It’s the start of the second week of the school year and my son’s virtual first grade orientation is scheduled for 10:15 a.m. It’s 10:05 a.m. and I’m in a total panic.
I have ten minutes to help a substitute teacher compile material for his cover, make sure my team has the support they need to run classes smoothly, and move my car, which is double-parked out front because there’s no never parking near my school.
One way or another, I manage to do everything.
I rush to my desk, sit down, breathe and connect, hoping that I appear together and fully present. But I’m not fully present because my pulse is still racing, I’m thinking about the things I haven’t done, and I’m afraid that a student or colleague will barge in during the Zoom orientation because they need me for something. What’s worse? I am late.
In my role as Academic Dean, I am part of our school’s leadership team and have a seat at the decision-making table. I take this very seriously and try to bring the unique perspective I have to every discussion I participate in. As a parent educator, I constantly juggle my commitments to my students and to my own children and I am not alone. Many of the teachers in my school are also parents going through this overwhelming struggle. The dual role of educator and parent is a precarious balance to maintain and often seems impossible. For this reason, I have been adamant about the clear need to build an inclusive family partnership system that provides all families with a fair opportunity to get involved as much as possible in supporting their child’s school experience.
Every year when our school’s leadership team comes together to prepare for the new year, the discussion around the need for a more impactful family engagement strategy surfaces. But that conversation is often pushed aside at the start of the year and other priorities come into play. parent conferences and parent orientations at the beginning of the year and hope for the best.
Over the past few months, as we repeatedly attempted to bring a plan to fruition, it became clear to me that some fundamental obstacles were playing a role in our proverbial “spinning wheels” when we approached the involvement and commitment of the family. The first concerns the amalgamation of these two terms. In a recent planning meeting, Kristina Fulton, our Assistant Director of Operations, explained that the distinction between “family involvement” and “family engagement” is key because each requires very different tactics. to develop successfully at the school level. Parental involvement involves the participation of the family in the school community. Parent engagement refers to active participation in supporting their student’s learning. Consider volunteering for a bake sale instead of attending a college workshop for parents.
The second barrier is based on a dangerous misperception that families who cannot be involved and engaged are disinterested in their child’s educational experience. But it’s not always the case. I was late for my son’s first-grade orientation, not because I wanted to, but because between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m. I am responsible for supporting the teachers and students at my school. A family’s commitment to their child(ren) should not be measured by the number of book fairs or field trips they volunteer for. And missing a lecture, forgetting to sign a permission slip, or not being able to help a child with homework, doesn’t necessarily mean divestment.
A fellow dean recently told me that at his son’s end-of-year event, he was approached by another parent who asked who his child was. He shared his child’s name and this parent replied, “I was just wondering because I’ve never seen you around.” He explained to her that it is difficult because he works in a school and he cannot leave his school to attend events taking place at his son’s school during the day. When he shared this experience with me, he revealed that he felt bad because he sensed an underlying judgment in the statement – and of course he wanted to attend every event at his son’s school. . Just like I want to attend all the events at my son’s school.
The teaching profession requires us to be dedicated to our students and the school community, but for those of us who are also parents, the job does not always offer us the flexibility to play an active role in our children’s learning. own children. The system is not designed to allow us to be both.
To be fully present for my students, I sometimes have to make difficult decisions. Sometimes I can’t be with my son when I want to. Sometimes I’m late. With so many educators straddling teaching and parenting, why don’t our approaches to family engagement and involvement take into account the difficulties of navigating multiple roles while trying to be parents present and engaged?
We need to do more than just know that not all systems are created to support diverse family structures equitably. We need to change our mindsets as we design systems that work better. It’s common for a teacher to express frustration with a family missing a lecture or a parent who never seems to pick up the phone. I felt that frustration and sometimes made critical comments based on assumptions that these parents didn’t care. However, it is important that we verify our assumptions. To my son’s first grade teacher, I was the late parent who may have seemed disinvested.
As our team works to rethink our approach and change our practices, we have been thinking a lot about what we can do to bridge the gap between families and schools. If we want to better serve families struggling with challenges similar to those faced by parent educators, we must recognize that one size does not fit all. And to deeply understand the diverse needs of our families, we need them to be part of the process so that we can build strong, lasting systems for meaningful and impactful family engagement and involvement.
So where to start ? In addition to clarifying the distinction between involvement and engagement, we need to create a vision of what we want everyone in our school to look like and what our ideal outcome would be if the system worked successfully.
Our school has high expectations for our families. However, our definitions of partnerships are tightly defined and unforgiving. We currently offer limited engagement opportunities and inflexible engagement options. As our team thinks about changing the way we approach creating these partnerships, I keep coming back to my son’s orientation and my colleague’s experience at his son’s event. We must find ways to provide all families, including working families and families with caring parents, an equal opportunity to partner with us and support their students, regardless of their other day-to-day responsibilities. We need to find ways to help families bring the two worlds together successfully.
As I continue to ponder these questions, I see a path to creating better systems, but only if we design them with these considerations in mind.
Keep accessibility in mind
As a parent educator, the accessibility of information and materials in various formats can be a game-changer. For example, if a meeting or training is pre-recorded or uploaded to a website or social media platform, this allows me to choose how and when I access the information I need to support my child.
Present interesting resources
Our days are long and our minds are preoccupied with endless lists of things we need to accomplish. Some of us have several children from different grades or even schools. Succinct and engaging communication allows for easier absorption of all the information we need.
Share high-impact strategies and materials
Although I am an educator, I consider my children’s teachers to be the experts in their learning. I love hearing from their teachers as it helps me understand how best to support them. Families do not always have the knowledge to meaningfully support their child’s learning. Materials from educator-led workshops or links to resources can be very helpful, especially when my child needs help with a math problem that could very well be writing code to power a Tesla.
Give parents the benefit of the doubt
If I’m not there, it’s because I can’t be there. If I don’t review their homework every night, it’s because I reach out to the parents of the students I serve, review lesson plans, grade assignments, compile observation notes or that I cook for my family. I won’t succeed every time, but I hope my child’s teachers will assume the best of me. Sometimes a parent is not reluctant. Sometimes a parent is incapable.