Recently I attended my elementary school son’s open house. That same evening my husband went to our middle school son’s open house. We had to practice the “divide and conquer” element of parenting because, like many families, we simply could not be in two places at once. Now, seeing that I am a frequent volunteer at the elementary school, and as you all know I have written about how important parent/family engagement is in middle school, I could have just gone to the middle school open house and called it a successful night. But here’s the catch. Despite my numerous volunteer hours and opportunities in the elementary school setting (so much so that I actually have a name badge and am often mistaken for being staff), my elementary school son does not see me during those times. In fact, I make it a point to steer clear of him during the day because I do not want to be a distraction to him and I want him to focus on his purpose for being at school. And, finally, he told all his classmates and his teacher that his mom would be there. So there I was.
Now open house is a well intentioned parent/community/family building event. You go in, listen to the Principal tell you about how great a year all the kids are going to have. You listen to the PTA tell you the same thing, and ask for your membership support and to pass a budget. Then you wander off to your child’s classroom to visit. Then, you go home. Whether elementary, middle, or high school, the routine is pretty much the same. It is not the highlight of a parent’s evening. In fact, for many I would think we would much rather have been at home doing “something else.” But open house is not about you. It is about your child. It’s our children’s version of the national trend in “take your child to work day.” And it is an example of parent engagement partnerships in action.
I am often asked what parent (or family) engagement looks like. It looks like 200 or so families and their children sitting in the bleachers listening to the Principal talk about “cougar pride.” It is standing room only at a middle school listening to the PTA talk about the walk-a-thon that will be this year’s fundraiser. It is shaking hands with a teacher and sitting in your child’s desk and seeing what their world is like, even if it is only for a moment.
But that engagement also looks like this: reading the school announcements when they are sent home. It is grandparents attending lunch during the week. Listening to your child talk about his/her day as you set the table for dinner. Helping with homework and with navigating the social pitfalls that accompany middle school. It is volunteering to help fill backpacks with food on a Friday for a child you don't even know. And it doesn’t always have to be an event held at your child’s school. There may be a workshop taking place at another school that is about an issue you are interested in. Make time to attend. There could be a speaker at a public library event that you and your child find engaging. Rick Riordan recently visited our city and knowing how much my sons enjoy the “Percy Jackson” series of books, I waited in line for a “line number” then we went to the bookstore to meet Mr. Riordan. I was, needless to say, a hero for my efforts. My older son and I have read Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson. Mr. Mortenson will be speaking in November at the public library. I’ve made sure to get us free tickets and clear the evening so we can attend.
The bottom line is for each of those small moments in time, the future payoff will be immense. As a parent, family, or community member connected in some way to the educational wellbeing of a child, only you can define the limitations of that engagement. You can be everywhere at once, or nowhere at all. As Abraham Lincoln said “and in the end, it’s not the years in your life that count, it’s the life in your years.”
Make every moment count. Be engaged. Be involved. Be present. Just be there for them. That’s what positive parent engagement partnerships can look like. They look like you.
Myrdin Thompson is the Kentucky Mom Congress delegate.