01/25/2012 10:32 am ET Updated Mar 26, 2012

Beyond Damage Control: Equipping Parents With Real Tools to Support Their Children in Mexico

I remember parent-teacher conferences at the school in East Harlem, New York where I worked as a sixth and seventh grade teacher for two years. In fact, they weren't "parent-teacher" conferences in the traditional sense. They were "student led" conferences, meaning, the onus was on the students to walk their parents through the work they completed during the term, explaining their highs and lows and their goals for the coming term. For me, these conferences were always a little bittersweet.

Students who had been successful during the term eagerly flipped through their portfolios, pointing out all of their good grades. The students who hadn't -- and despite our best efforts working as sixth and seventh grade teams, there were several of these -- would mope through their conferences, many of them shedding tears before they were done.

The parents of the students in the second category often asked how they could support their children. Together with the child and parent, we as teachers would design checklists, action plans, and follow-up strategies. We would start off following these plans to the letter, but within several weeks everyone's motivation would fade. Any number of excuses can attempt to explain this unfortunate lapse, but I think above all, our school team didn't know how to motivate parents to get involved in the classroom in sustained ways. We had a functioning Parent's Association, invited parents to school shows and isolated workshops about various topics, but teachers used parents mostly for triage.

What we needed was for our parents to have real tools in their toolboxes to help their children at home. But I've read a lot about strategies that in attempting to provide these tools come off as condescending. When programs are managed poorly, parents may react viscerally: why are you teaching me how to raise my child? While of course, there are many reasons why parents do not participate in the classroom -- chief among them is that many work long hours and can't drop in during the school day -- some may not involve themselves in the academic work of their children because they themselves didn't have great experiences at school. That sentiment has to be repaired before any other work can be done.

I found some schools working to welcome parents into the school community and to equip them with academic tools in an unlikely place. At the beginning of January as an aide with the communications team of a Mexican Ministry of Education program called the Integral Strategy for the Improvement of Academic Achievement (EIMLE, for its acronym in Spanish), I stopped in to an elementary school pegged to a mountain in San Juan de Enramadas, a town in rural Querétaro, central Mexico. We were greeted by a couple dozen eager and energetic children ranging in age from six to 12 in periwinkle uniforms.

We discovered that these students learned together in the same classroom with just one teacher attending to all of them. The teacher, Leticia Martínez García, told us in Spanish, "I am the director of this school and the teacher, with all of the responsibilities both entail" (my translation). For this, she needs parents to get involved. She needs all hands on deck.

We asked her how she is able to work with students in all of the various grades simultaneously. She said she introduces themes to the whole class, and then provides students with projects that touch on those themes at various levels. Two days per week, she works with a strategy called tutoring relationships or relación tutora -- a methodology being promoted by EIMLE. She tutors a few students in the class in certain math problem or Spanish text by asking questions, giving examples, and promoting investigation. Once students have mastered those problems or texts, they serve as tutors for others in the room. The excitement in the classroom when the students worked in this way was palpable: even the most fidgety worked intently all the way to lunchtime.

But for Martínez, mobilizing the students in the room is not enough. For this, each afternoon after the official school day ends she has started to employ the same tutoring relationship method with the parents in the community, who have begun to serve as tutors in her classroom too. I didn't get to see Martínez tutor parents during our visit, but I did watch José Leal Correa, a school supervisor who visits schools in the area from time to time to coach teachers in the tutoring methodology. He was working with a mother and a father to find the area of an irregular shape. Whenever one of the tutees would offer an idea, Leal would push them to explain their reasoning with questions like: "How do you know?" and "Where did that answer come from?"

I spoke to these parents after their session with Leal. It was the first time either of them had been tutored, but they were quite open and receptive to the methodology. "I like this way of working because we've worked in a group," the father, Leopoldo Gaspar, said. "They haven't told us, 'do this' or 'do that.' We have been working almost individually to assimilate the content for ourselves, and in that way, we advance together on the problem."

The mother, Marcela Gaspar Benítez was already percolating with ideas about how she might apply at home what she learned during her session with Leal: "Now when my daughter asks me a question, I will know what to say. And if she doesn't understand something, I won't give her the answer, kind of like what we are doing now. I will orient her to help her push forward."

The tutoring methodology has opened a window between the school and community. Those parents who participate directly as tutors are brought into an academic community in a non-condescending way. They are guided to learn content for themselves and then are entrusted with the responsibility to share the knowledge with others. At some schools working with this government program, parents don't just transmit academic subjects that they have been tutored in. They also tutor content they create, including subjects related to cooking, handicrafts, and traditional games.

In the dusty rural town of Emiliano Zapata in Zacatecas, Mexico, some parents I spoke to said it was only since advisers came to work with teachers and students in the new tutoring methodology last year that the parents in the community started to support the secondary school that their children attended. As part of the tutoring methodology, students stand up in front of the room once they have completed learning a certain text or problem with their tutor and give an oral presentation discussing the material and how they learned it. One of the mothers, Luz Viridiana Velázquez, told me:

We heard that the students were going to present some work. 'Oh,' we said, 'better we don't go. We know how that's going to be.' But later, we were talking to a few of the parents that did go, we asked them 'how were the presentations,' and they told us 'we were really excited, and it really got our attention', so that for the second set of presentations, we all went. It's that they are learning new things that we don't know, advanced things... I myself had studied in this school. I thought 'I know these things.' But one time when I came for the presentations, I was very impressed by all of the things the students knew and their confidence. I believe that despite their age, they know more than even their parents.

Parents who at one moment didn't even want to set foot in the school to watch their children give oral presentations now do what they can to support the school: They paint the building, sweep the floors, and cook for students and visitors. The parents who participate in these auxiliary, non-academic ways do so because they have seen their children working in tutoring relationships and have evidence that it has caused them to think and act differently.

Parents in communities that have adopted the tutoring relationships as a new way of teaching and learning now believe school can help their children get somewhere.

It turns out that belief can be an effective motivator.