At the beginning of every school year, there are usually a few days for teachers and staff to prepare for the children’s arrival. Children are expected to grow in their academic skills, while developing appropriate SEL capacity, and be fully engaged learners this year. Administrators ensure that all operational concerns are in order, and acclimate new staff, appoint mentors, oversee the aesthetics to culminate with the annual pep talk to ensure enthusiasm, determination and energy is high.
It seems, though, that while the few days of prep and last minute professional development is the focus, parents are often forgotten. The students themselves, and the environment in which they live-even the mindset they possess are likewise forgotten. Parents and students are members of the school community. Don’t try to get ‘all up in people’s business’; just get to know a little about whom you will be interacting for at least the next 9 months.
After the talks and the departmental meet-ups, everyone retreats to their corners, their comfort zones. Teachers, their classrooms-administrators, their offices. Every school is a community school, for you exist within a community. Your students and their parents most likely live in that same community, too. Teachers and most school staff commute into their neighborhoods. By and large, school staff know very little about the community, other than the quest for parking. Perhaps, someone will brave their way to the neighborhood store at lunchtime. There is so much more to your community. Learn what they are. Learn what your parents and the children do. Learn where they go. Call it “Outdoor PD”.
The key to success in the classroom and developing and sustaining parent alliances is understanding their perspectives. Get a view from where they are. In order to do this, and safely, if that is a concern, round up the entire staff, divide them into groups by department, grade level, or however fits your comfort, and get out there. Explore the neighborhood.
The best way to get to know your environment, the strengths and needs, is to obtain first-hand knowledge. Take your groups out there and walk around. Give it about an hour-enough time to soak in the ambience. Talk to the passersby. Don’t forget to visit the local playground or park. That’s where you’ll likely find some of your students. The closer you come to familiarity with the culture, the closer you may become with the people, parents and students.
Sitting in a classroom with a teacher who has no clue about who you are or where you live, presents a barrier which makes it more difficult to receive the best a student can give of him or herself. The more you know, the less challenging it is to engage and unlock a child’s potential. Those barriers are counterintuitive to engagement, while more difficult to recognize and debunk our own biases, assumptions and immaculate perceptions. Take a tour, walk around the neighborhood, greet the locals, smile, take in the sights, and empathize, not sympathize. Relate to students from Day 1.
Your students and their parents are more apt to feel a connection with you when you know things like:
- distance to the playground,
- the sports activities,
- the games girls play,
- how they play,
- favorite hangouts,
- community services,
- local transportation,
- neighborhood landmarks,
- and so forth…
Getting a feel for the community helps prepare you for engaging with the community residents. After all, schools and the staff ARE members and a part of the community served.
Do this one thing BEFORE school begins: get to know where you are and with whom you are there to inform and empower-students and their families. Identify strengths by purpose. Look not for things that aren’t there, but note what IS there. Look to the people, and see their creativity, resilience, coping. Look to the way in which people communicate with one another. Take note of the humor, and how respect is demonstrated. Look for the body language, and be watchful for the ways they celebrate one another, greet each other.
The insights gained from a walk in the community will help in the classroom. It will inform you of what constitutes disruption, disrespect, and will transform the ways and reasons for disciplining students. Intent vs. impact are more clear. These insights will also help partner with parents. Teachers become less ‘untouchable’ and even less ‘out of touch’. Teachers become more relatable and not strangers who maintain their distance. Worst of all is when teachers are distant out of fear. Confront them so that they may be set aside-early. Walking in the community encourages cultural relevance and responsiveness. Teaching staff can better teach and reach where they are to take students where they want and need to be. After all, schools are instrumental in helping shape futures. Collaboratively, parents and teachers can best show them the ways to get to their most positive futures.
Take periodic walks throughout the school year. Do it alone, with a group, your students and/or their parents. Create and develop lessons and assignments centering around their families and the community. Be visible, become a familiar face, and partner with parents to ensure that everyone stays on the same page. Teachers teach, learners learn and parents parent….all in the same community– school! Take a walk!