• by Rosana G. Rodríguez, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • April 2010 • Rosana Rodriguez

When we as educators recognize that benefits can be accrued by engaging parents and community as partners, we open the door to making our job easier and more transparent, and we enrich the opportunities for children to experience success.

Parent engagement deepens our understanding of the teaching and learning process and can be an exciting, fruitful journey for educators. By seeking connection with families and the communities that surround our schools, we enter into a dynamic community of learners that can enrich our teaching, our sense of meaningfulness and our effectiveness in engaging students in the classroom. Ultimately, parent engagement can positively impact how we teach and who we reach, far beyond what we teach.

Our effectiveness as teachers improves when we are willing to enter into a genuine exploration of the students we serve, seeking to understand their context, unique gifts, individual learning styles and what motivates each one best. This requires entering into the territory of engagement, creating relationships with parents as their children’s first teachers.

Parents have critical information about their children’s strengths, assets and needs that helps teachers make better informed instructional decisions. When we fail to see the contributions of parents in the educational equation, we shortchange both the quality of our instruction and the academic benefits to be accrued for the child.

Through effective parent and community engagement, teachers tap into the vast knowledge of parents as a child’s first teachers to better unleash the learning potential of each child. Likewise, a school system must attend to the process of engaging with parents and strengthen its connections with community, gaining new information on how best to serve their students. Working in partnership with parents and communities, school districts can weave a web of support for all students to graduate college ready.

Ask educators why they entered this profession and most will say they want to improve the lives of their students, to make a difference or to be involved in something meaningful. Many will say they felt a call or vocation to teach. This implies relationships. No one exists in a vacuum in our interconnected world. By entering into relationships with parents and communities, educators broaden their own growth in their profession. Parent engagement can impact a teacher’s sense of belonging and satisfaction with the profession, as well as their persistence in teaching.

Some erroneously view parent engagement as “soft,” “fuzzy” or “irrelevant” compared to more technical, structured elements of teaching. But this negates the interconnectedness of life and fails to see schools as an integral part of their communities.

Some teachers consider parent engagement in terms of solely fulfilling a mandate. Sadly, we often hear comments that engagement is not important or “we don’t make time for that.”

Even worse, parents are sometimes treated as guests rather than as partners in learning. In some well-intentioned schools, a space is designated where parents can come to meet “if they want to,” but no real outreach to parents occurs.

Other school districts may hire parent liaisons to “do that work” instead of focusing on teachers, who may feel ill-prepared or believe parent engagement is beyond their responsibilities. Granted, community liaisons do perform an important role that is vital for schools, but they should not replace teacher-parent interaction around student learning.

Still other schools unwittingly adopt a social service model of parent engagement. These schools provide volunteers to help parents navigate appointments or locate housing or other emergency needs. Again, while these efforts represent steps in the right direction, they cannot take the place of meaningful parent engagement that focuses on planning together for each student’s success.

Meaningful engagement is a horizontal activity, not top down. It is built on a shared premise of mutual learning and inter-dependence, creating a community of learners. Fundamentally, it recognizes that there is something to be gained in the home-school relationship that is profoundly important to teaching and learning in support of each child. It is based upon a valuing perspective that focuses on student success.

Effective engagement begins with the recognition that each member of the partnership – teacher and parent – has a unique perspective to offer that can improve learning.

Meaningful engagement is a student-centered relationship, a journey for understanding, growth and change that is focused on how best to support each learner’s exploration and discovery in an interconnected world. This requires the skills of listening, conversing and respecting in order to plan together how best to support learning for each child. This kind of interdependence has great potential for sharing knowledge, responsibility and support surrounding each child we teach, ensuring their high school graduation and college success.

In her insightful book, Leadership and the New Science, Margaret Wheatley (2006) speaks about the “invisible fabric of our connectedness” and relational dynamics. She says: “In this exquisitely connected world, it’s never a question of ‘critical mass.’ It’s always about critical connections.”

Wheatley outlines these applications for professionals leading organizations, such as corporations, non-profit organizations, health care systems and schools. Over the last 36 years, IDRA has promoted meaningful parent involvement as a necessary component of effective schools and affirms it in our Quality Schools Action Framework, developed by Dr. María “Cuca” Robledo Montecel, IDRA’s president and CEO (2005).

Teacher preparation programs also must prepare teachers for effective parent engagement and reinforce the importance of interacting in partnership with parents and communities.

What will be the “critical curriculum” of our future world view? We learn in science that even simple cells live within a system. For schools to remain viable, the system must include parents and community as a source of growth and vitality. As educators, we can contribute to the development of a new leadership of networks, preparing our students to participate in our world of interconnectedness by modeling this type of leadership within a school, engaging with parents and communities to discover and apply this wisdom to our teaching.

IDRA has designed a new Community Engagement Series for Educators that supports teachers and principals in setting forth their commitment and planning for effective engagement (see box). The seven-part series reflects the Six Goals of Education Equity put forth in IDRA’s South Central Collaborative for Equity.

Since relationships are different in each context, there is no one solution for all. However, the superintendent and other school district leaders must set the vision to value parent engagement. IDRA’s new resource can help the principal to uphold and execute this commitment, while each teacher applies this to their classroom teaching and local context. Ultimately, what is essential is that we have the courage and foresight to create the shared vision and set forth our commitment for meaningful parent engagement to support all learners, as an equity and excellence issue in education.


Lessig, L. The Future of Ideas: The Fate of the Commons in a Connected World (New York: Vintage Books, 2002).

Louv, R. Mapping the New World of Leadership (New York: Ford Foundation, 2002).

Robledo Montecel, M. “A Quality Schools Action Framework – Framing Systems Change for Student Success,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, November-December 2005).

Rodríguez, R.G., and J.C. García, A. Villarreal. Community Engagement Series for Educators (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, 2010).

Wheatley, M.J. Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World Revised (San Francisco: Beret-Koehler Publishers, Inc., 2006).

Rosana G. Rodríguez, Ph.D., is director of Development. Comments and questions may be directed to her via e-mail at feedback@idra.org.

[©2010, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the April 2010 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]