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Chaim Y. Botwinick

Can our parents and Jewish day schools ever be on the same page?

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Several weeks ago, I had the wonderful pleasure and good fortune to view a video interview with world renowned educator, prolific writer/author and lecturer, Rabbi Shimon Russell.

In the beginning of the interview, the interviewer posed a question to Rabbi Russell. “what can we do (as an educational community) in order to get parents and schools on the same page?” Rabbi Russell’s direct and emphatic response…..”we can never get parents and schools on the same page”  To paraphrase“parents will always want what they feel is in the best interest of their children; and, schools will always teach children what they believe students need to be taught (or know)……..so, by definition, they can’t possibly be on the same page”.

He continued to emphasize that more often than not, these are two totally separate, different and distinct realities regarding roles and responsibilities. At best, parents need to do what they (parents) feel is in the best interest of their children and schools teach what they believe they should be teaching to their students.

When reflecting upon this ebb and flow of perspectives, I began to wonder – in light of what we now know about parental dynamics and school culture, what are the optimal conditions under which parents and schools can in fact coalesce; and, is it ever possible for parents and the school to have the exact same goals and work together in partnership towards a positive desired outcome for the student. An alternative way of stating the challenge …is it feasible to calibrate and align a yeshiva or Jewish day school’s goals with those of the parents? This again may be totally different than suggesting that parents and schools are always “on the same page”.

I truly believe that if the challenge was posed in that fashion, it may have changed the semantic nuances or narrative of what is meant by being “on the same page”. To be sure, since I was not part of the interview, nor did I have the good fortune to engage in this conversation with either the interviewer or interviewee, I want to be extremely careful in this blog not to overreach or second guess the intent or rationale of Rabbi Russel’s comment, response or position.

Throughout my career as a teacher, principal, head of school or consultant, one of the most significant issues and concerns I have observed facing our yeshivot and Jewish day schools (in addition to teaching our students basic cognitive skills,  middot tovot and derech eretz) is the ever increasing challenge of how these institutions can work effectively in partnership with parents.

There are those institutions which pride themselves in how they successfully work, partner and collaborate with parents; and, there are those schools which are somewhat insular and have very little regard for the importance of this relationship. Yet, there are those schools which understand the importance of the relationship but are either inconsistent in their attempts, or don’t have the person power, or expertise to engage parents in a meaningful, healthy and positive parent/school relationship.

The Parent/School Relationship: 

Developing a relationship with a student’s teacher, principal or a head of school can be incredibly beneficial to parents, to teachers, the administration and to students.

According to the American Federation of Teachers, close communication between families and schools is not just beneficial to the school, but is also beneficial for a child’s current and future success.

Research strongly indicates that the more parents, teachers and administrators  repeatedly share academic information about their children, the more motivated the children will be. They will also exhibit more positive behavior toward their schooling and complete home assignments. Teachers in turn will have a far greater  understanding of students and parents and students/parents will in turn have a more positive view of teachers, the school and the administration.

Additionally, research supports the contention that parental involvement in a child’s educational progress creates a very positive and lasting partnership relationship between parents and the school, in addition to the building of trusting relationships between the school and families.

In order to expand upon this topic, I will borrow a page from an article I wrote in Jewish Educational Leadership, Fall 2020, entitled: The Parent-Day School Partnership: A Critical Imperative in the Shadow of a Pandemic.

Although the article was written against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, it does present a wide array of practical ideas, programs, initiatives and perspectives which are very relevant to the manner in which our schools work or aspire to work closely with parents and vice versa.

As we know, parental involvement, engagement, collaboration and support have and will continue to occupy an essential aspect of the yeshiva and Jewish day school landscape. Moreover, parental involvement in education is widely understood as a key component for the promotion and support of educational excellence. To be sure, the best predictor of a student’s success is the extent to which families encourage learning at home and involve themselves in their children’s education and chinuch.

Finally, the wide array of parent involvement opportunities in the Jewish day school community is impressive to say the least. It represents a growing number of parents who are sincerely motivated and who have a burning desire to become an integral part of their children’s educational progress. Whether they are defined as being on the same page is almost incidental. It is therefore the responsibility of the school to reach out to its parent body in order to develop, establish and foster lasting partnerships between the school and the parent. In doing so, yeshivot and Jewish day schools will position themselves in a far better place in order to create environments for collaboration, engagement and a trusting partnership.

The Partnership:

The school-parent partnership can be defined in different ways. It can engender  relationships which inspire collaboration and closer communication that can afford parents the opportunity to more fully understand and appreciate what is being taught in the classroom. Or, they can provide the parent with the opportunities to weave in and out of school activity so that the parent has a “flavor” for what the school is aspiring to teach and/or accomplish.

The following is a brief listing of areas which require serious consideration and exploration, when yeshivot and Jewish day schools pursue true parent/school partnerships:

  • Communication: It is imperative that the school establish clear, concise, timely and continuous modes of communication with its parent body. This may take the form of weekly and/or monthly newsletters, school-wide updates relating to special assemblies, special Yom Tov, and chag related events and celebrations, head of school and/or principal correspondence, updates on the school’s website and social media platforms, breakfast round-tables with the principal or head of school; special announcements relating to assemblies, individual consultations with parents re student progress (if warranted); and invitations to special events. These school/parent activities are in addition to ongoing communication between teachers and parents relating specifically to the academic, social and emotional progress of the students.
  • Academic Reporting and Assessment: One of the most critically important  parent/school relationships in a school are those that are established between teachers and parents as they relate to the academic progress of the student. These communications may take place via regularly scheduled formal  parent/teacher conferences; email updates, report cards, calls to parents, group conferences between the teacher, parent and administration, as well as weekly class updates (e.g. digital newsletters).
  • As we know, every teacher has her/his most effective method of communicating with parents. What works for one group of students may not necessarily be the most effective mode of communication for the others. Having said that, it is essential that the head of school, principal or department head ensure ongoing effective communication with parents; and schools must hold teacher responsible and accountable for these methods of communications. To be sure, these requirements should be clearly articulated in teacher contracts as well as in teacher, parent and student manuals and handbooks.

There should never ever be surprises. Ongoing, continued and seamless teacher/parent communication eliminates, if not minimizes surprises. To be sure, parents should never be surprised by an “out of left field” less than positive report about their child. Then again, there will always be parents who just “don’t get it” irrespective of frequency or mode of communication. In those select cases, the teachers should review the child’s progress regularly with the parents in the presence of a supervisor or school administrator and/or school counselor.

Finally, it is equally important for teachers to proactively share with parents positive and exemplary student accomplishments. The tremendous pride, enjoyment and nachat parents receive when these reports are shared and celebrated  can have profoundly positive impact on a child’s social and emotional disposition; as well as on the parents perception of the school, its faculty and program.

  • Volunteer Engagement

One of the most powerful vehicles for creating and encouraging parent/school partnerships is by engaging parents in a series of hands-on volunteer activity.

As we know, all yeshivot and Jewish day schools are short staffed and many require additional support and assistance with school-wide as well as classroom-focused projects and events…..especially in the younger grades.

In virtually every yeshiva and Jewish day school there should be a growing number of volunteer opportunities which schools can offer parents. This is particularly important in light of the paucity of human resources and person-power desperately needed by many of our schools.

Several of these opportunities range from fundraising activities to marketing initiatives; from helping to prepare and serve lunch to involvement in PTO activity; from chaperoning student trips to coordinating transportation requirements; and from assisting in back office administrative assignments to helping the school prepare and launch special holiday, and pre Yom Tov events and holiday celebrations.

Many parents have expertise and experience in a wide variety of disciplines and specialty areas and should be invited to share and apply this expertise in our schools.

It is important to note that there are yeshivot and Jewish day schools that may be somewhat uncomfortable or threatened by engaging parents in such assignments. They may feel that in doing so, the school will expose itself to parents in ways in which they feel that parents may misinterpret or exploit. It takes a strong school and a confident leader to put these concerns aside and only focus upon utilizing the strengths and expertise of volunteers. This will also require a level of volunteer supervision and direction in order to ensure that the volunteers are the right track and are focused specifically on their assignments.

  • Ambassadors for Student Recruitment

As we know, parents speak and communicate with parents. To this end, many schools do not think of parents within the context of their potential involvement and impact as strong and powerful potential resources for student recruitment.

Although this challenge may seem somewhat obvious, schools must find creative and meaningful ways to exploit and take advantage of their parent body who have high regard for the school and high degrees of satisfaction regarding the schools’s curriculum, faculty, philosophy and direction.

It is therefore imperative that schools begin thinking creatively and boldly about ways in which they can identify and position parents as positive good-will “ambassadors”. This may require specific parent volunteer training, the creation of special talking points as well as the coordination of special events for parents to meet and greet other perspective parents.

As many of  us have learned throughout our careers as Jewish educational leaders….we should never underestimate the powerful impact of parents on the vitality, viability and visibility of our schools.

Conclusion

Although every yeshiva and Jewish day school creates and maintains their own unique relationship and connections with parents; most do in fact strive to create and enable strong, effective, meaningful  and lasting parent/school relationships.

Does this necessary mean that parents and schools are always “on the same page”? Not necessarily

It is important to note that folks can be swimming in the same ocean……but, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are all swimming at the same speed, in the same current or in the same manner. Here too, parents and schools may not always be “on the same page”….but they are at least in the same body of water; in the same ocean.

We must take advantage of this important reality, lest we lose a vitally essential component and population who are tremendously instrumental in promoting and supporting effective schooling and chinuch.

About the Author
Dr. Chaim Botwinick is a senior executive coach and an organizational consultant . He served as president and CEO of the central agency for Jewish education in Baltimore and in Miami; in addition to head of school and principal for several Jewish day schools and yeshivot. He has published and lectured extensively on topics relating to education, resource development, strategic planing and leadership development. Dr. Botwinick is Author of “Think Excellence: Harnessing Your Power to Succeed Beyond Greatness”, Brown Books, 2011
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