Tales From the PTA – involvement vs. engagement

I sat through an interesting parent conference the other day intended for those who are in their school parent teacher associations or home and school associations or parents seeking to become more involved in education. The topic at first seemed cut and dry but the speaker from Saskatoon got me thinking about the role of parents within their child’s school and how best to spend my time within the various committees, boards and non profits with which I am involved. Dr. Debbie Pushor, of Saskatoon, told a cafeteria full of parents attending the Thames Valley Parent Involvement Committee’s yearly gathering there is a key distinction between parent involvement and engagement. It is possible to be involved in your child’s school and not truly be engaged with staff or with curriculum or education. Fundraising might be an example of this, Pushor noted. For instance, while there is a very strong role for fundraising at some schools and some parents may be very good at that, one has to ask whether that is enough if the PTA’s entire agenda is being devoted to fundraising. Parents can be involved volunteers at their childrens’ school, coming to read to a class each day or working in the library, attending field trips, but are they consulted when discussions are being made about how the field trips or reading programs should look? If your child’s school is doing this and does take parent feedback on these types of things from you then these types of things indicate parents are engaged in the educational process. Is the principal of your child’s school open to a more two-way system of communication? Are parents asked for input on curriculum decisions? Are PTA members listened to when they come up with an issue that does not fall within the fundraising mandate? Is there true reciprocity of ideas or is the PTA only asked to become involved when the staff and principal need something. Pushor challenged parents in the room to recognize and assess where their child’s school might be on a continuum of openness with a very open school being compared to a community garden and a closed school being metaphorically referred to as a secret garden. This excellent philosophical talk and speaker has me thinking hard about the best use of my time. I run a non-profit called The Canadian Coalition of Adoptive Families and because I am in charge I can truly say that I am both involved and engaged  – a little too much most weeks. As a result of this and my other local organization, the London Coalition of Adoptive Families we, myself and my board of directors, have forged many connections with many levels of government and non profit associations. If I were to list all here I would quickly find that there are some clear indications of places where my opinion is valued and I am both involved and engaged. For instance Childreach in London, a drop-in program for children from 0 to 6 years old, has a parent advisory committee which I have been on for three years now. Childreach staff seeks input from members who represent many different areas of the community and they often actively use the information to change or alter programs. In evaluating my involvement there I can truly say that even though I struggle to make the meetings because of my many obligations this is a useful spot for me. Reciprocity is obvious here. On the other hand I am actively involved at both of my children’s schools, one private and one public. If I were forced to sit and think hard about both of these associations I think I can easily note without giving any names away that one of these schools is very closed to parent input and therefore while I have tried to become engaged here I am merely involved. The second of my daughter’s schools is actually on the fence, so my challenge becomes moving beyond involvement to engagement. If I am engaged in my child’s education we should all benefit, according to Pushor. If I am engaged in my community similarily we should all benefit. A study by Henderson and Mapp from 2002 indicated what many of us already know to be true, when schools, families and community groups all work together to support learning children do better, stay in school longer, have fewer absences and greater social skills. What more compelling reason could there be for getting engaged in your child’s education?

(Note this image courtesy of The Simpsons episode dubbed The PTA Disbands. Thanks to Wiki media.)

Mom of two beautiful active girls, traveller, fitness junkie, social media consultant, and keeper of the sanity.