When parents are involved: What we saw in a Chennai government school

How can parental ownership and involvement be improved in schools? What are the steps educators can take to involve parents actively?

Shilpa, a fellow educator, and I have been teaching at an under-resourced government school in Thyagaraya Nagar for the past two years. We started in August 2020, during the first wave of the pandemic. The students we teach are first generation learners from an urban slum community in Thyagaraya Nagar, and their parents are daily wage workers, house help and roadside vendors. One of the things we noticed was that there is hardly any parental involvement in the child’s educational journey. The only time parents are called in is to hand over documents, sign applications, or for one-way parent-teacher meetings, where the child is reprimanded by both parent and teacher.

Currently, we teach 7th and 8th graders and follow an adaptable model of teaching whereby classes are held online, offline or partially online in response to uncertainties caused by frequent lockdowns. In the past three months, we have had in-person classes, which have allowed for maximum access and continuity.

A frequent line we hear from parents is: “Naanga padachathillai, naanga enna solla mudiyum. (we aren’t educated ourselves, what can we even say). Ellam unga kaiyile irruku, Miss (Everything is in your hands, Miss).” 

From our experiences it became clear that a variety of factors prevent parents from feeling empowered and being actively engaged when it comes to their child’s education. In order to understand this further, we spoke to parents, the school management and teachers on these issues and even tried to carve out spaces for increased parental involvement. 

Read More: Teaching during the pandemic: Experiences, challenges and the way ahead

Interactions with parents: online vs offline

Due to the largely virtual nature of teaching during lockdowns, we interacted extensively during our teaching journey with the parents.

When we started interacting with parents during the pandemic, they gained a completely new level of access to children’s learning. Even though they were not welcomed inside the school earlier, we were able to welcome them to our online class and have them observe or create activities that involve them.

Parental ownership became extremely important in the learning process at this time. Without peers or teachers to motivate, push and assist them, parents became primary players in creating their schedules and monitoring their progress.

Once in-person schools reopened, we found this harder to do. We felt a stark difference because of how the parents almost became invisibilized and we hardly interacted with them.  

The parents work long hours and barely have time to see their children, let alone be a part of their educational journey. It became clear that their duty and involvement ended with dropping the children off at the school gate. They hand off responsibility to the teacher and the school, because they either feel they have inadequate skills or they do not realize how much their effort or voice matters. 

They also seemed to be very hesitant to provide their inputs. One of the reasons for this hesitation could be that English as a medium of instruction makes the content feel inaccessible to them. This was present during our online classes as well; however, due to our increased engagement with parents in monitoring the child’s work during virtual classes, we felt we could be more hands on in bridging this gap.

The school management and teachers are also quite averse to the idea of increased parental involvement. This was evident in how teachers responded to our efforts to increase parent inputs with apprehension. Few teachers even mentioned how they didn’t believe that parents could provide any value apart from providing permissions and signing documents.

Role of SMCs in increasing parental involvement

During our research, we were exposed to literature and testimonies on successful projects which set up School Management Committees (SMCs) in other states.

An SMC is a committee tasked with overseeing the quality of education and the financial management of the school, as per the Right to Education Act. RTE mandates that 75% of SMCs are to be composed of parent representatives. The SMC is therefore an important structure for increasing parent involvement and ownership in their child’s education. 

Several studies undertaken in the past decade of the RTE’s implementation have painted a dismal picture of SMCs, year after year. According to the Unified District Information System for Education’s (UDISE) statistics, nearly 97% of all government schools in India have an SMC in place. However, these studies also point to the defunctness and limited operations of these SMCs country-wide. Thus while helpful institutional frameworks are available, the implementation is shoddy and hollow.

There has been a recent push to reconstitute and revitalise SMCs in government schools of Tamil Nadu. The school education department, in April 2022, released new guidelines on how SMCs are to function. For one, the 20-member committee will be headed by a female parent, while the vice-president will be the parent of a child with disability. The status of this revitalization is unknown as the guidelines were only recently released. 

In the case of our school, prior to this push, the SMC did not exist beyond a list of names of parents, noted down in a register. There were no meetings with parents, election ceremonies, or even awareness programs to highlight what an SMCs is. Once the new guidelines were released, an orientation was held and the SMC was reconstituted. How it functions and whether it is effective can only be determined with time.  

Even when the occasional parent teacher conferences were held, they were held on weekday mornings. Many parents had to take pay cuts in order to be able to attend these meetings. 

Institutional frameworks which aim to  work against the intimidating nature of a school, seem to be poorly implemented.

Read More: As colleges embrace virtual education, how are professors and students coping?

Efforts to increase sense of ownership

Though reforms at the school-level seemed beyond our control, we attempted to increase the sense of ownership among parents of the children we teach. When we talk of ‘ownership’, we want parents to play an active role in providing support, sharing opinions and feedback about the classroom and school. They should also feel a sense of responsibility for the progress the child is making.

Creating avenues for parents to come inside the classroom and contribute ideas seemed like a good first step.

One idea for classroom involvement was sharing circles. This is where students’ parents and other family members came in and took sessions for students on diverse topics they possess knowledge in such as craft, making pickles, and more. We connected these sessions to the syllabus, thus allowing for parents to be a part of the classroom space and curriculum.

chennai school sharing circle
A craft session held by a parent. Pic: Gopika Kumaran

Initially, it took some effort to encourage the parents to show up as being invited into the classroom for such a session was a new concept. We worked around their schedules of parents who were away at work by including them during weekends.

Some outspoken parents who were waiting for an avenue to express themselves, jumped at the opportunity. Once they realised we valued their feedback, they started becoming more comfortable, even with critiquing us or offering suggestions. One such suggestion was to share student progress through verbal conversation in addition to written reports, thereby making it accessible to parents who cannot read or write.

As we explored this problem more, we realised that in our student’s community, they often live in large extended families and have other caretakers in the absence of working parents. So just limiting our concept of ‘ownership’ to parents wouldn’t have helped. The next step, therefore, was to broaden our scope to involve other family members, including the people who spend most time with the students at home and outside of school. Thus, we were able to bring in older brothers and grandmothers to take part in skill sharing sessions with the students.

At a school-wide level, the management was initially sceptical about having parents give feedback on facilities and activities. Eventually, because of the recent state push, they moved into rapid action to reconstitute a working SMC. In fact, one of the parents we worked with was voted the head of the SMC.  

These were some of the ideas parents proposed when asked about how they could increase their involvement:

  • Casual conversations on what happened at school
  • Check in on their homework
  • Just watch them while they study (being under supervision might hold students more accountable), even if unable to help with the content
  • In the school, they volunteered to assist outside the gate when students were leaving, to reduce scuffles and stop kids from rambling, instead of going straight home

Parental involvement helps educators

It is not easy for parents, especially from low income communities, to skip a day’s work and participate in school activities. It is also difficult for them to feel confident enough to comment on classroom activities, or understand the content of the child’s syllabus. This is where structures must be put in place and conversations must be had to empower parents to take this ownership. 

Parental inputs will also help educators like us create more relevant content and activities for their children. For example, the mother of one of our students, Laya, happened to mention her famous lime pickles in a conversation. We were able to connect that and dosa batter-making process to fermentation and pickling when we were teaching the students a chapter on microorganisms. We also had her bring some to school for a taste as well.

It is also important to ensure that the student does not think learning or education is confined to merely the classroom or school. It’s easy for this to happen because many of the children here have bigger tasks or problems to deal with once they return home, such as household chores, electricity/water problems or even domestic violence. Getting the parent to be more invested in the student’s education also creates some space for learning at home.

In many instances, the definition of ‘parental contribution’ is so narrow; it doesn’t look at responsibility and ownership. When we open it up and include parents in discussions of how they can participate, new solutions like the ones we have witnessed emerge. 

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