One of the exciting buzz words among educators is 21st-century learning (yes, I know the 21st century has been here for a few years). It’s a way to package an approach to education that emphasizes things like critical thinking, collaboration, communication, and creativity along with student ownership of work and global and digital literacy. For educators, this is pretty exciting stuff.

While we have been focused on changing the educational paradigm, transforming our schools from a model developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to an exciting, student-centered learning environment, we seem to have left the parent culture behind in the dust.

Many schools still act as if their parents still come from households that look like the 1950s where one parent stays home while the other works. This hidden bias can often be seen in how programs are scheduled or in who is on the PTA board.

With school culture frequently dominated by stay at home moms, it can be hard for dual income parents to integrate. The natural gathering places for interactions don’t exist. These parents pick up their kids from after school programs or have complicated carpool arrangements to keep their kids supervised until a parent comes home. When they are at the school during “normal” hours, it’s often a one off and they are the parents standing around looking disconnected and uncomfortable.

On the flip side, conversations about employment and work often minimize the role of a stay at home parent. Schools also may make the assumption that the stay at home parent is always available at a moment’s notice without thinking that this parent may be caring for an elderly relative or a child with special needs.

School parent cultures often come with a gender imbalance. There is a natural assumption that the mom is the “lead parent” which isn’t always the case. This manifests as mom being the first one called when there is a problem with a child, even if she isn’t the parent that is able to run to the school without warning. This assumption about the lead parent can really handicap stay at home dads who are already viewed as somewhat of a unicorn in school communities.

A school’s parent culture has a direct impact on the volunteers that it relies on from it. Parent associations are frequently led by mothers with few active male leaders. This could because of fewer males serving in the “lead parent” role or a discomfort with the social atmosphere created in parent association meetings. The National PTA has recognized this challenge and has a program focused on male engagement.

School leaders need to pay attention to the parent culture that they are creating, intentionally or unintentionally. Some aspects of this are easier to do than others. Use these questions to get your school started on thinking about its parent culture:

  • How do your forms and letters address parents? What assumptions do they make about family structure?
  • Do you ask for an order of contact in the event of an emergency?
  • Have you paid attention to where your parents gather? Are there parent ambassadors there to connect parents with each other?
  • When are your programs scheduled? Do they happen at the start of the day, the middle of the day, or at night? Who attends your parent programs?

While you are thinking about your parent culture, don’t forget to think about the purpose of your “Back to School Night” and how it fits into your larger plans for parent engagement. For more on that topic, check out Redesigning Back to School Night.

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