Monday 19 May 2014

When teachers do too much to engage parents

By Jane Ng, The Sunday Times, 18 May 2014

I got an almost blow-by-blow account of my eight-year-old son Jason's school excursion earlier this year, even though I was nowhere near him.

It was thanks to his teacher who used a WhatsApp group chat for his class to send pictures and captions of what the kids were up to.

I appreciate being kept informed, so I relish pictures and information that keeps me in the loop. Apart from updates on schoolwork, I've received pictures of what the kids ate during recess, the hands-on activities during lessons, as well as birthday celebration pictures of Jason's classmates.

I was pleasantly surprised at the effort taken by his young teacher to keep us updated without our having to ask, and put it down to her being tech-savvy.

Last year, the Education Ministry started a course for all new teachers on how to engage parents.

About 700 attended it.

They were taught practical ways of engaging parents through role-play and case-study discussions.

Topics covered during the 16-hour course at the National Institute of Education include strategies to manage home-school relationships, involving parents in supporting their children's learning, and building effective two-way communication.

This year, the ministry extended the course to all teachers, because those who went through it found it useful.

So, experienced teachers have started learning about how to mentor other teachers in parent engagement while those in supervisory positions, like heads of departments, have learnt to engage parents from a whole-school point of view, perhaps looking at how a school communicates to all parents.

The ministry sees it as part of establishing a partnership between teachers and parents to bring out the best in the children.

Teachers I've spoken to who have attended the course say it fits in with what has changed in schools today: There are more better-educated parents who want to be more involved in their children's education.

Social media has helped raise their expectations of their children and the school.

Even seasoned teachers with many years' experience say the course has been useful in showing them how to communicate better, the appropriate language to use, how to handle phone calls and set aside time every week to update parents.

Role-play sessions showed them how to deal with unpleasant situations that can arise too.

Knowing how to engage parents is no longer a "good to have" skill but a "must have".

As a parent, I appreciate the efforts to keep me informed about what is happening with my child, aside from the twice-a-year parent-teacher meetings.

But I also think there's a fine line between engaging parents sufficiently and overdoing it.

Some parents tell me teachers have consulted them on the amount of homework to be given, the timing of tests or types of assignments for the children, and even the approach used for teaching a topic.

If teachers are doing that to avoid complaints from parents, it's not a good thing.

We ought to expect teachers to make some decisions without consulting parents, especially when it comes to teaching or giving homework. And parents ought to respect that teachers are professionals trained to do their job. 

Likewise, parents should keep their end of the bargain by respecting a teacher's personal space.

It's admirable that some teachers give out their mobile phone numbers or join the class parents' WhatsApp group chats, even though they get bombarded with questions.

There are parents who will ask how to log into the school website or whether the child must take a particular book or file the next day - all questions the child ought to be able to answer if he paid attention in class, or if the parent just checked available sources of information.

It's convenient for parents to simply send a WhatsApp message to the teacher, but it is plain unreasonable when such queries pop up late at night or even during the workday when the teacher is in class.

Ultimately, though, what is the impact on the child?

How much is too much when a child knows his mum has direct access to his teacher 24/7?

When my son Jason lost all three sheets of his Chinese test revision instructions, he did not seem too bothered. "Just message the chat group and ask someone else for it," he said.

Too bad for him, I refused.

A child should learn to take ownership of his learning.

He needs to take care of his worksheets and the test timetable and pay attention to instructions.

Not only do I feel sorry for the teacher who has to field all sorts of questions from parents, I also wonder if children pay enough attention in class when they know mum can just send a message to the teacher and check on what he missed.

I was pleased when Jason's Chinese language teacher told him she had no extra copies of the instructions.

So he asked a few friends before he could borrow a set to make a copy. I hope he's learnt to take better care of teachers' handouts.

Equipping teachers with skills on engaging parents is well and good, but parents need to do their part too. Too much of a good thing may not be good for the child.

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