We are family…

Dr Linda Rush, Senior Vice President, TELLAL Institute, shares the latest on the roll-out of a Quality Assurance Programme for improved communications across GEMS schools

As we know the very best student learning experience is gained through knowing the child and family better. In light of this, GEMS has made a conscious decision to engage its senior leaders and teachers in considering further how they not only improve their communications with parents, (i.e. doing things better) but, to be more expansive and creative in their
ways of communicating (i.e. doing better things).

In setting up the programme Chairman, Sunny Varkey invited school principals, accompanied by their senior leadership team, to his home for a series of open conversations about his continuing desire to make parents feel happy, engaged and empowered in their child’s education. Integral to this is his belief that frequent and consistent engagement between the teacher and parent is essential. The Chairman’s intention is to re-commit GEMS as an organisation to the centrality of the parent-child-teacher relationship. His belief chimes with the African proverb: ‘It takes a village to raise a child’, meaning that an entire community of people must interact with children for them to experience and grow in a safe and healthy environment.

This GEMS wide statement of intent is intended to stimulate and support individual schools, adding to and developing their own local framework for ensuring high quality teacher-parent communications. We know that such relationships are rooted in trust and parents having confidence that their voice and experiences are respected and heard. As such, GEMS is committed to supporting schools to develop their own response(s) to and ways of working, which understands and respects the needs of their parents and children.

The story so far

During May last year, the GEMS Quality Assurance Programme for teacher-parent communications was piloted involving 12 GEMS schools. By the end of November, all schools had begun their recommitment to the centrality of the parent-child-teacher relationship. Fundamental to this recommitment has been the consideration of why? Why are we doing this? As one senior colleague in GEMS stated: “…a fundamental point here is that excellent teacher-parent communications leads to improved student learning outcomes in the classroom. And those improved student learning outcomes are directly related to enhanced teacher-parent engagement.”

In conversation with parents, the importance of communication in any relationship has been highlighted and that it be two way: “Unless the teacher doesn’t tell me or I don’t tell the teacher; the development will not happen.” Another parent has raised the importance of knowing: “You can’t work together unless you know what’s going on. So, it’s crucial that the communication lines remain open. And the children benefit from it for sure.” Similarly, another parent said: “It’s very important for us to know what is going on in school because your child might be having a tough time in certain subjects, or maybe they’re excelling in something else. If you know where they stand, it’s easier for you to support them at home.”

Fitness for purpose is what’s required when communicating effectively with parents. As one parent said: “I come up to pick up my younger one as well as the elder one, but with the younger one I pick her up from the class. So, it’s almost all face-to-face interaction. But we do have email conversations too. With the older one, we basically do it through emails. If the email is not satisfying then I will request an appointment…the younger one is still dependent on me; the umbilical cord is still attached. So, that is why I am more in touch directly with the KG teacher.”

Open lines of communication and the ability to reach out to teachers, or indeed, any staff member is really important for parents. Also, “being quick to respond to any queries and any concerns that the parents have.”
The role of collaboration, growing children together as part of parent engagement, was viewed by another senior GEMS colleague as being fundamental: “We grow children together with parents. And, the child themselves. Those relationships, the understandings of those roles and how they overlap and support each other are really important. For us to understand that we have to have effective communication between and among those three parties is crucial. And the interesting thing is that it’s not the same for everybody. It depends on the age of the child, it depends on the circumstances of the home, depends on what the issues are, what the family is going through at that time. So, you cannot have one formula that fits them all.”

In considering the ways in which teacher-parent communications can be improved, one GEMS principal explained: “We’ve done a number of surveys around how parents want to receive school information. What came through clearly is when they get their information directly from the teacher, they pay more attention than to what I send out as a principal, because they feel it is relevant to them.” It was also interesting to note what success might look and feel like by another GEMS principal who stated: “I think it’s really important that our messaging is clear and that what we deliver meets the needs of our families. And through this programme, we have a really strong opportunity to make sure that all of the components connect positively to that journey.”

“We used target-setting meetings at the beginning of the year for every child at GEMS FirstPoint School, as a way of starting the discussions around working together in the best interests of every child. These were very well received by parents and emphasised the shared goals we have for every young person. This shared vision and mutual understanding has added to the support we are collectively able to provide to students.”
Matthew Tompkins, Principal

What’s been achieved?

There has been a very positive response overall, with all the pilot schools reporting that 100 per cent of their staff have gone through the training. The role of ‘Teacher Ambassadors’ is also being promoted with the intention of modeling best practices. GEMS, through its training arm, the TELLAL Institute, has developed an online module that hones in on particular competencies associated with quality teacher-parent communications. It is seeking to credential this learning so that it has value as part of a teachers’ career advancement.

As part of follow-up discussions with schools, some fascinating insights are already being gleaned into how we bridge the gap between what was and should be. One of the values of the initiative is that it is foregrounding in a way that can be shared across all schools, what we are doing so that different approaches can be shared and picked up by schools in a way that reflects their particular needs.

“At GEMS National School for Girls, the QAP has given the school really useful feedback that we can respond to quickly due to the useful Pulse technology platform. This means that parents feel listened to and that their opinions and views are important…As SLT, we can monitor the noteworthy communications teachers are having with parents and offer support where necessary.” Christine Woods, Strategic Lead on Teacher-Parent communications

What next?

Last November, Vishal Bhatia was appointed Programme Manager for the Teacher-Parent Communications Quality Assurance Programme. A core part of his role is to support schools as they develop and embed the changes into everyday practice. As part of this, Vishal is tasked with promoting the exchange of ideas and practice across the network of schools with the intent of encouraging innovative approaches, which will sustain the confidence of parents in the work we are all doing.

Vishal: “The children are at the centre of the Quality Assurance Programme with parents and teachers playing crucial roles. It is through this two-way sustained communication that we are able to build a comprehensive profile of each child as they move forward in their GEMS journey. This allows teachers to provide the best education for that child, maximising his/her progress whilst simultaneously fostering collaboration.”