Shani Dowell, Possip CEO & Founder, shares her thoughts on the difficulties, importance, and rewards of parent & family engagement.
Reflecting on parent engagement from Possip’s CEO and Founder, Shani Dowell.
I started teaching ten years ago as a high school English teacher in North Nashville. Actually, I had just moved to the city and even had the exact same job as my mom that year. Both of us were teaching Freshman English. However, she was working at a private school outside of Cincinnati, where I’d grown up.
I was 22 years old, and like many first-year teachers — I was in over my head. Every day, I got up around 5 a.m. and scrambled to get out the door so that I could be at school early enough to get copies made and greet students as they arrived in the morning.
First period started at 7:05 and being just a few months out of college at the time, I was still adjusting to the schedule. I had also signed up to be an assistant soccer coach. I spent the afternoons that Fall rushing down to the soccer field to greet 13 or 14 players on the field outside after school.
During my planning period — a generous, 90-minute block at the end of the day — I made copies of worksheets and short stories. Also, I graded quizzes and papers, planned lessons, wrote assessments, entered grades, and met with the rest of the freshman academy teachers. Sometimes, if I had time, I called parents or emailed those I had email addresses for.
I was exhausted most of that Fall and quickly realized that teaching was much harder than I had imagined. In fact, I struggled with classroom management and keeping myself organized, but I loved the day-to-day actual teaching—reading with students, digging into Romeo and Juliet and Lord of The Flies, and talking about literature, stories, author’s craft.
— I loved the high fives in the hallways, the pep rallies, and the moments when students would ask to take home a book because they couldn’t stop reading. I was learning a lot from my students and I hoped that they were learning from me.
Still, during that first year, I didn’t do much to engage their families. My students were teenagers. I felt overwhelmed at the prospect of calling families every time something went wrong in class, or student was sent to the office, let alone calling home for something positive. My time felt crunched. When I got home from soccer practice in the afternoon around 4:30 or 5:00 (or later if there was a game), I collapsed on the couch at my apartment and felt too drained to do much beyond basic prep for the next school day.
Meeting the Families
At the first open house for families, a few of my student’s families came by. It was not nearly as many as the school had hoped. I nervously greeted them and chatted with them inside my classroom. I felt intimidated because I knew that I looked young. In fact, I was often asked if I was a student when I left the freshman academy wing of the school.
— Talking to parents gave me the sense that I was out of my league, and that I didn’t know what I was doing.
That first year, I didn’t leverage families and parents the way I could have. I usually called home only when absolutely necessary, and I often couldn’t get a hold of my student’s families. When I couldn’t reach a parent or family member, I wasn’t persistent about calling or following up. Talking on the phone to anybody besides my mom made me anxious and uncomfortable. So, I tried to avoid it, unless absolutely necessary.
When our school leadership team pushed, I would make calls home for a variety of reasons. This included a student’s egregious behavior in class, or sometimes an occasional positive phone call to let a parent know of a particularly strong test score or achievement in class. Sometimes I would call to remind parents about a specific upcoming academic date. Still, all of my engagement was reactionary, outgoing, and unfortunately, not always built on strong relationships with families. I wanted the best for my students, but as a young teacher, I didn’t always know how to work closely with parents and families to do that.
Family Engagement Became a Priority
During my third year of teaching, I transitioned to a different school in Nashville, where I taught 8th-grade writing. The school had long days and some built-in support to help with family engagement, among other things.
Each teacher had an advisee group — a Crew, as we called it. We regularly communicate with the parents of those students about happenings around the school. The group functioned as an advisory of sorts. It allowed teachers to forge strong relationships with students and families—most of whom I had in class every day as well. At the school level, we regularly hosted events where families could come to the school in the evenings and mingle with teachers and leaders. We almost always served food. I found that it was a rewarding, comfortable time to meet and catch up with parents, families, and students. At the end of each semester, parents, families, and community members would come to school for student-led conferences. This is where students presented a portfolio of their work rather than the other way around.
— My ability to engage parents and families grew. I got more comfortable calling home. Soon, I had the cell phone numbers of many of my student’s parents and families on my phone.
When a student received a formal disciplinary mark — usually earning lunch detention— our school protocol required that we let the family know. In grade-level team meetings, we divvied up family phone calls for all kinds of things like positive praise, upcoming conferences, field trips, behavior issues, and retention concerns.
Parents and families were an integral part of our conversations about students. We also went, as a team, to students’ homes occasionally, which has become a common practice in some schools. By the end of my fourth year of teaching, I felt confident and comfortable talking with families and parents. I had figured out how to navigate the nuances of all the things that go into teaching.
— I’d come to a place where family engagement was a key priority in living out the vision of my classroom.
Possip for Parent Engagement
— In hindsight, I think about what a tool like Possip could have done for my classroom and my students.
As a teacher, it wouldn’t have replaced the kind of relationship and trust-building that I know is integral to a successful school year. However, it would have made some of the day-to-day communication easier and more streamlined. It could have removed language barriers. Also, it could have allowed me to regularly share updates in a fast and efficient way. This would have especially helped in my first year of teaching when I struggled to make time for everything that needed to happen.
— It would have been another bridge to connect teachers and school leaders to parents and families. And, it would have allowed me not only to share information with parents and families but for them to share feedback and praise with us.
I wish I had learned much of what I learned about parent and family engagement earlier on in my teaching career, but I’m excited to see the way many teachers and schools are prioritizing this. Because at the end of the day, teachers and families want the same thing — for every child to be successful, whatever that means!