to those you invite.)
To combat parents getting the standard answer to “What happened in school today?” (“Nothing!”), one teacher set up a Twitter account and, each day, tweeted out three specific questions parents could ask their children about that day’s class goings-on.
- Reverse the Expectations.
When we think about it, we know that an inclusive school culture is formed outside of school as well as inside. So we must also ask: what efforts are we making to get our school staff into the community?
Instead of a “welcome back luncheon” for school staff in the teacher’s lounge each year, consider doing what one principal did and team up with parent liaisons to host small groups of staff members in their homes, and begin parent-school bonding before classes even begin.
You can also cut short an afternoon staff meeting and get teachers out into the community they serve — explore the neighborhood, cultural facilities, or watch a soccer game many parents are already attending.
Expanding Our View
While we work to prevent bullying in our schools, these ideas can help us begin to broaden our view of inclusivity beyond just the students, to their families as well. When parents feel included at their child’s school, they’re more likely to engage in school-time behaviors and relationships. This small tweak in perspective can have big and positive effects for an inclusive school culture for all.
Alex Kajitani is the 2009 California Teacher of the Year, a Top-4 Finalist for National Teacher of the Year, and a renowned speaker. He is the author of Owning It: Proven Strategies for Success in ALL of Your Roles as a Teacher Today, which was named “Recommended Reading” by the U.S. Department of Education. He is also the creator of The Rappin’ Mathematician, and has been featured in many books and media outlets, including the CBS Evening News. Learn more at www.AlexKajitani.com.