Partnering with Your Child’s Teacher

Notes from the Backpack

Episode 9 │Partnering with Your Child’s Teacher

Wednesday, October 30, 2019



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Show Notes

Karen Mapp

Teachers and administrators are striving to engage families in more meaningful ways. How can you partner with schools to best support your child and other students in your community? We chatted with Dr. Karen Mapp, from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, about best practices—and what we can do to improve family-school partnerships. She shares how to tell if your school is really dedicated to engaging families and how to create strong, trusting relationships with everyone in the school community.


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Transcript (Disponible en Español)

Intro: Welcome to Notes from the Backpack: A PTA Podcast. This series features real conversations with real experts, real parents, and real educators so families can get the real behind the scenes story on what's happening in education. Get the inside scoop on how to help your child become successful in and out of school. As parents, we know that your child can sometimes forget to share the notes from their backpack that tell you everything that's happening at their school that's why we've launched this podcast just for you. Welcome to Notes from the Backpack: A PTA Podcast.

LaWanda: Welcome to Notes from the Backpack: A PTA Podcast. I am your co-host, LaWanda Toney, Director of Communications at National PTA.

Helen: Hi, LaWanda and hi everyone. I am your co-host, Helen Westmoreland, Director of Family Engagement at National PTA.

LaWanda: Helen, are you ready for this week's episode?

Helen: Oh yeah.

LaWanda: I know I am. Today we're discussing how parents and families across America have very different experiences when it comes to being involved in their kids' education. Sometimes we have teachers who are really engaged with families and other times, not so much. So what do we do?

Helen: Exactly. So many parents have had that experience of having, say, the fourth grade teacher who is awesome, sending her weekly folders, texting us when our child does something cool or not so cool, maybe letting us in the classroom to observe only then to get to the next grade, fifth grade, where we hear literally nothing, crickets. We can barely get a call back. So what should schools be doing to engage parents in more meaningful and consistent ways? And how can families advocate for their involvement and the involvement of all families in their communities?

LaWanda: Well, today we have help. We will hear from Dr. Karen Mapp. She's gonna help us learn new ways to make family school partnerships much better. Dr. Mapp is a senior lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the faculty director of the Education Policy and Management Master's Program. She served as family engagement consultant to the United States Department of Education and the Office of Innovation and Improvement. Dr. Mapp is also the author and co-author of several articles and books that focus on the role of families and community members when it comes to a child's achievement and school improvement needs.

Helen: Dr. Mapp, thank you so much for joining us today.

Dr. Mapp: Thank you. It's wonderful to be here.

Helen: So before we dig in, we'd love to just hear a little bit more about you. What inspired you to start your career in education and family engagement even more specifically?

Dr. Mapp: I actually started my career after college in the corporate world. I worked for AT&T for nine years after I graduated from college. I went to Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, and around the ninth year of my employment was when the federal government asked the phone company, which was back then the only phone company that existed in the United States, to divest. And I had been looking to get out for a little bit because I started to get very attracted to the field of education. I was doing some volunteer work. I was doing some work with gang-involved youth in New Haven, Connecticut.

I was very interested in their educational trajectories and started talking a lot to young people and got very, very interested in doing something I didn't quite know what but in the field. So I left the phone company and about a year later, I got a phone call from Trinity College, my alma mater, and they asked me, did I know anybody who would be interested in working in the admissions office. I was a pretty active alum at the time and they figured I would come up with a bunch of names.

Well, I gave them one name and, of course, that was mine and I got the job and that allowed me to travel around the country and talk to a lot of students who came from what would normally sometimes be called as hard to reach communities especially if we're talking about family engagement. But the students told me a lot about why they were successful in school. I asked a lot of questions back then about why do you think you are, as we say in the research terminology, persistent to graduation? And every single one of those kids talked about their families.

And by the way, when I say parent or family, I mean all adult caretakers. So we're talking about grandma, grandpa, auntie, uncle, etc. So these kids were all saying to me that these folks were really important to them. So I started to go to many of the guidance counselors at the schools, at the high schools where we would do our recruiting trips, and I'd say, you know, the kids are telling me that their families are really important to their success. And to be quite honest with you, I got very interesting responses from many of the guidance counselors.

Some of them would look at me like I was crazy and they would say, "Those kids, you never see their parents. We don't know what you're talking about. Their parents are not involved, not engaged." And then I would usually get the next line very frequently which was, "Those parents don't care. Those parents don't care about their kids' education. Their kids just happen to be really smart. They happen to be self-motivated. They get a lot of support from the school but we never see the parents." And so the schools were equating parents not coming to the building as "not being engaged at all."

So I knew that there was a disconnect. Something was wrong. And we had a family friend who was my mentor, Edgar Beckham, who was at Wesleyan University, and he said to me, "You know, this sounds like an excellent dissertation topic, Karen. I think if you really wanna be able to have an impact on the field, you have to really understand how this works." I hadn't been a classroom teacher and he said, "If you're gonna have any credibility in the education world, you're gonna have to really study this deeply so that people understand that you've really looked at this.

You're gonna have to talk to teachers, you're gonna have to talk to principals. And so in '92, I arrived here at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and they were doing incredible work around family engagement and I learned a lot from them. And so from then on, I've been studying what works. That's pretty much what I like to do. I try to look at schools and districts where family engagement is working well and try to figure out what they're doing.

LaWanda: For some of our listeners who may not hear the term family engagement, they might hear parent involvement or just being engaged in school, what does that really mean for them?

Dr. Mapp: I think around 12 years ago, we pulled a group of folks together because we really wanted to have an impact on the field and we wanted to see if we could work with the federal government to make some changes that would be able to help states and districts and classroom teachers understand what effective practice looked like around the area of homeschool partnership. And even though it seems small and it seems like semantics, we really wanted to change the term parent involvement to family engagement.

So family, for the reasons I discussed a few minutes ago, if we want to be inclusive and signal to the grandmothers and the grandfathers and the aunties and the uncles and all of those other adult caretakers that we are including them in our language, then using the term family is much more inclusive than parent. When I was deputy superintendent for family engagement here in Boston, I had a grandparent, who had gotten to know me, come to me one day and say that she went to her granddaughter's parent-teacher conference and the teacher asked her when was the real parent ever gonna show up.

Yeah. Yeah. And so when we use the term family, that sends a message to everybody, the practitioners, the policymakers, and the family members that we mean you. We mean everybody. Now when we move over to engagement, engagement connotes a real commitment to another person. Engagement connotes a partnership. Involvement is a bit superficial and doesn't, I think, pack that punch that the word engagement does. Engagement really means that we are serious about our relationship with each other to support this child, to support their learning, to support school improvement.

So again, it may seem like a small thing but we find that family engagement really sends a message that again, we are including everybody and that we're really serious about this partnership because we wanna be engaged to each other in this work.

Helen: We hear so much at PTA, you know, everybody tends to agree that family engagement matters. So how do you actually improve it? What does good look like when we're really engaging families in meaningful ways? What have you found in your research, Dr. Mapp, are some of the sort of hallmarks of really great ways to improve family engagement in a community?

Dr. Mapp: Imagine that we're in a room with about 400 teachers. And I asked them this question, how many of you in your pre-service training got a full course on family and community engagement? And I will tell you that of the 400 people in that room, if I get three hands raised, I'm lucky. And I do this everywhere I go. I do a lot of professional development workshops around the country and I ask this question. So when I went to go work as a consultant to the U.S. Department of Education, I talked with the wonderful people there about can we create a tool that helps point people towards what good practice actually looks like?

Since they're not getting it in many cases in their training, we need to sort of point them in the direction because most teachers I know really wanna be able to do this well with families but they don't know how. They've never gotten any training, they haven't gotten any PD. So we try to come up with something that would help districts and schools and classroom teachers think about what does effective practice actually look like when we're trying to build partnerships with families. And so I authored something called the Dual Capacity-Building Framework for Family-School Partnerships.

The first one was published in 2014. The second one, version 2, was just released in 2019. That framework actually pinpoints or at least illuminates the components of effective practice. And so, for example, we tell practitioners, listen, one of the first things you have to do when you're working with families is you have to build trust. Some of you may know the work of Tony Bryk and Barbara Schneider. They did a wonderful book some years back called "Trust In Schools." And what they told us was that you have to build relational trust among the adults, the families, the teachers if you want anything to work well, sort of like the oil in your car, right?

Like we all buy these fancy cars. Now, they do all these funky things. Like my car practically drives itself. None of that stuff is gonna work if you don't have that little can of oil, right? So trust is really important. And to be honest with you, a lot of times in schools, we skip over the trust part. We go right to the, oh, let's have a curriculum night. Oh, you know, let's have parent-teacher conferences. Oh, let's do an open house. Oh, let's do a literacy night. And then when nobody shows up, what happens? Parents don't care. So the first thing we try to get educators to understand is you're gonna have to go the extra mile to try to build some trust with your family.

So that might be home visits or even welcoming phone calls home at the beginning of school. Imagine when parents are only getting negative phone calls, that doesn't build any trust. So we start with trust. We also talk about how our family engagement practices have to be linked to learning and development. We try to, in the Dual Capacity-Building Framework, to help practitioners see what are the elements of really solid, effective practice.

LaWanda: You talked just now about training educators. As a parent, what can I do to ask my school districts that this is something that I want? I wanna help build these family-school partnerships. What can I do as a parent to get them to understand that that's important?

Dr. Mapp: Well, in my experience, it really takes parents, plural. Here in Boston, we had a wonderful organization that was headed up by Michele Brooks called the Boston Parent Organizing Network. And it really makes a difference if parents can come together as a group and maybe talk to the district. Hopefully, if the district has a family engagement staff, they can help work with parents to come up with some types of initiatives to help the school see how family engagement is really important. It's kind of difficult with anybody, whether it's one teacher or one principal or one parent, it's difficult if you're trying to do it all by yourself.

One of the other things you can do is I've always found that at every school, there's at least a small group of families and a small group of educators who really would like to try something new around family engagement. So if you can send out an email or you talk to your neighbors or, you know, even at the bus stop to say, "Let's see what we can try." There's also lots of different books. There's "Beyond the Bake Sale," which is a book that I wrote with Anne Henderson, Don Davies, and Vivian Johnson. But there's also a new book called "Powerful Partnerships" that I put together with Ilene Carver and Jessica Lander.

And I've had some parents tell me that that book has been really helpful because it identifies specific strategies schools can use to partner with families. Parents have to sort of educate themselves a little bit too about what effective practice looks like because I've had a lot of families tell me that they haven't seen real effective practice. So even for families to go in and say, "We wanna do something different," it's great if they actually have some ideas about what different looks like.

Helen: I'm curious, Dr. Mapp, from your sort of experience, you mentioned training of teachers being one thing. What do you think is behind a lot of that inconsistency and what do you think communities should be doing so that no matter what school you go to, no matter what classroom you go to, every family, no matter what their situation, their background, their language, all of that has equal opportunity to be engaged? What do you think they should be doing?

Dr. Mapp: Well, this all starts with the top. If you have a superintendent or a chancellor who really believes in the importance of family and community engagement... And, you know, we have research that says that the engagement of families and communities is an essential ingredient to school improvement. You know, research from the Chicago Consortium on School Research. When you have a superintendent who understands family and community engagement is part of a systemic strategy to improve schools, that superintendent then makes sure that the people that work underneath him or her also understand that family engagement is important.

So these are the districts where we see training, we see initiatives, we see whole school teams being trained in how to better engage with families. We see an infrastructure in the district. So there's usually a family and community engagement team. So, for example, right there where you are in Washington, DC, in Baltimore, in Philly, here in Boston, they all have a district leader who is in charge of cultivating the family and community engagement initiatives for the district. So when you have a district leader, that is the best case scenario because that person pretty much says to all of the people who work for him or her, "Look, this is important and this is what we're gonna do."

And they provide resources and training to try to change the practice to be more effective in all of the schools. I think what we know is that in the last sort of I'd say 20 years, that family engagement and community engagement is being taken seriously. Most of the time, we see a few schools in a district where you have a principal who really understands this and they make it work in their building. Now, we're starting to see more and more that districts are hiring chancellors and superintendents who get it around this and we're starting to see more systemic efforts. So you don't have that situation where when somebody goes from elementary to middle school, there's a huge difference in the whole focus on family engagement.

Helen: One of the things you talked about, I'm curious, since you've been on both sides of the table as a district superintendent and as a researcher, I think I hear you saying so much of it has to do with your leadership, right?

Dr. Mapp: Yup.

Helen: So who's your superintendent in your district, maybe even at the school level for a family member, who's your principal? And I think a lot of families might not know that you often get a seat at the table to help ask questions of those people when they're interviewing for the job. What are some good questions that you've heard family or community members ask to sort of get a picture of like, so is this new principal or superintendent really gonna prioritize reaching out and involving parents or are they gonna be the one that's got it number eight on their list?

Dr. Mapp: I'm gonna just give you an example. There's a school in Rhode Island. It's The Learning Community. One of the co-directors is a woman named Sarah Friedman. And we had heard that this school was really doing some wonderful work around family engagement. And I have to say, I spent a day down there with one of my students and we were kind of blown away, the commitment that that school made to engaging families. In the morning when school opened up, their practice is that families bring their kids right to the classroom.

So it's not that the families drop their kids off at the door of the school. They come right to the classroom. And so parents and teachers are able to greet each other in the morning and say hello. And so the teachers really get to know the families. This is a K-8 school. They're doing great in terms of their academic outcomes are some of the best in the state. It's a school that serves mostly black and brown kids.

When they do their interviews for teachers, they have family representatives there, they ask a question about, "Have you done any research on the families that the school serves and what have you noticed? And also, what is your vision of how you would engage with these families?" And Sarah told me that's a deal breaker question. So if the teacher or the administrator that they were interviewing says anything that sounds like deficit kinds of language about the families and the communities, well, we know that these families are poor and they're probably unable to do a lot with their kids and, you know, we're gonna come in and teach them how to be better parents and things like that. She said, "It's a pens down moment." That's how she described it.

And so I think the kinds of questions where you really get somebody to talk about, what's their vision around engaging with the families of the children that are served by the school and what have they done in the past around engaging families? How would they describe effective practice? What does effective practice look like? And I think those are the kinds of questions because then, you know, if you just ask somebody, "Oh, do you believe in family engagement?"

LaWanda: Of course, I do.

Helen: Of course, I do.

Dr. Mapp: They're gonna say, "Sure [crosstalk 00:19:54]. Yeah, yeah. No problem. We love our families." But then when you start to dig down and ask them, "Okay, so what does that look like? Give us an example of some of the kinds of practices that you engaged in to partner with your families. How do you define family engagement? What's your definition of family engagement?" I think when you start asking questions like that, you're gonna get more than just a kneejerk response. You're gonna have people describing what are their core beliefs. You know, we talk about core beliefs are really important.

What are your core beliefs around engaging families? What drives you when you think about partnering with your families? When you think about family engagement, what's your proudest moment? What's your practice? That's the main thing, not just what do you think about it but what's your practice? And I think those are the kinds of questions that are gonna help you figure out whether this person has a positive sort of asset-based mindset around engaging families or deficit-based mindset around family engagement.

LaWanda: One of the common questions that will come up around family engagement is when I speak to a teacher, sometimes I know that they're overwhelmed. I know that their classrooms are large and it's hard for me to want to talk to them about engaging with families when they barely have time for a restroom break. What advice would you give teachers on how they can start family engagement in their classroom?

Dr. Mapp: I would direct them to "Powerful Partnerships" because "Powerful Partnerships" does give teachers a lot of great ideas for how they can improve their practice around family engagement. And the way that we structured the book is it actually starts from the beginning of the school year and goes right through. So it's sort of the nice, step by step. Okay, here's what you do starting before the students even come to your classroom. Here's some of the things that you could do in September and October. Here are some of the things you could do later on in the school year.

We patterned the book so that it would sort of align itself with what teachers have to do. And here's the thing, many of the teachers that we've interviewed over the years who have incorporated good family engagement practice into their work of teaching and learning because it is part of your teaching and learning practice, what they say is it makes their jobs easier because now, they have teammates. The families are their teammates. Yes, it takes time and yes, it may take some adjustment but what they get in return, you know, you always hear people talking about what's the return on investment, well, what they get in return is this support system, which can really help them move the kids along.

In Boston, what we did, we actually gave our parents the questions that they could ask teachers about their child's learning because I don't know if you guys have seen the Learning Heroes data that's come out recently where they talk about how most families don't really know how their child is doing in school. I think even giving parents the right questions... There's a wonderful group called the Right Question Institute that talks a lot about how do we have parents ask the right questions when they go to that parent- teacher conference.

You wanna ask questions about tell me a little bit more about how my child is doing in literacy or how my child is doing in math instead of just, "How's my kid doing?" because the teacher sometimes is gonna say, "Fine." And that's not a good enough answer. You wanna know, dig a little deeper.

Helen: One of the scenarios I think we hear a lot of especially in the world of how PTAs often operate is that it can be really overwhelming for families when their schools try to improve and do more family engagement then it becomes so much. So all of a sudden, you've got 50 invitations to come to different events and things to check in the backpack and it can be overwhelming. So what is your advice to that school or family group that might be thinking, "We need to do more?" Is that the solution, doing more? Or would you say there's a way that maybe they should be thinking differently about how they go about improvement?

Dr. Mapp: More is not better. You know, when you look at the Dual Capacity Framework, it doesn't say anything about do more. It says, "Take what you're doing now and do it effectively. Use effective practice. Make sure you do it well. Make sure you use what we've identified as the essential conditions for good practice." If I was working with a school where, you know, a parent said to me, "They're just piling on and they're just doing all these things and we're overwhelmed, I would say that that's not effective practice. That's not what we're talking about here.

First of all, you wanna make sure that whatever you're doing is accommodating the families' time and their needs. For a lot of our families, they can't come to the school. So how are we using technology to keep in touch with our families? Are we doing simple texts back and forth to families? Are we doing things in the community? When there's a community event that's already happening, can we hitch our wagon onto that community event where we already know that families are gonna be there? So it's about being smart. You know, a lot of times we think, again, that just doing more is the answer but I would say that that is not the answer.

So I would be a little worried if you're hearing from parents that they're feeling like they're being bombarded and overwhelmed with more to do. I would say that that place is not really thought wisely, about what their family engagement looks like because families should not have to say that. They should be saying the opposite. Oh, they've made it so much more easy for me to be engaged. They've made it really easy for me to find out what's happening with my child because they send me a positive text that lets me know that Daphne did really well this week on this and here are two things I could do at home to support their learning. So this is about how do we make it easier for everybody, not harder.

LaWanda: Dr. Mapp, if there's one thing you want parents to take away from today's conversation, what would it be?

Dr. Mapp: Well, I know this might be tough but the more they're in communication with their child's teacher, it really makes a difference, I know, to families and also to school staff, if there could be one person that's a point of contact for that family member to talk to. I think that that's really, really important. And then I would say the other thing is that if families can get information on how for the grade level that their child is in, there maybe one or two things... And that's the question they could ask the teacher, what are two things could I be doing at home to help support my child's learning?

And hopefully, the staff at the school can provide them with a good answer to that question. Let that teacher know that you really want to be communicated with, that you kind of expect that, both good and bad news. That you as a parent really wanna know, you wanna work in partnership with the school to help support their child. And a lot of times when teachers hear that, you know, we know squeaky wheel gets the oil, right? Even though that's not the way that I like teachers to operate, that's kind of unfortunately sometimes the way that it does work.

But that's why, you know, quite frankly, I focus a lot of my work on the practitioner side, trying to help the practitioners know how to reach out to families because for a lot of our families, calling the school and making that connection is very intimidating. So I really feel very strongly that the practitioners have to take the first step.

Helen: You mentioned a few resources that people can go to to learn a little bit more. Where can they find your newest book, "Powerful Partnerships?"

Dr. Mapp: If they just go online, it's available on Google, Amazon, all of those great things. It's published by Scholastic. We've gotten a lot of really good feedback on this book because writing it with two current teachers, we tried to make it really user-friendly. So I think that that's a great resource for practitioners who want to get a grounding in family engagement. I actually have a free online course. It's a Harvard edX course and I think it's called Introduction to Family Engagement.

Helen: And last thing you mentioned was the Dual Capacity-Building Framework. Is there a website people can go to for that?

Dr. Mapp: Yes. That's And that will introduce you to the brand new version to Dual Capacity Framework and it's got a lot of great information there to help to explain the framework and how to use it.

LaWanda: If people wanna learn more about you, Dr. Mapp, are there some social media handles that you can share with us?

Dr. Mapp: Sure. So I am on Twitter, @karen_mapp and what I do with Twitter is I will let people know about any good stuff that I see, that comes across my desk or I see new publications that come out about family and community engagement. I wanna tell your listeners if you follow me on Twitter, I'm gonna disappoint some of you because there's not gonna be any puppies or any bunnies or anything like that. It's all gonna be focused on family and community engagement.

Helen: Well, thank you again, Dr. Mapp, for joining us and sharing all this great wisdom with us today.

Dr. Mapp: And thank you for all of your good work. I like this Notes from the Backpack idea.

Helen: We've been liking it.

Dr. Mapp: This is a great way to share information on how to do this work and do it well.

LaWanda: Thank you for joining us today. Please keep the conversation going by using #backpacknotes on social. We hope you tune in next time.

Outro: Thank you for tuning in to Notes from the Backpack: A PTA Podcast. Be sure to follow us on social media @NationalPTA and online at


Notes from the Backpack: A PTA Podcast is made possible by funding to advance family engagement and whole child learning through the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.