The existing definitions of family engagement in education encompass and emphasize the importance of school staff to support students in multiple ways. To best accomplish this, staff must build an awareness of how their beliefs and assumptions about family and community engagement influence their interactions with families and ultimately, their children-the students. The school community’s demographics can provide valuable information about what may best support both student growth and family engagement.
It is helpful for educators to ask themselves some guiding questions, individually and collectively, to increase the positive effects of their work with families.
One such question might be:
If I had a child in school, what specific information would I want to know and hear from teachers at the beginning of the school year?
How and when would I want to be first approached with a problem?
In answering these questions as teachers engage or interact with families, it is important that information be provided to families in lieu of the multi-cultural presence in most schools. Sensitivity to cultural differences or diversity helps to prevent or exacerbate any barriers or roadblocks to partnerships or involvement of parents at school.
Educators’ beliefs are critical to their success in working with families. Most parents, even multi-culturally speaking, will usually wait for some sort of guidance from teachers at school before interacting with them, and the families’ beliefs will influence how they interact with educators. If an educator believes that a family will do little to support academics at home, then they will usually hold lower expectations of the child/student. An unfair and harmful assumption or an ‘immaculate perception’! Such family’s involvement with the educators at school will likely be minimal, thus missing important reciprocal supports each provides the other.
If an educator, on the other hand, believes that a parent is the child’s first teacher, and therefore inherently supports learning at home, the family is likely to be more responsive to interacting with teachers at school. Educators are in a powerful position to shape and influence the nature of family and community engagement at school. Therefore, they must reflect inward first when engagement does not occur, for the problem often lies in the communication framed by the cultural lens!
One’s own cultural background influences how one communicates and views others’ communication. People view the world through the lens of culture―a system of beliefs, customs, and behaviors that are filtered through our experiences. It is important for educators to understand that their cultural lens may differ from the cultural lens of families in the school community and to recognize that those lenses are equally valuable. Educators can and must effectively interact with families and community members from differing backgrounds and build relationships that support effective partnerships and student achievement.
Understanding cultural norms and beliefs can overcome challenges in interactions between people with different backgrounds.
Individualism and Collectivism are two contrasting value systems that influence communication, learning, and family or community engagement in schools. Individualism focuses on the needs of the individual. Individualistic cultures foster and promotes independence, individual achievement, self-expression, individual thinking and personal choice. In collectivist cultures, one determines his or her identity largely through interactions of the community. Collectivist cultures foster interdependence, group success, adherence to norms, respect for authority, and group consensus.
As contrasting systems, these two terms are not meant to stereotype cultural behavior, but to provide insights on how contrasting values can make a difference in parenting, school and classroom practices. No culture or society can be characterized as entirely one or the other and even within a particular ethnic group people are diverse and reflect differing values depending on their own unique experiences. Schools normally reflect the predominant culture of society, which can lead to challenges when educators interact with people whose backgrounds differ from their own. Whether the school reflects a collectivist or individualist cultural lens, educators benefit from having knowledge and sensitivity for the other, AND respects and values the cultural, familial and individual differences as valid.
Developing cultural competence/proficiency helps educators ensure families have successful experiences with schools and the education system. One of the most valuable skills educators can have is cultural competence: the ability to work across cultures in a way that acknowledges and respects each culture. To work toward cultural competence, we must look within for a deeper understanding of ourselves, our cultural lens and the culture of the people we serve. We must also act on that knowledge, turning our understanding into more effective programs, services and meaningful alliances with families. This is particularly salient when our commonly shared and chief interest is the comprehensive development and total wellness of all children.
When school staff understands and honors the attitudes, values, norms, and beliefs of a culture, they are using a cultural lens that goes beyond the superficial aspects of that culture, such as major holidays, manner of dress, foods specific to the culture, and family customs. Understanding and honoring a culture extends to paying attention to how culture might impact teaching and learning, social interactions within the class, and cultural values that respect learning by observing. Build capacity for engaging with diverse cultures and build competencies needed to effect optimal outcomes in learning and engagement.
Have a productive school year and do supplement instruction with content-area resources that present more realistic and multi-culturally-infused materials and [historical] references!
Food for thought:
How can we ensure a child’s future will be bright and successful when kept ignorant of their culturally rich past?