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Thursday / June 21

Asking the Right Questions to Engage Parents and Students

It’s been a great start to the year! My daughter came home the first day and said, “Mom, I think school should be longer every day.” Now, that’s either a sign that summer break was a terrible experience; or, that she is excited to kick off the year with her teacher. In either case, I’m just as excited to start the year.

One of the first assignments we received as parents was to complete “the questionnaire.” It is an excellent tool that teachers can use to get a sense for parent involvement, home life, and the student. When I presented this assignment to my partner, he was filled with memories of the last five years of questionnaires and responded with something like: “Why bother, I don’t think they use that data anyway…” (Not surprising coming from the statistician in the house!)  But after reading this year’s questions, it seemed to me that this data would most definitely be used. The questions were intentional, thoughtful, and not just a copy paste from some “best of” site. So, together, my partner and I worked through each question in detail.

The two questions that were the most striking to me were:

  1. Describe for me your own school experience. Where did you succeed and struggle?
  2. What were your own strengths when learning to read and write?

Huh? What? I thought this survey was about my daughter, not about me! I took a pause before responding and not because I wanted to; I needed to pause. I was forced to really think back to what it was like being a student myself. More than that, it was a moment of insight when I consider how my child is doing as a student. I was reminded of her most recent report card that suggested while she was doing fine grasping new concepts, she was, perhaps, more focused on the social side of school (this might have been a common theme from pre-school onwards, but who’s keeping score?). Needless to say, when I took my moment to reflect I remembered some vivid moments from second grade that earned me a nearly identical remark on my report card: “Elise is a capable student…Is talkative and distracts others.”

Hmmm….with just ONE question I was able to remind myself, as a parent, what it was like to be a student, as well as give insights to my daughter’s teacher on where she might just struggle. Questions like this are a gift that pushes people beyond their current capabilities. It is an invitation to Stop – Think – then, Respond, enabling each side to gain insight. My personal insight (that my daughter is a lot like I was) gives me pause to think about how I choose to engage her and react to future report cards. Her teacher gets the added benefit of not having to wait for the talkativeness to become a distraction; rather, now she has the possibility to manage it effectively to support learning!

Then the next question – what were my own struggles with reading and writing? – wow, did it take me down a notch. Here I was, a parent acutely aware that my child wasn’t in the highest reading group and just how influential that might be to my child’s future success (or so it seems); not to mention, most of her sentences consisted of 3-5 words, tops. This concerned me as a parent, wondering how it would impact her success in life. What I had forgotten was that I generally wasn’t in the top reading group, nor was I writing insightful essays in the third grade. Quite frankly, my perceived lack of writing skills was a big part of what pushed me into a technical field (equations were much easier for me).

Regardless, taking the step back reminded me that reading and writing never came naturally to me, but when the content excited me, I was unstoppable. Those were the few times I found myself squirreled away in my room on a beautiful day lost in a book. And, this is still true to this day (my best experiences reading and writing happen when the topic stirs up passion and enthusiasm). What I take away from this is how important it is for me to create an environment where my daughter can explore varied content; pay attention to what excites her; and interject as much of that as possible. With the flexibility, at home, to choose from limitless possibilities, it is my job to do that and recognize that sometimes the same flexibility to find content that excites my child doesn’t exist in the classroom. Because my daughter’s teacher asked questions like this, I have the confidence that her teacher is going to do everything she can to put interesting topics in her hands, as well as stretch her beyond what she currently sees as interesting and exciting content.

As you gear up for the school year, what questions might you ask that will invite your students, colleagues, and parents to Stop – Think – then Respond? Crafting questions like this is the fundamental skill of Multiplier leaders and it is one of those “use it or lose it” kinds of skills. If you’re feeling a bit rusty with regard to your question-asking muscle, you might check out a recent article by my colleague Alyssa Gallagher and me. If you want to go even deeper, you can’t go wrong reading A More Beautiful Question by Warren Berger or Make Just One Change by Dan Rothestein and Luz Santana. Then, try your hand at interjecting new, provocative questions in your next parent-teacher conference, IEP meeting, or PTA meeting. How might asking these types of questions influence the course of the school year and create possibilities for students (and parents) that they never imagined?

P.S. for what it’s worth, I vividly remember the teacher comments about my talkativeness; rarely did I consider myself a capable student. And having had this experience with “the questionnaire” causes me to wonder why I remember the “talkative” and not the “capable.”

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Written by

Elise Foster, co-author of The Multiplier Effect and Multipliers Master Practitioner, is a leadership coach who enables leaders to unlock the full potential of their people. She brings her systems engineering mindset to bear as she invites leaders to bring out the best in everyone around them.

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