Principal of GEMS Millennium School, Sharjah, Teresa Varman explains how their engagement strategy has reaped benefits not only for students, but for the entire school community
Schools are about people. The better everyone strives to contribute, and the better each person works with their colleagues, the greater the school. When it comes to school improvement efforts, active families are just as important as the school leadership and teachers, a strong curriculum and a positive school climate. We recognise that our goals are only achievable through strong family-school partnerships, and building these relationships remains a priority.
In the context of family-school partnerships, we see parent involvement as distinct from parent engagement. Where parent involvement is in response to opportunities to participate in school activities and events, attendance at parent-teacher meetings, and supporting school initiatives, parent engagement is a two-way process where parents work with the school for the benefit of students.
The parent community at GEMS Millennium School, Sharjah is a wonderfully supportive group. They are engaged in every aspect of the school and we see this partnership as one of the greatest assets of the GMS community. We achieved this by making our parents feel welcome and valued. Our doors are always open and we believe this has in turn contributed to the sense of warmth and positivity you experience as you walk around the school.
The last year was one that was marked by many achievements and accolades, and the highest levels of student achievement in academics as well as in sports and cultural endeavours. This was made possible by the strong emotional connect that exists amongst the staff, students, parents and community, based on trust that has been built over time, and relationships that have been strengthened through open and transparent communication. We have provided families with information they could act upon,and attempted to personalise the channels of communication.
We have increased opportunities to immerse and empower parents in their children’s learning process and have celebrated this engagement. Giving parents the tools and resources to assist with schoolwork at home has been very well received. In the early years, we involve parents with a ‘Read With Me Programme’. Kindergarteners and students of Grades 1 and 2 have access to an online library of highly engaging, age-appropriate graded readers designed to build reading fluency, vocabulary, knowledge and interest in reading. While strong foundations in reading are being laid at school, we felt that students also need resources at home. Parents are now seeing the benefit of reading books together with their children, and it has made a significant impact on the children’s learning capability.
Digital tools have also helped to engage parents more deeply. Digital portfolios allow teachers and students to store work, making it accessible anytime. Feedback from teachers, parents and peers is possible in real time and progress made over time is clearly visible. Swivel recorded lessons have given parents a better understanding of the learning process, and regular webinars have equipped them to navigate academic challenges.
Building positive relationships with parents is a key aspect of teaching.
Effective parent-teacher communication is essential for a teacher to be successful. A good relationship between parents and a teacher is invaluable towards maximising the time that the teacher has with that student.
A student who knows that the teacher communicates with their parents on a regular basis and who knows that their parents trust the teacher will likely put more effort into school. Likewise, a student who knows that the teacher rarely communicates with their parents and/or that their parents do not trust the teacher will often pit the two against each other. That is counterproductive and will create problems for everyone.
Engaging families goes well beyond sending out emails, newsletters and updates via social media. As part of our engagement strategy, we made improved efforts to interact with families face-to-face. Parents and students are included on panels to review existing policies and practices, design webinars and workshops, judge competitions and put together the school’s annual planner. They help to arrange for chief guests, judges and speakers for all school functions and readily lend help with rehearsals, scripting and even in training students.
All in all, we have consciously created more opportunities to give our families a greater sense of engagement. They have been our strongest advocates and most constructive critics. The more parents engage with the school and the more they invest of themselves, the stronger their sense of belonging. As we continue to demonstrate our care and concern for the success of our students, and the pride we have as a school in the local community, we believe that we will be able to further consolidate our relationships with families to the benefit of our school as a whole.”