Back To School: The Family Context


Superintendent Sue Dunlop is right on when she poses an important question about back to school. As we work hard to prepare our learning spaces for September, we tend to think a whole lot about the students who will be walking into our buildings, but less about the families from whom they are walking away. Sue cuts right to the chase in the title of her recent blog post, “How Do You Want Families To Feel On The First Day Of School?”

It’s significant that Sue isn’t talking about what families—parents, grandparents, siblings—will be doing when they arrive at the school but how they feel. It’s not about activity but about emotion. And its about values.

From the very first day of school, we have the opportunity to create an atmosphere for families and an approach that says, “You are welcome here. This place is part of your community.” As Rolland Chidiac and I were discussing last evening, however, families sometimes get the opposite feeling. The signage at the entrances, our body language, our practices and protocols and even some of the language that we have developed around parent involvement shout things like, “You are just visitors here”, or “You can come this far and then leave the rest to us”, or “We’ll call you if we need you.”

It’s actually not all that surprising that most schools struggle to build a strong sense of parent and family engagement.

Sue’s reflections remind us that we would do well to recognize and build on that one moment in the school year when parent engagement is at its peak. Parents and families form the core of the context in which children and young people live their lives. That context doesn’t disappear at the schoolhouse door. In fact, just the opposite. It actually becomes more pronounced. And in a very real sense, it represents a wonderful set of possibility for deeper connections throughout the year.

Rolland and I were thinking about some of the ways that family and school contexts might overlap more. A few ideas to add to the ideas Sue Dunlop has already suggested:

  • a space in the school for families to gather—coffee, tea, resources, comfortable chairs
  • a real opportunity for families to be part of classroom activities during that first week of school (I know, that’s pretty radical)
  • a Story Corp booth permanently installed in the school (If you haven’t seen the TED Talk, it’s worth it!!!)
  • a monthly parent/grandparent gathering in the school staff room

I realize that these ideas may go beyond Sue’s thinking about that first day of school, but that’s where it starts. That’s where excitement and interest are at their peak. Let’s find ways to respect that, build on it and make it part of our school cultures—throughout September and beyond.

Let’s imagine what might happen if we really worked hard to use dotted lines to divide family and school contexts!


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