In my first year teaching public school, I taught middle school as a Special Education teacher at an ‘urban’ school. By urban, of course that means a school with predominantly black and brown children, many of whom may live at or near poverty. Before I focus on the real subject, I just am curious about those families of color who do not live in poverty. Where are their children attending school? Almost certainly, not in the same community schools as the less advantaged children. Why ask and what does this have to do with family engagement?
In white middle class school communities, establishing partnerships is ‘easiest’ and most authentically sincere between schools and parents. It is not that they care more or are more concerned about their children’s success at school than African-American parents, for example. The primary reason is that they are more closely matched with school staff. That’s it! Parents feel they are more equal to school staff and vice versa. Advocating for one’s child becomes an easier task, as your voice is genuinely valued. You both speak the same language, so to speak.
Conversely, parents from different backgrounds than teachers bring histories of being perceived as less capable to understand or articulate their concerns to staff, thus feel less agency or social capital to partner with teachers at school. That is the historical baggage and barriers that impede alliances with staff. It is educators’ job to help break down those barriers in order to develop mutually beneficial relationships with these parents.
At the center of the process of eliminating that disconnect between parents and staff is an authentic desire to develop relationships that link to learning- their child’s, the parents AND the teachers at school. Educators must establish trust and nobody says that it will be easy…but it will be worth the effort. Educators must demonstrate that they both have common interests and that they both wish the best for the children. Parents want and need to feel that you go above and beyond for their child, and that you know that child intimately. In other words, deliberately get to know each student as individuals- their likes, dislikes, their personality, strengths and abilities-before you assess needs and academic weaknesses or behavioral concerns. Find out exactly what makes each child ‘tick’. When you begin to partner with parents, they will see that you really understand their child in ways never thought anyone would, especially teachers at school. This thought alone should inform you of their past experiences and explain their reluctance to readily engage.
It is best to begin the relationship building process prior to the start of each new school year, during late summer, or as soon as you receive your student roster. When those little green or blue cards are filled out with parent information on them, they aren’t just meant for emergencies. They are your ticket into relationship building. Use them wisely.
Prior to all efforts to cultivate and establish bonds with parents and students too, reflect on your own cultural biases. They will influence your perceptions and decisions. Know that you aren’t there to judge, just educate, engage and empower with equity and empathy. Then check all biases or immaculate perceptions at the door. You must enter the classroom with a broadened cultural lens and as a learner. If you are unable to relate to the cultural backgrounds and experiences as well as the mindsets of your audiences, your students and their families, then your approach is not to impose or assume, but to acquire information and insights. Look for strengths. Find similarities and acknowledge and appreciate differences. Should you miss opportunities to build relationships with parents prior to class start, don’t despair! As your charge is to establish relationships that promote maximized learning success, begin with their children.
Prepare to get to know your students by scheduling time early in the day to conduct class meetings. Set aside a a segment of the time you have with them, before instruction and/or after to facilitate the meeting. During these meetings, each student gets an opportunity to tell their story-tell who they are, etc… It is a good idea for you to jot down notes and observations regarding each child in the meeting, even as they listen as others introduce themselves to the group. Utilize and encourage active listening. Begin the meeting by modeling your expectations for the types of information to be shared and the types of socially- acceptable behaviors-set a few ground rules[not too many at this time, because for now, the aim is free-flowing information]. When students share their story some may get perplexed, shy, embarrassed or unable to express themselves. Help them along, but don’t dictate-just guide them. Tell your story, and you will also want to share your story when you introduce yourself to their parents later, too. Consider this your ‘dry run‘.
Tell your students a little about yourself-pertinent information only. Don’t worry about crossing the professional line, you are only demonstrating that you, too, are human and approachable. Since relationships are an important component of the teaching and learning process, this is a part of that process. Also invite students to ask questions of you and one another. These class meetings can serve as your ‘do now’ portion of the class period and can be a great way to encourage and prepare for early engagement in the learning process. Everyone loves a good story and show students that there’s value in each one of them. You may want to re-purpose these introductory class meetings and conduct them throughout the school year.
But for now, lasting about 5-10 minutes each day for the first 30 days of school will suffice. Each day that a child shares their story, your gathered information will provide information for connecting with parents. Plan to contact parents and begin the process of building partnerships on the same day that each child shares, and so forth… Your 1st step towards making that all-important home-school alliance has begun.
Teachers, if you all conduct your relationship building process similarly, the notes gathered could be passed along to the next teachers with each new year or new marking period, or both. This provides some continuity of knowledge and insights and helps build new relationships with parents, too.
Next, exactly how do you approach parents now that you already engage with their children?