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A Personal Reflection: School Partnerships

Module by: Kathryn (Kitty) Catina. E-mail the author

Summary: In Summer 2007, a Virginia Tech Doctoral cohort completed EDAE 6924, School Community Partnerships. Here is a personal reflection authored by Kathryn Catina.

Do I Really Know My Leadership Capabilities?

After taking both surveys, communication style and listening practices, I was surprised at some of the results. After scoring my listening abilities survey, I found that in deed I am a very good listener, however, this is an area in which I have always felt that I need improvement. I, at times, find it difficult to actively listen if someone has come in to my office while I have been working on a particular project. I think this is true for many school administrators. Many teachers will walk in to your office and “vent”. At which time you stop what you are doing and listen. But all the while, thinking about your next deadline. Therefore, I have always felt that this is an area of growth for me. But, after asking some of my colleagues to also complete the survey, their ratings matched mine. Surprisingly, I faired better than expected.

As for my communication style, I scored evenly throughout the three categories: battler, helper, and thinker. Prior to taking the self-assessment, I thought that “battler” would have heavily outweighed the other two. To check my results, I asked a colleague to rate me. The results were very much the same. This confirmation of my results, however, did not change my feeling that I do daily battle on a lot of issues, especially when it comes to inadequate employee performance. However, when dealing with parents or students I try to be as diplomatic as possible even when the parent or child is unreasonable. Nevertheless, the results of both surveys were surprising.

Communication

Select: My experiences with parent and community interaction has been varied in the five years that I have been a high school administrator. One of my most prominent parent and community interaction has been demonstrated through my participation as a board member for the PTSA and for the parent booster organization for our specialty center. In both capacities I have been the disseminator of information from the school’s / administration’s perspective. Although there were times where I was queried about “hot topics” or funding for special projects.

Describe: My job as a board member was to listen to their agenda and committee reports and comment when asked for my input. For the most part much of my role was one of giving updates to future and past events taking place at school. At times, “hot” topics would arise when there was a change in school board policy or central administration instruction initiative. There were times when I had to justify the decisions of the administration for some of our most sensitive and out of favor issues (e.g. new attendance policy instituted county-wide). However, because the up and coming changes were well advertised through our school newsletter my relationship with the parents remained positive even though, in some cases, disagreement remained

Analyze: Was my skill at communicating to these two groups affective because I was willing to listen and communicate the school’s message in a non-threatening yet firm manner? Or, was it because I actually gave these parents the opportunity to be heard? I think it was a little of both, even if I, at the time, was not sure how well I defended the school board’s decision.

Appraise: Prior to attendance at the meetings, I was in the habit of compiling notes on anticipated concerns. I also made sure I had read up on the latest school board meeting minutes and memos from central administration. This gave me the ability to speak with confidence on the issues. For me staying informed is the easiest way for me to be able to address concerns. When an administrator doesn’t know an answer, I don’t feel that admitting to it demonstrates vulnerability. If there is a willingness to inquire and seek more information, then it shows a readiness to address a question intelligently.

Transform: I know that during the time that I have served on both boards that I have formed valuable relationships with the parents involved. They now see me as someone they can turn to when they need help. I think this is because they became acquainted with me as a person not just an employee of the school board. Every administrator should, become involved in a parent organization to develop this bond. Administrative participation should not be solely a presence, but active participation. At first, I was anxious about my role on the two boards in which I have and still do serve. However, my understanding of the parents’ role in such organizations has improved tenfold. Unlike some administrators who see such parent groups as a nuisance, I see them as a necessity. I found that parents who see the administration taking an active role are the same parents who will be willing to give of their time and talent to make improvements.

Participation:

Select: Having served as a board member has made me realize the importance of parent involvement and the formation of parent groups to improve the school’s relationship with its community. At the high school level it is difficult to encourage parents to be involved. In the earlier grades, parents are more inclined to do so because having a child in school, for many, is a new experience. Yet, as their children get older, parents tend to be less involved in organized groups. As a result, the same parents do not join the PTSA or give of their time to improve relations between them and the school.

Describe: As school leaders, there are times when we need to take the necessary steps to contact parents and invite them to participate or, better still, go out in to the community and avail ourselves in open discussion on parent concerns. One way of availing ourselves in this type of discussion is by providing an “open door” policy for parents to come in to the building and candidly discuss how they feel about current issues or future ones. Another is by inviting parents to participate in booster organizations, school councils, or county or citywide committees. In selecting parents, leaders should make a conscious effort to include those of varying cultures and demographics that best represent the student population.

Analyze: Including parents at the secondary level, as I stated before, is not easy. It takes time for administrators to make contacts with as many parents as possible. Being visible at as many school-related events as possible helps parents make the connection with school leaders. The more the parents see the administration and the more they have contact with us, the more they will be willing to give of their time. I am lucky to be part of school where the parents are very active. But, the school was not always like this. It took the initiative of the staff and administration to encourage by open invitation the development of parent organizations. The teachers also saw the need for help from the parents to organize school events and provide the money to help off set the cost of some of the enrichment activities. For the most part, since the beginning these groups have been an asset to the school and have provided for programs that would not have been possible through local funds alone.

Appraise: There have been times when parent organizations have “crossed the line” and tried to influence rather than provide support for school programs. Parent input is essential but at times needs to be limited to a specific purpose. School leaders should communicate to parents that their opinions will be heard but that instructional decisions are best left up to the experts. Being able to communicate this to a disgruntled parent can be difficult. However, having established a rapport by being visible and receptive to input, can make a difference.

Transform: How much can a school leader do to encourage parent involvement? As I stated before, inviting parents to participate helps. Sending notices home, inviting participation via a school newsletter, website, phone call home, or notices in the local paper can publicize events and encourage parent involvement. At times, the organization and development of programs is better if staff members initiate it. Teachers can be quite convincing when asking for help from parents of students that they teach. However, I feel, the key to parent involvement is the child. If a student wants to participate in activities or organize events, parents, for the most part, will support their child in any way they can. In turn, they will contact others in their neighborhoods and communities to participate. School leaders can encourage new programs by speaking in favor of them to student groups. Influencing students to participate can positively impact parent participation.

Governance:

Select: Going out into the neighborhoods that encompass the school’s attendance zone is a way of soliciting parent opinions and communicating a school’s philosophy and goals. In the fall and winter of every school year, members of an administrative and guidance teams could attend neighborhood “coffees” organized by the school’s PTSA. These “coffees” can be a vehicle for communicating new and old policies and practices.

Describe: The open house or “coffee” atmosphere should be informal, so that attendees feel comfortable. This is the reason why the events should take place in a parent’s home. To facilitate communication, an agenda should be followed that can include an introduction of those in attendance, an opening statement from the principal, a question and answer session, and close with a concluding statement and an invitation to parents to continue discussions and inquiries. The sessions should be open to any topic but the time limit would be controlled since they take place in the evening.

Analyze: Although the open house idea is good and in many ways affective in obtaining feedback from the neighborhoods. It can also be limiting. Parents in a more impoverished neighborhood will be less likely to offer their homes as meeting places. A way to reach farther into a school’s community is to target a population of parents that is afraid to or unaware of ways to be involved in or express concerns about their child’s school. A way to provide them with an information and question and answer session is to hold the open house at a community center or in the school or public library. School leaders should make an effort to include all stakeholders. Input from active parents and neighborhoods are easy to come by, it is the less affluent and sometimes less vocal parent that should also be given a voice.

Appraise: Seeking parent input is just one way of involving stakeholders, but aren’t the students stakeholders as well? How should we involve them and their opinions? Administrators need to seek out student leaders and representatives from student organizations in order to understand what is most important to them. It is also advisable to invite students of varying abilities and backgrounds to form a committee or advisory group that periodically meets with school leaders to discuss their concerns and ask questions.

Transform: Governance in schools does not always involve a democratic process or include the opinions of all stakeholders. In my role as a school administrator, I have had the unpleasant position of enforcing unfavorable instructional decisions, such as; eliminating honors level courses and replacing them with advanced placement courses. This change was not implemented division wide. It was a local school decision that was supported by the central administration as a way to align course work with a nationally recognized curriculum. Communication of the change was passed on to the parent organizations but parent input was not really solicited. Parents who called, e-mailed or met with administrators were heard and received a response. However, the decision to change was made based on sound educational practice and data. The parents of the “honors” level students were opposed to the change because of the extra work that would be required. The school’s decision was made not because administrators wanted students to do more work but because there was too much diversity of instruction, which was noticeable after an examination student grades. An increase in course rigor was the goal. But the parents were opposed to the increased rigor and argued that extra time spent in studying would take away from the students’ extra curricular activities.

Did we make the right decision? Maybe the decision to change could have been tabled until the county decided to implement it division-wide. Maybe the school should have allowed for a parent information night to answer the tough questions prior to implementation. Communication was sent home via the newsletter that the change was to be implemented for the next school year, but was this enough? I think so. Taking a chance and leading the way for other schools in the division showed initiative and a readiness to “do whatever it takes” to improve instruction.

Philosophy of leadership

As a school leader, I would like to see many of the practices I discussed here continued, implemented or improved upon. My administrative team and the school as a whole have received positive feedback from our current practices. We have also received encouraging and constructive feedback from parent surveys given as part of our school improvement plan.

I strongly believe that there are many ways that all stakeholders can be heard. School leaders should make every effort to include teachers, parents, and students. In some cases, providing them with an opportunity to do so is all that is needed.

Meeting periodically with student and parent groups or their representatives is a way of providing stakeholders with a means to express how they feel about key issues or to offer suggestions on improvement. Getting to know your groups in this way would provide more data about issues important to them and a chance to address or study each one further. I think that sometimes people just want to be heard and giving them an audience makes them feel as if the school leaders value what they have to say. Here is where one’s good listening skills come in to practice:

  • Stop whatever you are doing and listen attentively.
  • Make eye contact.
  • Restate what you think they said and ask for clarification or corrections.
  • Reassure them that even though things might not change, you still value their input.

School to community communication can be handled in several ways. Monthly school newsletters with an opening message from the principal informing parents of current events and issues is a way to reach a large number of parents and community members. With rapidly growing ways of accessing the internet, setting up a school website that is kept current with daily or weekly updates that includes staff member e-mail addresses is a way of showcasing events and programs as well as disseminating information quickly and efficiently.

Finally, a way of contacting parents via an automated phone system is useful as a means of informing parents of absences, remind them of special evening programs, report card dates and emergency closings. Feedback on this system has been mostly positive but the system is not without its flaws. Efforts can be made to try to perfect the system.

All of these practices and devices are useful and, in many cases, necessary for successful communication with parents. However, leaders cannot forget to perfect their public relations skills. Being visible at school and community events provides administrators with a venue in which to practice. The community needs to see that school leaders care not just about school matters but also those that affect schools, parents, and students. However, I don’t feel that school administrators should sacrifice their private lives for the sake of their jobs but consider the local community before taking a leadership position. I live and work in the community where I am an administrator. My students and parents see me in the grocery store, walking my dog, and in the mall. They, for the most part, are friendly and stop to chat. I think being seen and recognized as a member of the community, whether you live in it or not, shows parents and students that school leaders care about the same issues that concern them. Part of being an affective and respected communicator is not just possessing the strong communication skills but also modeling the life we want our students and community to emulate.

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