Get on Board: Enhancing Parent Teacher Partnerships

Notes from the Backpack

Episode 36 │Get on Board: Enhancing Parent Teacher Partnerships

Wednesday, November 25, 2020



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Show Notes

Colleen Ryan

When you think of parent teacher partnerships, conferences and report cards might come to mind, but what if we made family engagement more fun? Colleen Ryan, 2019 Toyota Family Engagement Teacher of the Year shares her innovative approach to building partnerships with families. She offers advice for parents and teachers on how to work together to help kids get what they need to thrive.


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LaWanda: Welcome to today's episode of Notes from the Backpack, a PTA podcast, I'm LaWanda Toney,

Helen: And, I'm Helen Westmoreland and we're are your co-hosts. Today, we're going to talk about the relationship between parents and teachers. If we're going to make it through this odd school year. It's so important to remember that our child's teacher is on our team and we are working together.

LaWanda: Absolutely Helen. One thing I really appreciate about Caleb's teachers are their ability to adapt. They've always had to be quick on their feet in and outside of the classroom. I've always had a lot of respect for teachers, but especially this year. And I'm so glad we have the 2019 Toyota Family Teacher of the Year Colleen Ryan, with us today.

Colleen received this award from the National Center for Families Learning due to her outstanding work engaging families in her community through the development of a mobile classroom. Colleen is in her sixth year teaching and currently teaches kindergarten at Rivermont Elementary in Hamilton County, Tennessee.

Colleen, thank you so much for joining us today. Please tell us a little bit about yourself and what makes you so passionate about teaching.

Colleen Ryan: Hi, I'm so glad to be on. I just got into the world of education at a young age. I was one of those students that always loved playing school and teaching my stuffed animals. and then just as I grew up, I've just had teachers that really influenced me, and really made a positive impact. So, it was just that area that I wanted to go in. But then as I went to college and getting to know, Chattanooga and I moved here, I just fell in love with, working with students and getting to see those "aha" moments. And, then also leading into with families and having those families just excited to be engaged in their learning.

LaWanda: That's really great.

Helen: I want to pick up on the families piece a little bit, cause we know for many teachers you don't necessarily get a lot of training before you enter the classroom on how to work with families, and once you're in the classroom you don't necessarily get a lot of extra time to do that either. So, how have you evolved your practice, working with families since you started becoming a teacher. And, what does the ideal parent teacher relationship look like for you now?

Colleen Ryan: Yeah. So, when I first started teaching again, I'm from Nashville originally and I moved to Chattanooga. So I didn't really know the area. So, when I first started teaching at my first school, I reached out to veteran teachers, and I just asked them to show me the ropes and let me get to know the neighborhood. And, that just started with going to the students’ basketball games or football games.

And another veteran teacher, we actually had siblings, and so we got this idea of well let's build that community. And that's what I believe in for a parent and teacher relationship is that, we have to create a community, a family, and break down the school walls. And so, we just started with pizza with the parent and we'd go and have pizza and talk and just hang out, no academic talk at all. It was just get to know you. And, that just led into, parents want to be involved, but we don't know what kind of trials they might have in front of them. Maybe they work third shift. Maybe they don't have transportation. Maybe they're just afraid to come up to the school building because they're intimidated.

And so, having those conversations with them, we were able to see what can we do so they can keep encouraging their students because that's what they want to do.

LaWanda: Yeah. Tell us a little bit more about that, what makes your approach to family engagement different?

Colleen Ryan: So, one thing that people would say in Hamilton County is that myself and Brittany here is we bring the classroom to the parents' front door, with The Passage, which is, where the Toyota Teacher of the Year award came from, so we took a bus and turned it into a mobile classroom. And so, when those parents can't come to the school due to those different issues, we bring the classroom to their front door and they get on the bus. We break down what's happening in the school, so the parent can understand and still feel like they're supporting their students, in every way possible.

LaWanda: That's really exciting. Can you talk a little bit more about that? Like how is the bus structured? How do I get the bus to come to my neighborhood? Just a little bit more information. So our listeners can kind of visualize this concept.

Colleen Ryan: Yeah, so it's just a regular school bus. It's actually one of the shorter school bus. We do have a lift to keep it handicap accessible and we took out all the seats and made it into a classroom. So, just like you would picture in your child's classroom. We have tables, we have an alphabet chart. We have  all the tools that they would need to be able to feel successful in a classroom. And so, a parent reaches out to us via our website or Facebook or Twitter or Instagram, and just fills out an application saying where their child is struggling, if it's reading math, science, writing, whatever it may be, and we schedule up a time. And so, it's four sessions, 20 to 30 minutes and it can either be Saturday morning or after school, one day in the week.

And the big thing is that the parent and the student get on together and they're learning side by side. And we, as the teachers or other teachers that maybe want to volunteer, they're completing like a lesson and the parent has a workbook with them and the student has it and they're comparing notes and then we, at the end give time for them to learn games. Maybe they could play with things that they have at home, or we give the parent a time to just guide the student's learning and then we can step in and help. Parents are the first educators and it's important that we empower them and we give them the tools that they need to be successful.

Helen: So are kids excited when the bus comes to their house?What's the kid's reaction?

Colleen Ryan: So, when the bus first started, for Brittany and I, the students were like, well, who's house, is she coming to this weekend? And, it just started first bringing up the bus and doing science experiments and just fun things. But it is, it's kind of like who's she coming to? And so the parents, seeing that the kids are excited and welcoming us into their community. It just brings so much joy in the students, I think you tell them you're coming, but then when you actually follow through, they're like Ms. Ryan was at my house. It's just really exciting.

Helen: Aw, so I want to, just following up on that, obviously this is a crazy school year, no matter what's going on in your community. Are you still taking the bus to folks' house? Like, what does your family partnership look like with the pandemic going on right now?

Colleen Ryan: So right now, due to COVID, we are not able to service with the bus right now. We just want to make sure we're keeping ourselves and the community safe. So we've shifted our model in to making sure that the students and the families have the equipment they need to be successful and create a school space at home. So, that means with our donations that we've gotten from the community in grants, we provide desks for students.

So, the parents just reach out and say, Hey, we really need to create a learning space. So the child gets a desk, they get a box of containers, so they can be able to organize their schoolwork. They get all the materials that they would need to feel successful, dry erase board markers. So they can have their own individualized space. And we also have shown parents, you said, make a word wall and things like that. So, the student really feels like they're still in school, even though they're having to learn at home.

LaWanda: That is super great. Your school seems like a very special and unique place. For our families who may not have the access to all of those resources, being able to provide a desk and supplies, what other strategies would you recommend to help engage families during this time during the pandemic?

Colleen Ryan: So, even if you don't have a desk or you don't have dry erase boards or markers, it's just getting the student excited for the love of learning. So, it might be that they take the time and investigate something outside and figure out maybe why something's happening in their backyard, or, taking the time to just sit there and read a book with their student and build that relationship. You're always learning wherever you go throughout the world. So if, as a parent you just keep encouraging your students to investigate and keep wondering why, then they're going to feel successful and they're going to be excited. And, that's from there, we as educators, when we do get to come back in the classroom and things like that, when we get to come back in the classroom, we'll be able to feel, and just fill in whatever academic things that maybe a parent thinks that they missed out on.

LaWanda: No, it makes sense. I like that.

Helen: Those are good strategies. You sort of alluded to this, but I'm wondering if you could go a little deeper, because one of the things we've been hearing a lot from families, particularly if their kids are doing virtual learning or hybrid learning, I think you said in Hamilton County, you guys are hybrid. Doing hybrid. Yeah. Is that, keeping their kids motivated, like while they're in front of the computer can be a little tough. Do you have any advice you can offer families around how to help their kids? If they're not feeling particularly motivated right now?

Colleen Ryan: Yeah. You know, it is hard and it's even hard for me as a teacher teaching virtually, those days of sitting in front of the computer can be daunting and exhausting. But I think one, having that encouragement, but allowing for those breaks, you know, the students need to get up and move, send them outside for  20 to 30 minutes in between sessions. And, you have to think in a real classroom, even if they were doing independent work, we would let them stand up. We'd let them move around. So, you still have to allow that in your home, they don't have to be sitting still, pen to a paper and working. So, I would just encourage a lot of breaks.

If they're younger, maybe even thinking about incentive charts, oh, every time you finish an activity, you know, you get a sticker and it's leading up to something bigger. One of my parents actually, everyday, the child gets to pick a reward that they would want to do at the end of the day. Maybe it's going to the park or, baking cookies. And, it's something that they look forward to at the end of the day, when all the work is done and it keeps that motivation going.

LaWanda: So Colleen, you're a kindergarten teacher. And a lot of your students, this was your first time meeting them in a virtual environment. What, was that like? How did that work?

Colleen Ryan: it was very interesting and eye-opening, kindergarten is a very special time for students. It's a lot of their first time into the school setting. And then, to kind of add it in where we're meeting through a computer screen, it was difficult, but I knew my number one goal was I still wanted to build those relationships and I still wanted to have that community of a family. So, for me, it started with one-on-one sessions with the family. So, the parent and the student were sitting there together. We talked, we asked questions, there wasn't even an assessment piece. It was just, hey, what's your favorite color? What's your favorite movie? So then when I was able to bring the whole class together, I was then able to talk and say, hey, you like Frozen and so does she. And then, how they build relationships. And they're still, even though they've never been in a classroom fully together in a building, they’re still asking each other about their pets. And so, that was the big thing is to really, before I even hit the academics was to find those relationships and those connections.

LaWanda: Yeah, I think what you're saying about connections, is super important in or outside of the school. Being able to establish relationships and connections with the parents helps them feel more confident, to be supportive, inside at home and as well as, when we get back in the classroom. So I think that's super important.

Helen: So, it's been a couple months then, and you've got some kids who are just a few months into school. What are you hearing from families? What's going well with the current set up and what are you looking forward to doing for the rest of the school year with them?

Colleen Ryan: Yeah. So I feel that way, my parents have been very supportive, and they've been very encouraged. Of course the beginning of the tech trials and getting them to understand what it is, but a lot of my parents are saying that their student is still getting a school experience. We still get up and we dance and we sing and we still have show and tell where they can just share their things. So, I keep those important key pieces together. So, they seem to be really excited and receptive and students are excited to still get on the Zoom and be able to talk to each other.

So it has been very, very positive, of course we always have those, oh, the Internet's down and things like that, that we have to struggle with. But, we just make sure that, you know, we find an alternative route. If it's me recording a video and then getting to share it out, we're just kind of going with the flow and being as flexible as possible. And so, as the rest of these, you know, these feed next month, few next month come along, I just want to keep building those relationships and keep, getting their joy of learning. This is the time where they're about to flourish. They're learning all their letters and letter sounds so now it’s like Colleen Ryan: I would just focus on your child's social, emotional wellbeing, you know, giving them the hugs. If you notice that they're overwhelmed, let them take a break, let them just talk to you about their feelings or get to go outside and explore. Those are the things that need time to start reading books. And, I just want them to know that they can be just as successful, even if we're learning through a computer screen.

Helen: Great.

LaWanda: Yeah. That's really great. This is a lot of good information for our parents to be able to synthesize and figure out kind of what they can do at home. If  you could pick one thing for them to prioritize, what would you recommend that they focus on right now?

Colleen Ryan: I would just focus on your child's social, emotional wellbeing, you know, giving them the hugs. If you notice that they're overwhelmed, let them take a break, let them just talk to you about their feelings or get to go outside and explore. Those are the things that need to happen right now, because no matter what age they are, this crazy time for all of us, and we're all dealing with the situation in a different way. And, we just need to be able to reassure those younger students and even our middle schools and high schoolers. So, they understand that it's going to be okay and we need to take care of our mental health and our physical health, and then we can add in the academics as we go.

LaWanda: That's great advice.

Helen: It is. It is. I want to pick up actually on, you mentioned earlier in our conversation that the mobile classroom is on hold at the moment, but what are your future plans for it? Cause, I know you've got a pretty big award from the National Center for Families Learning, in recognition of your great work with families. So, what are you thinking will come next? How are you going to use that money?

Colleen Ryan: Yeah. So, we actually have purchased a second bus. So right now our original bus, it has been servicing all of the Hamilton County schools, which is a really wide range of schools.

So, we have purchased a second bus and so, we are actually going to be in the process, working with some high school students, and they are redesigning what the inside of the bus will look like. And then, there'll be using our digital fabrication labs at, one of the local high schools to help start transitioning it into a mobile classrooms. So, then we'll be able to service more areas.

[00:16:26] So, our big dream is that we can inspire other areas to have this, because every area needs the classroom to be brought to parents’ front doors. The way that we're going to break down those walls and those barriers between school and home, and just build those relationships.

LaWanda: So Colleen, for our teacher listeners out there, if they wanted to do something like your mobile bus system, what steps do they need to take to be able to do that? Who they need to talk to? How can they get funding? I think people want to know.

Colleen Ryan: Yeah. So first and foremost, if it's a bus or if it's any idea, just believe it and it will happen. The first thing that we did was, we just started researching and thinking of ideas. So, if they are wanting to start a bus in their area or some sort of program like this, they can always reach out to, The Passage on social media. It's just @thepassage423.

Helen:  Is that the name of your bus?

Colleen Ryan: Yeah, the bus is called "The Passage" and then 423 for Chattanooga. And so, we gladly want to help, but it all started for us with grants.We started with small grants. Brittany did purchase the bus to start with her own money, and then we kind of just started writing grants to transform it. In Chattanooga, we have a program called teacherpreneur, which actually encourages teachers to take these ideas and become, edupreneurs, and really embrace what they want to do and their ideas. So, that helped us a lot too.

But, the big thing is then reaching out to your community. Once we told community members what we wanted to do, they were supporting us. They were excited and they just wanted to embrace our idea, and it's just been very successful, but community has probably been our biggest supporters in just making this a reality.

Helen: I love that.

LaWanda: That's super awesome.

Helen: So everybody will be reaching out to Ms. Ryan for next year.

Colleen Ryan: That is perfect. That is perfect.

Helen: I'm curious, obviously, this, this is kind of a crazy year, but, this year, but also in a typical year, what are the things in kindergarten,   that you're hearing from families they most want to know from their child's teachers. If you were to give advice to other teachers, just based on what families have asked of you and the good feedback you've gotten, what are, what are some of those things?

Colleen Ryan: I think the biggest concern that I'm hearing is they don't want their child to be behind. They don't want to feel that their child is missing out on all the fun things. So as a teacher, just really looking at how you would structure a normal classroom year and try to embrace as much as you can. I know not everything's going to be virtual, but finding those ways to really create that atmosphere. And then, for those parents that are worrying their child will fall behind is just kind of encouraging them, you know, to know that just because they aren't getting it right away, you know, that productive struggle is what we want to see happening. We, we want to see that they're trying and they're persevering and we'll make up the rest as the hopeful years become normal.

LaWanda: So Colleen, thank you for sharing with us today. This has been so great. Your family engagement strategy sounds very educational and fun, too. I want to be in your class.

Colleen Ryan: Thank you. I appreciate it.

LaWanda: And I definitely want to check out your school bus classroom one day, for sure. That sounds exciting and I'm sure a lot of our listeners want to see it too. Could you reiterate one thing that parents can do right now while they're at home with their kids to ensure family engagement as they transition back to school, because we know that we'll be going back to school one day, so helping them be ready for that. What's the one thing that they can do now?

Colleen Ryan: I think the one thing that parents can do that will help their student is create as much consistency as they can. If it's sticking to the virtual schedule that your child's teacher has shared or something along those lines, that is going to be the most important thing, because we create as much consistency as we can in the physical classroom. So keeping that at home is really gonna help the child feel successful no matter if they're virtual learning or in-person learning, eventually.

Helen: Thank you so much for joining us today, Ms. Ryan and for sharing all of these great pieces of advice and inspiration for parents and for teachers. Thanks for joining us.

Colleen Ryan: Thank you guys so much for having me. It was a joy and I just really appreciate all that you all do in getting the word out.

LaWanda: Thank you again.

Helen: And, to our audience listening thank you. Before you go, we want to remind you to please rate and review the podcast, your reviews and ratings, help others find our show, and we love hearing your feedback. And as always, you can find more resources related to today's episode by checking out Thanks for listening and join us next time.


Notes from the Backpack: A PTA Podcast is made possible by funding from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.