The Missing Link in Teacher Education Programs

by Leslie Blair
Published in SEDL Letter Volume XIV, Number 1, February 2002, Family and Community Connections with Schools

I have to worry about my relationship with the kids, with the teacher next door, and with the principal. Now you are telling me I have to develop a relationship with parents!

Many new teachers don't think about it before stepping into the classroom, but they may spend more time building relationships than actually teaching—and many of these relationships will involve the parents of their students.

Sally Wade, director of the Florida Partnership on Family Involvement in Education at the University of South Florida, emphasizes that schools and teachers are constantly developing relationships and communicating with parents and families, even if they are not aware of it. Wade says she often hears the lament, "Now we have to do family involvement." She tells them "You're involved with families whether you want to be or not. It is better to send an intentional message than an unintentional message." In addition, Wade acknowledges there is a very practical need for teachers to have good relationships with parents. "Parents have more influence on their children's lives than we do, and we need their help."

SEDL's National Center for Family and Community Connections with Schools recently produced a satellite broadcast of a lively panel discussion, "Educator Preparation for Connecting Families and Communities with Schools." Panelists included M. Elena Lopez, of the Harvard Family Research Project; Vivian Morris, a professor at the University of Memphis; Satomi Taylor, an associate professor at the University of Memphis, and Sally Wade, director of the Florida Partnership for Family Involvement in Education. The discussion was moderated by Bobby Ann Starnes, assistant professor at Montana State University. Much of the article that follows was taken from the broadcast.

Need for Preservice Training Is Clear

More than three decades of research have shown that family involvement plays an important role in student achievement. The research has spurred family and community involvement programs across the country, but still we are not providing sufficient training for teachers to work with families effectively.

M. Elena Lopez of the Harvard Family Research Project notes, "Since the middle 1960s, family and community involvement in education has made impressive gains in policy and program development." She explains, for example, that 11 federal acts authorize family involvement in a variety of programs, including Title I programs, and that 24 states now have active legislation requiring parent and family involvement.

"The missing piece for me in this effort to incorporate family and community involvement in education is teacher education. Teacher education programs need to catch up with what's happening on the ground," Lopez says.

Vivian Morris, a professor in the College of Education at the University of Memphis and a strong advocate of family involvement in education, agrees. "We really need to prepare teachers to become involved with families—it's not something that comes naturally to us. Just as we need to teach reading or social studies, we need to teach our students in education the skills they need for family involvement."

Morris says preservice teachers often express concerns about dealing with parents once they are classroom teachers: "There is a great deal of anxiety in talking to parents, about having to do parent conferences." Often, Morris says, the preservice teachers see parents as adversaries, not partners. She believes that it's up to teacher educators to address that myth.

Wade agrees wholeheartedly. "Where is it that educators get ideas like Ôall children can learn'—the ideas that stick with you throughout your professional career? I was talking about this with a group of educators one day and we all agreed that we learned those ideas as undergraduates. The power that a preservice program has to revolutionize and change American education is phenomenal."

The power that a preservice program has to  revolutionize and change American education is phenomenal.
"The power that a preservice program has to revolutionize and change American education is phenomenal."

In 1988, Southwest Educational Development Laboratory researchers Nancy Chavkin and David Williams prepared a study that is now considered a benchmark in the field of family and community involvement in education. After surveying teacher educators and classroom teachers in SEDL's six-state region of Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas, Chavkin and Williams reported that educator training might indeed hinder parent involvement. Only 4 percent of the teacher educators they surveyed taught a complete course in parent involvement to preservice teachers, but 83 percent acknowledged that such a course should be taught. And 87 percent of the classroom teachers surveyed indicated they needed additional undergraduate training in parent involvement.

Some progress has been made since then. Twenty-two states now include family involvement in certification requirements, and there are innovative college courses and programs devoted to family involvement such as the Parent Education Model at the University of Houston at Clear Lake, the Peabody Family Involvement Initiative at Vanderbilt University, and the Teachers for Diversity Program at the University of Wisconsin. However, most family involvement training throughout the country is included as part of other coursework—mostly early childhood or special education courses.

Unfortunately the number of courses devoted to family involvement training is not likely to increase, Morris explains. "In our program and in many other programs across the country, there is a push to reduce the number of hours needed to graduate and a push to decrease the number of education courses but increase subject matter courses. We're going to have to be very vigilant in seeing that we continue to push for having content in family and community involvement for our students." At the University of Memphis where Morris teaches, such pressure caused the College of Education to combine its family and community involvement class with a course in classroom management.

Integrating Family Involvement Training into All Teacher Education Curriculum Is Key

Given the realities colleges of education face, Morris, Wade, and Lopez agree that infusing the preservice curriculum with family and community involvement training will be the only way to provide adequate training across levels—so that preservice elementary, middle school, and high school teachers receive the training, not just early childhood or special education majors.

Infusing the curriculum goes beyond adding family-centered activities to the preservice teacher's repertoire, such as incorporating methods for involving families in their children's home reading activities or providing family math activities in mathematics courses for elementary education majors. Infusing the curriculum means helping future educators question their perceptions about families and family structures and about what family involvement in schools looks like. They should also learn how to build relationships between families and schools. Says Chavkin, who is now a professor at Southwest Texas State University, "The developmental nature of family involvement is often ignored—it takes time to develop relationships, gain trust, and build a vision." Chavkin notes that communication has also been ignored in preservice training. "When teachers think about communication, they think about what they are sending home or saying to parents—they often don't consider how or if they are listening to parents."

Wade stresses the need for "modeling the partnership we're asking educators to build with parents and families." To model such partnerships, the Florida Partnership on Family Involvement in Education began its successful, "Family as Faculty" program.

Through "Family as Faculty," families are recruited as guest lecturers to make presentations to preservice teachers and to discuss with them ways the families have been involved and ideally would like to be involved in their children's schools and education. The program offers future teachers an opportunity to hear from and interact with families from all walks of life. It also shows them the barriers and keys to successful involvement of families and provides opportunities for role-playing with real parents and receiving feedback from parents about the college students' communication skills.

Morris mentions other ways to integrate family involvement into courses. The University of Memphis has used parent-teacher-principal panels as a way to provide preservice teachers with reality-based experiences. The panel give students the opportunity to ask parents, teachers, and principals what kinds of skills they will need to work effectively with families. The faculty members have also held diversity panels and often give assignments to help get students comfortable talking to parents. The university has successfully used professional development schools as learning laboratories where future teachers have the opportunity to develop a parent education plan—first surveying the parents at a professional development school and then working in teams to develop workshops for parents.

These real-life training and problem-solving experiences are invaluable for preservice teachers who often aren't prepared for the differences in their students' cultural backgrounds, economic conditions, and home environments—all of which can affect a student's adjustment to school and academic achievement. Says Morris, "Because many families' experiences with school haven't been good, it's the teacher's responsibility to reach out." But first they must learn how.


FINE Helps Educate the Teacher Educators

In an effort to encourage professors and instructors in Colleges of Education to incorporate family involvement training in their classes, the Harvard Family Research Project established the Family Involvement Network of Education (FINE). The goals of FINE are to

  • strengthen the visibility of promising family involvement courses and curricula,
  • exercise leadership in knowledge development and strategies to meet professional and state standards in family and community relations,
  • develop assessment methods for continuous innovation and improvement in family involvement training, and
  • create opportunities for families and schools to participate in instructional design and implementation of training programs,
For more information about FINE
or to join the network, visit its Web page at The Web page has resources useful for teacher educators, including teaching cases, research briefs, and bibliographies which may be downloaded.


Leslie Blair is a SEDL communications associate and editor of SEDLetter.

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