Why Family Engagement is Critical to Student and Teacher Success

All teachers want to be and feel effective as teachers. They also want more than anything to see their students making progress academically, developmentally, and socially. And we know that you, as a teacher, feel a sense of well-being and accomplishment when:

  • Your students are engaged and excited by what they are learning in class and are motivated to practice what they have learned.
  • All of your students are showing growth in academic and social-emotional benchmarks and have in some way made steady progress.
  • You see their progress reflected in student data as well as in your observations of them in the classroom.
  • Your students feel more connected to their peers, their teachers, and their school community. 

In order for you to achieve the best possible results for your students, we also know certain factors have to be present. One of those factors is the strong ties you build with the families and community members that your school serves. Those strong partnerships are not only important to maximize student learning, but are also a key factor in your own well-being and success as a teacher.

In Powerful Partnerships, our goal is to strengthen your family engagement practice and, in doing so, strengthen your classroom success. We think this work is incredibly impactful—and want to share with you what we have learned about the best elements of partnering with families and how we hope it will transform your practice.

Here are six reasons why every teacher will want to focus on family engagement this school year:

1. You’ll experience an increased sense of accomplishment as a teacher.

2. You can expect reduced feelings of isolation as your families can act as a source of strength for you as a community that supports your work and goals of student achievement.

3. The race and class hierarchies that have historically dominated and prevented healthy and respectful family-school relationships will begin to break down.

4. You’ll create a productive team of allies that surround and support the child and you as a teacher.

5. A mutual respect and trust between home and school will blossom. When challenges do arise, they are much more easily resolved.

6. You’ll find that the instinct to be defensive will be transformed and the us-versus-them dynamic will break down. 

We each come to this work with a different story, a different history, and different classroom experiences, all of which shape our approach to building partnerships. Perhaps your parents were constantly helping out in your own classroom, perhaps they never stepped foot inside. Perhaps you’ve had an incredibly rewarding conversation or interaction with the parent of one of your students, or perhaps you are right now recalling that time a parent yelled at you or canceled a long set-up meeting. These stories shape us, and will be important initial stepping-stones as we ask you to consider and, perhaps, reconsider the role parents can play in your classroom. 

To learn more about Powerful Partnerships: A Teacher’s Guide to Engaging Families for Student Success, you can purchase the book here

About the authors:

Karen L. Mapp, EdD, is a senior lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) and the faculty director of the Education Policy and Management Master's Program. Karen's research and practice focus has been on cultivating partnerships among families, community members, and educators that support student student achievement and school improvement. She served as a consultant on family engagement to the U.S. Department of Education and currently serves as a consultant to the Family and Community Engagement (FACE) division of Scholastic Inc. She is the coauthor of several books, including the seminal Beyond the Bake Sale: The Essential Guide to Family/School Partnerships.

Ilene Carver has been a teacher in the Boston public schools for 20 years. Family engagement has been a cornerstone of her practice, and she has helped to build the institutional framework for family engagement at several schools. Ilene spent three years working for the Center for Collaborative Education supporting teachers, principals, and parents across the city of Boston with family engagement and school coaching. Ilene was a cochair of the Family and Community Education subcommittee for the Knowledge and Skills of Professional Teaching project, which contributed to the development of the standards for family engagement in the Massachusetts teacher evaluation process.

Jessica Lander, EdM, has taught middle school, high school, and university students in the United States, Thailand, and Cambodia. She has worked extensively with English learners, teaching English, history, and civics, and received the 2016 Richard Aieta Award for Promising Young Teacher in Social Studies. She serves on the Teacher Advisory Cabinet of the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Author of the award-winning book Driving Backwards, Lander writes op-eds about education for The Boston Globe and Harvard Graduate School of Education's Usable Knowledge website. 

Put Families at the Center of Your Teaching With the Family Story Project

By Ilene Carver

Effective family engagement never happens overnight—it is the result of hard sustained work over the course of a year. How do you infuse your approach and and your classroom events with the guiding mindset that parents are vital partners in the education of their children?

One effective way I’ve found to engage families is by implementing curriculum that puts families at the center of what children are learning. Early in my teaching, I developed the Family Story Project.

In my opinion, what is critical for our children to know is that the experiences and stories of their families are an important part of “history.” All of us must understand that we are history makers in order to believe we can affect the course history takes. Including a curriculum like this sends a powerful message. It says to families, “Your history, culture, and experiences are valued in our classroom. They are a part of the knowledge that we believe all children should know.”

Since then, I have used a family story curriculum with students from kindergarten through fourth grade. The guiding questions have been: “Where do I come from?” and “How does my history and culture shape who I am?”

Across the grade levels, the project begins with students interviewing their families. When I teach younger grades, theses student interviews are supplemented by teacher interviews with each family as well. I have created a written questionnaire that students can use with their family members. I often help support my students—I usually find that the best way to gather information is by talking to the families by phone or face-to-face. I have often interviewed family members for this project at the first family conference in the fall.

When making a questionnaire for students, I include such questions as:

  • When did your family come to Boston?
  • Where did your family come from? What was life like there?
  • How did your family travel to Boston (by bus, train, car, boat, airplane)?
  • What neighborhood does your family live in?
  • What qualities or values are important to your family?

Students, especially in the older grades, will also add their own research questions that they are curious about to ask their families.

Once we have the information, the children work on “telling” their story. The younger children will construct a three-dimensional model of their family’s story. I’ll have the students divide pieces of cardboard (or cut paper) into sections so the children can create representations of where their family came from, the vehicle they traveled in, their current neighborhood, and something that is important to their family now—their home, place of worship, school, the kinds of foods they eat, and so on. Some years, the children have built these representations with plasticine, pieces of wood, milk cartons, or cloth and yarn.

In the older grades, the children write what they learned from their family interviews in addition to constructing a three-dimensional model of their story. Often, we make a timeline to help us understand how long ago each family came to Boston.

The unit always ends with a classroom presentation with families and students. Family after family rises to share their stories, usually with the child and family member each telling a different part. Few history books tell these stories, and none are written for very young children. These family gatherings enrich and deepen our understanding of the multiracial, multiethnic community in the classroom, for the children and adults alike.

To learn more about Powerful Partnerships: A Teacher’s Guide to Engaging Families for Student Success, you can purchase the book here.