The Parent Whisperer: A Teacher's Award-Winning Tactics for Bringing the Community to Class

Involving parents isn't always easy, but it's possible—and important.
(Photo: Courtesy Kathleen Johnston)
Mar 10, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Suzi Parker is a regular contributor to TakePart. Her work also appears in The Christian Science Monitor and Reuters.

On back-to-school nights, fourth-grade teacher Kathleen Johnston doesn’t just greet parents and send them on their way. She starts with a PowerPoint presentation. Then she asks for their perspectives on education and what their schedules are like, so she knows when they're available to talk throughout the year. She also asks parents what their own strengths are, what their favorite subjects are, and in what areas they need to improve to help their children be better students.

“I need parents' input,” says Johnston, who teaches at Tuscano Elementary School in Phoenix, Ariz. “I tell them my philosophy on education, but I need to know theirs. I want them to feel a part of this."

The parents respond. For instance, Johnston remembers a parent who told her that she enjoyed reading and science but needed help with writing and math to better assist her child in those areas. Because of the questions Johnston posed, the parent was reminded that when she attended school there were times that she felt invisible, so she said she wanted her child to feel sure of herself, happy, and successful in school. She wanted her child to feel like she had options in life. Such information helps Johnston communicate with families and guide students throughout the school year.

“Many parents believe in the educational system and want a good education for their child, but they don’t know how to access that,” Johnston says. “The economics being what they are, parents are more worried about surviving than being involved in school, and that’s very much an issue with our children.”

The majority of parents that Johnston works with are minimum-wage earners. Forty percent of her students receive free or reduced lunches, and 90 percent are second-language learners.

In her classroom, Johnston has an open-door policy for parents. While they have to check in at the office for security purposes, parents are welcome anytime. They can come in and simply observe, or they can become part of the learning process.

At first, parents may be hesitant to come to class to observe. Johnston recalls that the first time one mom came to visit, she ended up joining the class for lunch, then helped kids with an assignment, and even stayed after to ask Johnston for tips on how she could be a better coach for her child.

"The community is small so the word spreads a little," Johnston says. "I also did home visits, had students write invitations [to parents] for [student] data nights, [Parent Teacher Organization] events, class projects.... Many parents come in if and when their work schedules permit."

Now, Johnston says that her class is an extended family "where we are all on the same page, with the same goals and outcomes." She and the parents share information and observations about the kids that expand their learning and have increased test scores. Students also seem to have stronger work ethics, better problem-solving abilities, more confidence, and greater willingness to take risks in their learning.

"Knowledge is powerful, and you only fail when you do not engage," Johnston says. By involving parents, "learning becomes a shared interactive experience between the child and their parent, which permits quality family time, rather than an isolated time frame with the child doing their homework alone."

Her innovative approach with parents has received recognition. Johnston, who has taught for 28 years, was first runner-up for the 2014 Toyota Family Teacher of the Year Award, receiving a $5,000 grant that she wants to use to build an intergenerational program that brings Phoenix's elders into her class to volunteer and share their life stories and career knowledge with students.

Johnston sees the large retired community in her city as an untapped resource. “They are at the time and point in their lives when they are traveling, but they want to pay forward,” she says. “But you can’t take a retired individual and stick them in a classroom. They need to be able to have training. That’s something I would like to be able to do.”

After many years of experience Johnston believes community is not only good for but critical to children’s success in school. “Education is not just about good grades but expanding your potential,” she says. “It’s about what you want to do currently and in the future. You need to get that at the elementary level, and then that is builte up in middle school and high school.” The meaningful involvement of parents, principals, administrators, and even older generations is the most effective way that she's found to accomplish this.

This article was created as part of the social action campaign for the documentary TEACH, produced by TakePart's parent company, Participant Media, in partnership with Bill and Melinda Gates.