Three Things Working Parents Want Schools to Know

Labor Day has passed and summer is officially over. Parents everywhere are breathing a collective sigh of relief that school supplies have been delivered, alarm clocks are set, and families will once again be on a semi-regular Monday-Friday schedule for the next 9 months. For parents who work outside the home, however, it also means second shifts are kicking in. Mine started at 5 p.m. last night with a volleyball team parents’ meeting and a sandwich book report.

My family is like 58% of families, where both parents work outside the home. My husband and I are blessed with two middle-school-age kids in grades 5 and 8 who also happen to attend different schools. Double the pleasure; double the fun! We have learned a lot over the years about planning for school half-days, teacher conferences and science fair projects. That said, we are always working to squeeze as much family bonding as possible between 5-9 p.m. while also getting homework done, cooking and eating dinner, schlepping kids to and from sports practices, and making final preparations for tomorrow’s 8 a.m. client meetings.

When working friends share those “First Day of Kindergarten” pictures – and who doesn’t think those fresh little faces are ADORABLE – I carefully pull them aside to gut-check expectations. My standard counsel is do not expect your child’s school to operate like work; schools  don’t operate as efficiently or do things as quickly as the corporate world. I am not giving schools a pass here; they have unique cultures and environments that have developed from an education model that has been around for a long time. However, there are many things schools can do better. On behalf of my working parent friends and colleagues, below are some topics for discussion at the first faculty meeting of the year:

  • “C” is for Calendar – as in “I am a slave to mine.” Most working parents I know live and die by their calendars. If it is not in the calendar, it doesn’t get done, and that goes for appointments, work deadlines and scheduling personal time. Schools can show respect and understanding that (all) parents’ time is valuable and limited by planning ahead. Working parents need more than 24 hours notice to find a red t-shirt for spirit day, buy a flower for the teacher’s birthday bouquet or bake buy brownies for the bake sale. Yes, these are great programs and lots of fun, and the kids love them, but working parents are collapsing under a gazillion little requests that keeping getting added to their to do list.

IDEA: One school I know holds master calendar meetings every other week, where all the groups in the school (PTA, Athletics, Student Clubs, etc.) come together to review and plan the school calendar 12-18 months out. Spirit Day 2014? It is already scheduled. The same school only allows late additions or changes to the calendar with approval from the top administrator. In other words, you have to jump through some serious hoops to change your plans at the last minute! By putting so much emphasis on its calendar process, this school is reinforcing its commitment to planning ahead – for everyone’s sanity!

  • “C” is also for Communicate – as in “just tell me what I need to know.” E-mail has done much to change the speed with which schools communicate with their communities. Just like in the corporate world, information can be pushed out quickly to very large audiences. Also like the corporate world, school e-mail has gotten out of control, to the detriment of a school’s communication strategy. It is just too darn easy to send an e-mail blast and assume “message delivered and understood.” Also, just because you can send information in an e-mail doesn’t always mean you should. In some cases, e-mail undermines student accountability and the teacher-student-parent relationship.

IDEA: My daughter’s school requires that parents sign every test, regardless of the grade. How old school! I love this approach, however, because I learn about the good grades as well as the not-so-good grades. The simple act of putting her tests in front of me has helped my daughter take accountability for her work and encourages me to recognize her accomplishments when she does really well. It also provides a reason for us to have regular conversations about her understanding of the topics she is studying. The automated e-mails that inform me when she get a grade below 75? They just give me the number and do nothing to help me know whether she failed the bread, lettuce or tomato paragraph of her sandwich report.

  • Can we talk about the “H” word? Homework sucks has some seriously negative impacts on families. Granted, it also has many positive impacts on children’s ability to understand important concepts and retain knowledge. Take a lesson from parents here on the concept of trade-offs. Parents everywhere (regardless of work status) have been making trade-offs since those little people came into our lives. It is time for schools to re-visit the trade-offs made in the name of homework and whether they still provide value. For example, helping my son with his social studies report is not quality family time. It is homework.

IDEA: I know of one school that holds a weekly Family Night, where the entire school commits to a schedule-free evening. No homework. No sports events or club meetings. No tests the next day. Their message for Family Night is simple: “You have told us you want more time together as a family and we support you. We encourage you to have dinner together, take part in an activity together and enjoy each other’s company, so we are removing the barriers within our control to allow you to do so.” Wow. Family Night is this school’s way of not only acknowledging that families today are time-starved, but also actively working to support parents be better at… well, at being parents.

I have often thought that the school that “gets it right” in supporting families and working parents will differentiate itself in an increasingly competitive environment (hello charter schools, suburban districts and vouchers!). My gut instinct is that these schools would have better students (higher test scores, better retention rates, etc.) and happier, more productive working parents. If anyone knows of any data to support or refute this, please pass it along. I’ve got at least 8 more years to worry about this stuff.

Heather Nelson is a partner with PeopleResults. Sometimes she thinks she would love to work in a school, and then she realizes that teachers and school administrators don’t really get 3 months off each year. You can reach her at or on Twitter at @HeatherGNelson1. Sign up to receive the PeopleResults blog at Current.