Building Bridges to FAMILY ENGAGEMENT


buildersIn schools today, the increasingly diverse student populations reflect the diversity of their families of origin, and it is imperative to recognize this ‘new normal’ and proceed accordingly. Cultural sensitivity  reminds us to be respectful of every family and every student’s unique background, values, and strengths. We must establish communication and encourage active involvement of families in all aspects of learning at their child’s school. We must foster authentic partnerships with families by reaching out to them in ways we may have never done before in education. In fact, we HAVE ever acknowledged the importance of family as it pertains to learning and student achievement. Families were incidental and were welcomed only upon invitation and manly at school scheduled times and events.

Little focus was placed on families who represent diversity, or whose lives were outside of the dominant culture in America. At the inception, learning and public education was designed for white middle class, stay at home mothers, and the parents for which the involvement framework of practices was adopted. Today, our society has undergone massive changes, and so must education.

Parent Coordinators now enter the picture, and schools are still reeling over these new professional educators and family engagement practitioners. The realities of certain groups of parents and families were never fully explored and considered in the framework of involvement at school. This recent awareness of the barriers and challenges faced by minority family systems has contributed to the PC presence in schools.

Many of the traditionally absent families are characterized by their living in the lower income, underserved and greatly marginalized communities. They are mostly people of color, black and brown, immigrants, and many had negative past experiences in school themselves. Some had little formal education, and perceived schools as expert and themselves unworthy to engage. Many worked, had younger children to care for at home, and transportation and child care concerns. These factors resulted in less than expected attendance in school conferences, and related activities.

There were cultural, language, racial, and socio-economic barriers. More important though, there was a HUGE barrier that can’t be quantified, but  influenced family involvement at school. This was implicit perception/bias- negative, narrowly constructed  views held by both school staff, and families. Both operated from mindsets that undermined parent involvement and student achievement. School staff assumed that parents were unconcerned about their child’s education and parents assumed that schools were unconcerned about them. Parents perceived schools negatively, though always held concern for their child’s achievement. However, they held the impression that they were talked down to, talked ‘at’ and not ‘with’ them, and only called or needed them when there was a problem.

Schools never considered these variables as reflective of their practice and perceptions, or the language they used with families. They seemed to take it for granted that ‘those parents didn’t care. Never mind that they wee speaking terminology and jargon not understood by parents. Never mind that they never explained or offered any positive feedback, tips, suggestions or encouragement in supporting their child and acting in concert with school. For many, certainly, ‘deja vu’ was in the forefront of their decision-making as they considered or when called to school. Who would want to go somewhere that you think you aren’t appreciated, not valued, respected, always given negative reports, and mainly talked at, and down to? Well, now that we know better, we should do better, right? Right! But, PC’s can’t do it alone. It is a collaborative effort, system-wide, school-wide effort, with changed mindsets, and inclusive, equitable, and transformative practices in education that should prevail. Hence, cultural competence is vital and anti- bias values must be taught and learned by all-teachers, administrators, and students, too. So, when everyone does their part, teachers can  help this along and bring anti-bias values to life by:

  • Building and drawing on intergroup awareness, understanding and skills;
  • Creating classroom environments that reflect diversity, equity and justice;
  • Engaging families and communities in ways that are meaningful and culturally competent;
  • Encouraging students to speak out against bias and injustice;
  • Including anti-bias curricula as part of larger individual, school and community action;
  • Supporting students’ identities and making it safe for them to fully be themselves; and
  • Using instructional strategies that support diverse learning styles and allow for deep exploration of anti-bias themes.

 

Support teacher-family relationships built on respect:

  • Assume good intentions, and approach all families as partners who want the best for their children.
  •  Invite parents or guardians to share knowledge about their students’ lives, interests, hopes and struggles.
  •  Invite parents or guardians to share information about family cultures and traditions.
  •  Recognize and respect differences in family structures.
  •  Recognize the role that identity and background may play in shaping relationships between teachers and families.
  • Bring a sense of self-reflectiveness and cultural humility to all conversations and interactions.
  • View linguistic, cultural and family diversity as strengths.

In addition to setting a tone of respect and inclusivity, strong communication with families also offers teachers an opportunity to invite family involvement and share curricular goals, materials and resources.

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