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Opinion: interrupting the Big Bad Wolf of parent engagement

Many children are very familiar with fairytales, songs and games in which the Big Bad Wolf is a character. Whether it is the song Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf, the fairytales The Three Little Pigs and Little Red Riding Hood, or the game What Time is it Mr Wolf?, children know all too well that the wolf is a villain, ready to strike fear in the hearts of his victims or even to eat them alive!

When I facilitate sessions on parent engagement, I find that both educators and parents also frequently carry inside them a fairytale in which a big bad wolf features prominently. For teachers, they perceive the wolf to be a parent who may find fault with their teaching, who may see them do or say the wrong thing, who may question their knowledge of their child or the subject matter they are teaching. Like the three little pigs, these educators are afraid and so they keep their doors closed tight and work hard to keep parents on the outside.

For parents, they perceive the wolf to be an educator who may find fault with their parenting, who may see them do or say the wrong thing, who may question whether they know enough or are doing enough to support their child. Like the players in What Time is it Mr Wolf?, these parents keep their distance, sometimes not attending class functions or keeping silent in order to protect their children and themselves. Because both educators and parents perceive the other as one who holds power over them, they typically do not realise that, in these instances, the fear is mutual and that each is afraid of the other.

To begin our work in parent engagement, then, it is important that we make visible this fairytale being lived in educational institutions, by openly discussing our fears, by risking being vulnerable with one another, by examining our experiences, and by consciously unpacking the beliefs and assumptions that perpetuate the big bad wolf plotline in the first place. Such a process is a form of interruption. An interruption puts something in the place of what came before, as in, ‘We interrupt our programming for an important message’. As educators, in the work we do with parent engagement, we can create deliberate interruptions:

  • We can avoid listening to or telling ‘stories of families’ (stories, often judgmental, told by outsiders about a family) and instead invite ‘family stories’ (stories families tell of themselves).
  • We can substitute Meet the Educator Night, where the focus is on educators and curriculum, with Meet the Family events where we learn with and from families.
  • We can make home visits to families, meeting on their terms and in their space, instead of requesting they meet with us.
  • We can attend student, family, community and cultural events where families are the knowers and the insiders and we are the learners and the less knowing.

Each time we break in on our taken-for-granted practices in educational institutions, putting something new in their place, such as in the examples above, we interrupt the well-known and well-rehearsed fairytale that keeps parents and educators wary or fearful of, and separate from, one another. It is only through authentic and purposeful time and contact with one another that parents and educators develop trusting relationships. From there, a new educational story can be written, in which educators and parents share decision-making about children, teaching, and learning.

Debbie Pushor is a professor in the department of curriculum studies at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada. She will be speaking at the Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth (ARACY)’s upcoming Parent Engagement Conference.

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