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Partnering with Parents

Gojak_Linda-100x140By NCTM President Linda M. Gojak
NCTM Summing Up, September 5, 2013

Too often when a student struggles with mathematics, a parent comments, “I was never very good at math either.” While that may be true, the need for our students to be successful in mathematics is more urgent than at any time in recent history. In this era of focus on college, career, and life readiness, engaging parents is critical to the success of students from prekindergarten through high school. Although parent involvement is an important part of any student’s academic experience, enlisting parent support in mathematics may present a greater challenge and a more conscientious effort on our part. Studies show that many parents are intimidated by coming into schools and meeting teachers—especially mathematics teachers. Think about how you can work directly with parents so that the school-to-home connection becomes a collaborative experience.

The beginning of the school year offers unique opportunities to connect directly with parents and help them to become engaged in their child’s mathematics education. Students, teachers, and parents are excited, ready, and eager for a new beginning. Whether it is open house, a phone call, or a letter home, contact at the start of school gives parents their first impression of you and of the mathematics their children will be learning.

Consider some possible messages to share with parents.

  • Summarize the big mathematical ideas that the class will be exploring in the coming year. Be sure to put them in family-friendly language. If possible include practical examples to emphasize real-world applications of the concepts—especially in higher-level courses.
  • Inform parents that today’s mathematics content and instruction should look different from the mathematics they had in school. Research and experience demonstrate that high-quality mathematics instruction involves students in making sense of the mathematics they are doing, working together to solve challenging problems, using technology when appropriate, and communicating about their thinking. This explanation will offset any misguided notions that could undermine our work with students.
  • Provide good resources that parents can explore with their children, such as activities on the Illuminations website. Share some good apps that students might use on their tablets or smartphones. If you have a personal Web page for parents to access, include specific websites and apps throughout the year. Consider a “Parent Partners” tab on your home page. Share ideas with other teachers about what to include.
  • At open house, present a traditional mathematics exercise or assignment along with a contrasting activity that promotes deeper understanding. For example, in the elementary grades I have displayed a typical worksheet with 20–25 addition exercises and afterward engage parents in playing a quick round of “Close to 1000.” I ask parents which task they think their child would prefer. The unanimous response has always been “Close to 1000!” Spend some time talking about the mathematics in the activity so that the focus on depth of understanding becomes transparent to parents. Talk about the relevance of games and rich tasks in building mathematical competence.
  • Take time to be reflective about homework you assign to students. Be clear on the purpose of your assignments and the role of parents in supporting their children at home. This is an area of great frustration for many parents. Homework assignments will probably not look like mathematics homework from parents’ school experience. Provide ideas about how they can support their children in doing homework, especially when struggle is likely. In addition to setting aside time and a place to do homework, how should parents respond to students struggling to complete an assignment?
  • Remind parents that their role is not to be the teacher at home. You do not expect them to reteach or explain concepts that may not be totally clear to a student. Whether you suggest a quick call, an e-mail, or a note from the parents when their child has moved beyond productive struggle, the importance of communication cannot be overestimated. When parents do take the time to contact you, be sure to respond in a timely manner.
  • While “Math-for-Parents Night” is a common event in elementary schools, extending these opportunities to middle and high school pushes us to think harder about connecting the mathematics that we are teaching to real-world applications and helping parents to become more comfortable and positive about their children’s mathematics education. It also opens the door for additional communication between the parent and the school.
  • Consider sending home a rich task for families to complete together. It can be related to an event in your school’s community, something that connects mathematics to real life, or simply a task that the family can explore together, is motivational, and gets parents and students working together. An added benefit is developing positive attitudes toward mathematics.
  • Enlist your principal or other administrator in the partnership that you’re establishing with parents. Inform him or her of what is happening in your classroom and suggest ways to support your work and encourage parents to become more involved.

The list above includes some practical starters for developing a constructive relationship between parents and the school. It encourages positive attitudes toward mathematics. Just as we plan daily instruction for our students, a specific yearlong plan to get parents involved and supportive of their children will positively influence our work and can only lead to increased student success. Fall is an exciting time of the year for teachers, students, and parents. Have the best school year ever!

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