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Involved or engaged: What's the difference?

A topic that seems to be gathering momentum in education at the moment is whether parents and communities should be involved...or engaged in their children's learning and place of learning.

One of the articles that is often referred to (and which was shared with me by both Suzi Gould and Sarah Whiting) is Larry Ferlazzo's post from 2011: Involvement or Engagement?.

In the article Larry argues that to "create the kinds of school-family partnerships that raise student achievement, improve local communities, and increase public support, we need to understand the difference between family involvement and family engagement". He goes on to explain that a school working toward family involvement focuses on tasks and "then telling parents how they can contribute". In contrast, once that is focussed on parent engagement asks parents what they think, dream, and worry about" and then forms a partnership with the parents to shape the school and the learning.

It's a really thought provoking article. There are some barriers that are only alluded to, which have implications for equity (such as those parents who are working three jobs and find it really tough to be engaged, or involved, in things outside of day-to-day survival). However, Larry does challenge schools to revisit how they are inviting parents to participate, emphasising that "invitations for parent engagement...tend to come as a result of conversation".

Larry concludes by asking "Does your school tend toward doing to or doing with families? Does the staff do more talking or more listening? Is the emphasis on one-way communication or on two-way conversation? Is your school's vision of its community confined to the school grounds, or does this vision encompass the entire neighborhood?".

It would be great to hear your thoughts and ideas - and initiatives that you are involved in, either as a parent or an educator, where you feel you are being invited to engage rather than only being involved.

Reference: Ferlazzo, L. (May 2011). Involvement or Engagement? Schools, Families, Communities. 68(8). 10-14

Image: Best-practices-next exit. CC ( BY ) licensed Flickr image by Barry Dahl:

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Comment by Hazel Owen on August 13, 2015 at 17:33

Loved reading your response - especially your reflections, Monika - and you've made some great suggestions for teachers too!

You have, I feel, identified some of the complexities of engaging and being engaged, including whether your son or daughter wants you to be and what this might mean, and the necessity of being aware of cultural nuances.

In an effort to dig a bit deeper, I recently pulled together some possible resources around engagement versus involvement, which you may be interested in:

Thanks for taking the time to respond and share your thoughts, Monika - you're a gem :) 

Comment by Monika Kern on August 13, 2015 at 11:25

Thanks for sharing this, Hazel, it really makes me think on several levels:

  • As a parent do I feel involved or engaged with the education of my children?
  • As an educator, do I involve or engage my parent community?

Firstly I would like to say, in my ideal world, a school aims to engage parents, or at least gives the the opportunity to be involved. I can't say that I have always done that, but I hope I will be able to in the future.

Since having moved countries at the end of last year, my relationship as a parent to my children's schools has changed markedly. Just this morning on the way to school I mentioned to my 15y old that now, in the middle of term 3, I don't even know the name of his form teacher (and he chose not to tell me either). This is a child with an IEP for ASD and a Health Care Plan for T1 Diabetes (however, I know the counsellor and the SE teacher well, and my son is doing very well academically). I go to parent evenings but at this stage I feel neither involved nor engaged. I'm not saying the school is not making an effort, I am thinking it might be me not taking up the opportunity, and as this is a reciprocal relationship, it cannot happen if I don't put in some effort.

Putting on my educator hat, what can we do as educators, as a school to ensure parents are engaged or at least involved? How can we ensure that the Monikas of this world, parents to 15y old boys who don't care much for their parent's involvement in their education, have an opportunity to be part of this journey? I love the notion of making a personal connection with parents, and we truly have to change the idea of "school will only call if the child is in trouble" (I really appreciated a call I received earlier in the year congratulating said 15y old to receiving a certificate in Social Sciences). From my observation and experience, the main issues seem to be the "Who's job is it?" and time pressure.

My opinion is to try to engage parents, or to give them the choice to be at least involved, needs to become part of school culture, needs to be an ongoing effort by all involved - school and parents. As educators we need to put away with 'these are my students, and those are yours'; they are all our students (and I would actually like to see this concept expanded to see all young people in a community across a number of different schools all become 'our students'). If we believe that parent engagement is vital for our school vision, and it is all our job to work towards that. As parents we need to understand that in order for our children to get the best possible education, we are extremely important, we have raised these young people, they are in our care for the majority of the time, and the learning happening outside the classroom is at least as important as the learning at school.

How could we make this happen? As I am not currently in a classroom, some of this is theoretical, but I would love for educators in a classroom to share their ideas of what is doable:

  • Engage with parents at the start / end of the day if your context has parents come to your school.
  • Make positive connections with parents off site by phone calls, letters / emails, text messages, through blogs or the school FB page [but be careful to draw a line to your private life]. The wonderful Manu Faaea-Semeatu has talked about making 5 positive phone calls to parents every week - and if you have nothing positive to say, find something positive to say!
  • With the support of 'people in the know', decide if it is right for your context to visit families at home; be aware of the cultural expectations attached to that, e.g. if their cultural context expects them to provide a meal for you, now matter how dire their financial situation, ensure you contribute to the meal etc.
  • 'Know thy community' - what is it that brings your community together? Is it the Sports Day, the Ag Day, the Kapa Haka Performance? Leverage that to build positive relationships - because engagement starts with a relationship.
  • Consider your involvement in the local community: Easier and yet harder in a small rural community where everybody knows everyone else's business.
  • Be prepared to be in it for the long run - even if your contract is only of a fixed duration, or even if you know that you won't be in this school community for long; your contribution will remain with the students and families for much longer than your physical presence.

Now I want to be back in a school to ensure this is happening! Thanks Hazel for sharing this, as always has made me think harder!

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