A Principal’s Reflection on Parent Engagement

“Having a relationship with parents is really important. Orr Elementary is stronger for that relationship. When we do things, we’re not doing something to someone—we’re working together to build. We’re not fixing parents, we’re learning with them.” – Principal Michelle Edwards

After nine years at Orr Elementary (DCPS) in Washington, D.C.’s historic Fairlawn neighborhood, principal Michelle Edwards has retired to forge a new path in her career. Three years ago, Mrs. Edwards invited the Tellin’ Stories Project of Teaching for Change to partner with Orr Elementary and develop a comprehensive family engagement program. She worked closely with Teaching for Change’s parent organizers and Orr’s staff, teachers, and parents to build a welcoming, inclusive school climate at Orr that supports student learning and meaningful parent engagement. Mrs. Edwards will truly be missed at Orr Elementary.

Teaching for Change sends its warmest congratulations and appreciation to Mrs. Edwards for her dedication to the students, staff, and families of Orr Elementary. As principal, Mrs. Edwards was a phenomenal partner in helping us a build a strong family engagement program using the Tellin’ Stories approach. In her last days at Orr, Mrs. Edwards shared her reflections on family engagement and the partnership with Teaching for Change.

On Parent Engagement

“Many more parents are actively engaged, they know what to do when they come visit, they’re very comfortable in classrooms, and teachers are comfortable with them.”

“In order to do parental engagement well you have to be vulnerable because you’re allowing them into your space. They have questions you have to answer. They’re not following blindly. But also they understand more because they’re here all the time and they see the culture of the school system.”

“In terms of parental engagement, we’ve done a real 180 degrees. We’ve always had parent workshops, but they were more for compliancy. Now we’re engaging parents to know what they need, before we do anything.”

On the Tellin’ Stories Project of Teaching for Change

“Teaching for Change helps parents know how to engage the principal in a more formal way, and that makes meetings more productive. The Tellin’ Stories approach challenges parents to ask questions so that they understand how a school runs, like with a budget, for example. That’s helped them understand larger community issues, within the school system and community at large, like school closings. That has been a really good thing.”


“I’m pleased to have worked with Teaching for Change. I really value what they were able to help bring out of Orr—what was already here. They didn’t force anything on Orr. I appreciated how they worked with parents to advocate for their kids, and not accept just anything.”

“Grade level dialogues remove the hierarchy between parents and teachers. That led to home visits. It’s been a great stepping-stone. Before it seemed like teachers would just talk at parents, whereas now parents sit down and have a conversation as equals.”

“Home visits showed teachers that everybody in Southeast is not poor. It changes their perception and attitude. Their students have families with two parents, their parents work, their homes have structure. It helps teachers appreciate what parents are doing at home.”

“The community walk helped too. Teachers gained a deeper appreciation for the community they serve. They’re not going in to save kids and fix the community—this community has culture, you’re going in to enhance, not save anything. The kids felt a sense of pride in their community, it was very positive. They saw, ‘this person has their own business,’ and ‘this other person went to Orr and they’re not Black.’ Just looking at their community this way will enhance them as people.”

On Creating a Positive Learning Environment

principal-edwards-3“It’s not just parents against the principal, which can happen if relationships aren’t built properly. Parents benefit greatly by having a person who knows strategy, protocols, and structure. Through our family engagement program, parents are exposed to other parents, other schools…. They’re learning about what it means to be parents, in terms of education for their child.”

“We have data to show that for active parents, their students are just doing better. There’s a different level of accountability.”

“The kids are learning and feeling like they’re important, like all these people here are working together to support them. They feel proud when their parents come in to support them, and they’re learning that being an active parent is important. They’re learning now what to do as parents. They’re able to hear our charge to parents about how well kids do when parents are involved. These are things they’ll remember as they grow.”

Advice for Others Undertaking This Work

principal-edwards-4“Find value in the community you serve. We’re always telling kids ‘you don’t have to stay here,’ but if they all leave that creates a hole. We have to talk about giving back. We have to be careful of what we’re saying—if the community’s bad, doesn’t that mean the people in the community are bad?”

“People have done the work, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Engage with organizations that have done the work. Figure out how important parental engagement is to you, because that will determine how you spend your money. If it’s really important to you, you’ll have a parent coordinator, because a lot will fall on the principal if not.”

“Doing research to find information about what works for parental engagement is very important. There are models, but try to figure out from your limited perspective and conversations with others what it is that your community needs. It depends on the context.”

“As principal, you have to forgive people. You have to move past things, and you have to be mature. Remember that you’re dealing with different people, different mindsets and cultures. But you have to get to know people to understand them.”