In the development of a school, the local community has a crucial role to play. Teachers and community members both see the development of students as a priority, but the challenge lies in channelling this shared desire in a productive way. A lack of trust between the school and the community lies at the heart of the matter – school personnel generally seem to believe parents are not interested in their child’s education, and parents similarly seem to believe teachers are not productive.
This lack of trust can have several consequences: (1) low parent participation in parent–teacher meetings, (2) a lack of focus on academic discussions at parent meetings (with attention diverted instead to mid-day meals, school maintenance, and student scholarship), (3) parental fear and hesitation about being involved in a child’s education, and (4) low morale among teachers.
Anandshala, Quest Alliance’s program for joyful schools in Bihar, is trying to change this dynamic. Parents have a right to participate in the school processes and it is the teachers’ responsibility to create that space.
When a farmer fertilizes his land, sows the seeds, irrigates the fields, and continuously tends to the crops, his harvest will likely be healthy and bountiful. However, if the farmer simply sows the seeds but does not maintain his land, his harvest will be poor. When it comes to a child’s growth, the parents and teachers are the farmers. They have a shared responsibility towards the child. Consistent parent–teacher engagement can be an essential medium to ensure that the gap between the community and the school is minimized.
However, simply organizing parent–teacher meetings will not do. These meetings need to be organized with a great degree of preparation and purpose. In one instance, I witnessed a principal put a great deal of effort into setting up a parent–teacher meeting, only to have it end badly. As soon as the meeting started, both sides started blaming each other. An agitated principal accused the parents of using the meeting only to communicate negative feedback about teachers. This experience made the school abstain from organizing further meetings.
However, when teachers prepare for meetings with care and attention, the results are very different. In another example, a principal of a government school concentrated his efforts on connecting the school with the community in an innovative way. First, he started making visits to meet the people in the community. On his visits, he asked them why students were not coming to school. He asked parents how they and and their children really felt about the school, what their general opinions about the school, and if they had ever tried to find what was happening in school.
These visits changed the way parents started to interact with school – they began to meet teachers pleasantly and confidently to talk about their children. Slowly, other members of the community started visiting schools, and parents came together to form an interest group focused on the education of their children. Further, the principal carefully planned all meetings with parents beforehand. During the first meeting with the group of parents, the school showed them the outcomes of student activities, and it discussed issues related to education directly with them. As a result of this direct engagement, the school’s local community made a commitment to provide support to ensure that students received as good an education as possible. Some people from the community suggested organizing computers and sewing machines for students so that they could also receive technical and vocational skill training. These machines were then donated by community representatives.
This is only one example of successful parent–teacher engagement. Over the years, I have seen a positive change in community perception across various schools in many other districts in Bihar. I believe that if there is trust, change can and will happen. Below are some learnings from the years of strengthening parent–teacher connections in Bihar.
- Schools need to look at parents as collaborators who have the right to make decisions about schools rather than viewing them as individuals whose sole responsibility is to send their children to school.
- Preparing for parent–teacher meetings is a must. The principal of every school needs to lead the effort in planning for parent–teacher meetings, and they must see it as an opportunity for dialogue with parents and to help them get to know the school and their children better.
- Parents love to see their children in a positive light. Parent–teacher meetings should provide forums for the parents to understand the potential of their children. The meetings should also celebrate the achievements of the children.
- If the community cannot come to the school, take the school to the community. Design outreach activities such as street plays, or assign research activities where children can interact with their parents in their communities or workspaces.
- Principals and teachers should identify influential people from their societies who can bridge the divide between the schools and the communities. These resource people should be able to mobilize more parents to engage constructively with the schools.
- Transparency is key. Principals and teachers need to make all the school information available to the parents in a simple, easily-understood format and initiate dialogues with them about support for school improvement.
- It is extremely important to work with teachers and principals to break the mindset that parents do not understand the importance of education.
- Teachers and principals need to look at the community as a resource and not as a barrier. This can create immense possibilities for contribution and collaboration with the community.
- Schooling and education need to become part of the everyday conversations of parents. Schools need to provide simple topical triggers for parents to engage with.
- Government school children are mostly first generation learners in their families. Therefore, it is important to engage with their parents to change any negative attitudes they may have towards schools and to create a safe and welcoming environment for them.
Until parents and the communities understand that their responsibilities towards the children must be borne together, they will not be able to play the role of supporting the students and the schools in their development. When parents are aware and participate actively in the development of education, change becomes a reality rather than a dream.
Shahid Ahmad, Program Officer, Quest Alliance