Teacher of the Year on engaging parents to create a great school culture

We have all heard someone talk about a great school with the description, “The parents are really involved.” If this is a marker of a good school (at least in casual conversation), how can it be achieved? How can teachers and principals promote parent and community engagement? We talked to Virginia Teacher of the Year Natalie DiFusco-Funk to ask her about how she got to know a new elementary school and how she regularly engages the parents in her community.

First, why is engaging parents and the general community important?

DiFusco Funk Screen Shot 1It’s important for people to know you and for you to know them to create a real connection between the school and community. It was not until I became a mother myself that I fully understood why this connection is so essential. When parents send their children to school, they are entrusting us with the power to influence and mold their child. Parents are a child’s first teacher, and have insight on how he or she thinks and learns, which is extremely valuable to a teacher. Forming a culture of trust and collaboration between the school, parents, and community allows everyone to do what is best for the child.

In Salem, Virginia, our superintendent frequently engages with classroom teachers and students, the local businesses support teachers, and families and teachers are active in the Parent Teacher Association. It is the kind of place people want to raise their children. During my first year at West Salem Elementary, I was an outsider. I had moved the year before from Boston to Roanoke, Virginia. Most people referred to me as the “new teacher from the North with the crazy last name.”

One way I immersed myself in the school’s community, and people learned more about me, was through a community project – our school garden. I volunteered to be West Salem’s first Garden Committee Coordinator in 2012. We received a federal grant, and as part of it, Lowe’s built six raised garden beds at our school. The West Salem garden was a collaborative effort between teachers, parents, and community members. Staff members were trained by the local horticultural society, and local businesses donated to the effort. We coordinated internally to have the garden bed themes connected to each grade’s curriculum. We held a Planting Day in the spring for the students to plant seeds and flowers.  At the end of the school year, we coordinated with parent volunteers to tend the garden over the summer. It was a great project for connecting the school to the community – and still is, although I have since passed the baton as the coordinator!

For other teachers, how do you get started creating these connections?

One thing that’s important to parents is the idea that you really know their child. My students arrive at 7:50 and leave at 2:20 each day. That is 6.5 hours a day that I spend with their child. Especially at an elementary school level, parents want to feel that I really understand their child as an individual.
Like most teachers, I’m super excited every August to check my database daily in anticipation of seeing my new class list. Once uploaded, I immediately start memorizing names and pictures so that I know everybody before Back to School night. Above all, I want my students to know that I care and am eager to learn who they are academically, socially, and personally. But I know that parents appreciate this, as well.

Building these connections started in 2011 when I began working at my current school. Through that first garden committee, as well as PTA events, school-sponsored programs, and non-school sponsored programs, I have further built up those connections. When parents learn that I am their child’s teacher, I hope they already feel a connection because they’ve seen me involved in the school and communicated with me in a variety of settings.

How do you communicate to parents and engage them on an ongoing basis?

DiFusco Funk Screen Shot 2Parent communication is an essential component of my classroom community. I send bi-weekly emails to update the families. As a parent myself, I know how busy we can be, and a long-winded email may get glazed over, which is why I follow a specific format with each update:

  • I breakdown what is happening in each content area in about one sentence each;
  • I list a few questions for parents to ask their child. For example: In reading we are working on making connections. Ask your child what connections they made between the books Smoky Night and Gleam and Glow by Eve Bunting.
  • I conclude with an update of future dates to keep in mind.

I also create a classroom Facebook page (pictured), where I post pictures and videos with captions from our daily classroom social and academic experiences. I also use it to update parents with information about school events. Parents follow it and can engage their children in conversations about what we worked on that day, strengthening the home-school connection. The Facebook page took off last year, and I did my best to upload photos and posts in “live time,” so parents felt like they were taking part in the day. In addition to parents being on the page, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and family friends are all welcome to join so that Grandma who lives three states away knows what her granddaughter is doing in school. I’ll never forget Clayton, a student from last year, who said, “My mom knows EVERYTHING we do in here!”