You May Be Right, But Are You Effective?

FerlazzoMany years ago, I spent several years in the Catholic Worker Movement running soup kitchens and emergency shelters. One day as I was sweeping the front porch at our shelter—working around the various Skid Row residents who were passed out around me—a police officer stopped his car and began yelling at me (rightfully so) about the fact that our shelter staff didn’t have good control of our residents’ behavior. The police, he said, received numerous complaints from neighbors about our operation.

The officer’s yelling woke up one of the people sleeping on the porch. He pulled himself up by one of the railings and said in a loud voice, “Officer, officer, Larry tries. He tries hard. But we just don’t listen to him.”

I was right then when I told our guests that they should behave responsibly, just as I am right when I tell my students, and my own children, that they need to do their homework. Educators are also right when we tell parents that they should be more involved with their children’s school. Many of us are right a lot of the time.

Being right, however, doesn’t necessarily mean we are effective.

In my article, “Involvement or Engagement?,” in the May 2011 issue of Educational Leadership, I suggest, with supporting research results and real-life examples, that schools spend less energy being right and more energy being effective. For example, a focus on parent involvement may be right, but a focus on parent engagement is more effective.

When we focus on parent involvement, we tend to lead with our mouths and tell parents what they should do; in engagement, we can lead with our ears and listen to parents’ ideas instead. With involvement we may irritate parents when we challenge them to do something about what we want to accomplish. In engagement, though, we can instead challenge them to act on what they say they want to accomplish. Involvement involves one-way communication with parents; engagement involves a two-way conversation. With involvement, we only focus on improving the school. Engagement leads us to help improve the community as well.

Have there been times when you have engaged parents in your school? And, if there have been times when you just involved them instead, what could you have done differently to have moved toward engagement?

Post submitted Larry Ferlazzo, an English teacher at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, Calif.