How schools can work with parents

Respecting parents as the first educators of their children is easy. Making it happen is tougher.
Andrew Mullins | Sep 20 2008 | comment  

At the start of the school year in late January 1979, a government high school principal was welcoming new teachers on staff day. “One thing you must understand. Eighty percent of the families in this school are struggling. There are dysfunctional families, acrimonious marriages, abandoned spouses, the works… a nd this affects everything we do here.” I will never forget that introduction to my teaching career in a socio-economically challenged corner of Sydney. After that school I was never again to teach children with a deeper sense of gratitude, nor children so craving for affection but absolutely scatty in the classroom.

Lesson Number 1: Schooling is always affected by what happens at home. Without parental unity, strong family life and sound parenting, it will be the children who are the biggest losers. Sound parenting practices multiply positive educational outcomes… educational outcomes of every type. Children in dysfunctional family situations are disadvantaged by every measure. Therefore it is just common sense, perhaps sadly rare common sense, that schools must do all they can to assist parents to be better parents and to work together harmoniously for the welfare of their children.

In 1986 I joined the staff of a parent initiated school in Sydney’s northwest. It was not to be a school where well-meaning parents would be interfering in the classroom or running to the chairman of the board with tales from their own child. Rather the school would have the right to teach curriculum as it professionally saw fit, yet working in close communication and in shared values with parents. I am now Headmaster of that school. This experience has delivered the next three lessons.

I was delving into philosophy of teaching and I came across what is known as the principle of subsidiarity. It encapsulated perfectly what we were trying to do. Wikipedia explains: “Subsidiarity is the principle that matters ought to be handled by the smallest (or, the lowest) competent authority.”

Lesson Number 2: By the principle of subsidiarity, society, through public authorities, has a duty to assist parents in the education of their children. As parents are the first educators, the state has the duty of giving them the support they need to educate their children. In other words schools exist to assist parents by providing expertise in curriculum delivery, an area that is a mystery for some parents and a minefield for others, except for the most competent homeschoolers.

Lesson Number 3: The clearer expectations for parents and staff about the culture of a school, the more likelihood of success. Expectations determine performance. A clear educational philosophy carries great power. Clarity of expectations and clarity of communication are needed. When such clarity exists, parents can be asked to commit to attend regular and practical discussions about parenting, to reflect on their example and on the way they manage the inputs coming into the lives of their children. We can even ask them to reflect on the way they work together as a couple, on the quality of the affectionate communication they enjoy habitually with their children, on the appropriateness of their parental expectations.

Lesson Number 4: Schools must deliver in academics. We found that until our first Higher School Certificate graduation class of 1993, there was an ongoing leakage of enrolments because we were untested. That leakage virtually stopped once the first HSC class had strutted its stuff.
We all know that academics are not the most important goal of education, but the credibility, and even the viability, of a school depends on its academic effectiveness.

A school may boast the Rolls Royce of parent-school partnerships but if its academics are substandard, it may as well shut its doors. It will not fly. All the vitally important work of working closely with parents, and of character education, hinges on the quality of the academic product; otherwise parents will say, “I love the philosophy of the school, but I can’t entrust my kids to you because they will need the best qualifications they can get. It’s a tough world out there.”

Lesson Number 5: Much character education takes place through the very responsibility a student shows in his or her studies. This is a universal observation of both parents and teachers. Character education is essentially about developing stable habits, strengths of character motivated by a noble intention which become our default mode of operating in adult life. When a student works hard out of love for his or her parents, or out of the desire to prepare themselves for the work they will do to serve others in adult life, such a student is forging the virtues of responsibility, service to others, perseverance, honesty and integrity, and a whole lot more.

The next lesson could have gone horribly wrong. Not long after I took over as headmaster, a package arrived from some quasi-government body proclaiming the Year of Tolerance and unashamedly promoting a gay lifestyle. I did not like the manipulative approach nor was there any way that the parents in my school would approve of such material being used in the classroom . This was a core values issue. I made the decision to pulp the materiall -- no vilification involved, simply a decision on health and other grounds not to teach homosexuality as an attractive option. A prime-time news crew heard, and I found myself on television being interviewed by a young mum who thoroughly agreed with the school’s decision.

Lesson Number 6: Nobody except a child’s parents has the right to set the moral agenda for that child’s upbringing. The only time, of course, that this would not be true would be in the case of manifest neglect or incompetence.

Children learn precisely because their brains are impressionable. Schools exist because children are impressionable. Therefore parents and teachers have a duty to closely manage the inputs coming into the life of a young person… whether those inputs are a pill popping peer group, Grand Theft Auto, or glossy magazines pumping an ideology.

A family and a school should be sheltered environments. We are buying time to build strengths of character so kids will be in a position to run their own lives, think for themselves, and avoid most of the bear-pits on the way to adulthood. As a society we must cry out for the children corrupted by a media or a peer group that is out of reach of their parents.

Lesson Number 7: Schools can and should help with parenting support. If families don’t succeed in values education, there can be no effective substitute. A lot is at stake. Schools have a direct line in all young families in our society and have the potential to keep parenting wisdom in circulation, in a way that is much more effective than inserts in Sunday papers and flyers in GP’s waiting rooms.

There are virtually infinite ways of providing such support. Input to parents must be ongoing and practical. A key is to build in high expectations of parental response. It can help to take full advantage of first years of contact for deeper engagement and induction. Try a range of approaches: regular speakers, revamped parent-teacher nights, cycles of topics on parenting, regular mailings, inserts in the school newsletter, weekly mothers’ groups, mentoring programs, etc. Make sure that sport and discipline are focused on character outcomes. Parents should be informed about issues of character.

Effective delivery of parenting skills brings many practical challenges. A school created from scratch to assist parents already has the culture and the structures. Other schools have to change culture and create structures and expertise. But this is not impossible; the corporate world is full of stories of cultural change. What is needed is for the school boards and public education ministries to have a will to gradually bring about cultural change that will see schools become effective allies for parents as their own children’s primary educators, educators not of reading, but of character. It is transformational leadership that is needed. The rest will follow.

Andrew Mullins is the Headmaster of Redfield College in Dural, and author of Parenting for Character

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