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 state of utter panic.
I’ve got ten minutes to help a substitute teacher compile materials for their coverage, ensure that my team has the support needed to execute lessons smoothly and move my car, which is double parked out front because there’s never parking by my school.
It all comes together somehow.
I sprint back to my office and sit down. I take a deep breath, then log in hoping I am fully present and coherent. But I’m not fully present, because my pulse is still racing, I’m thinking of the things I didn’t get done and worrying that a student or colleague will barge in during the Zoom orientation because they need me for something. What’s worse? I’m late.
In my role as an academic dean, I am part of our school’s leadership team and have a seat at the decision-making table. This is something that I take seriously. Every discussion I participate in, I bring my unique perspective. As an educator parent, I’m constantly juggling my commitments to my students and to my own children and I’m not alone. Many teachers at my school struggle with this overwhelming task. It is difficult to balance both the roles of teacher and parent. Because of that, I’ve been adamant that there is a clear need to build an inclusive family partnership system that provides all families with a fair opportunity to be as involved as they can be in support of 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. This conversation can get lost in the shuffle as other priorities and year-end goals take precedence. Inevitably, we become mired in the various daily “fires,” so we opt instead to stick with our limited existing systems of parent conferences and beginning-of-the-year parent orientations and hope for the best.
Over the past few months, as we repeatedly attempted to get concrete about a plan, it became clear to me that there were some core barriers playing a role in our proverbial “spinning wheels” when approaching family involvement and engagement. First, the confusion of these terms. In a recent planning meeting, Kristina Fulton, our associate director of operations, explained that the distinction between “family involvement” and “family engagement” is key as each requires vastly different tactics to successfully develop on a school level. Parent involvement connotes family participation in the school’s community. Parent engagement relates to active participation in support of their student’s learning. You can volunteer to bake a cake or attend an academic workshop that is parent-facing.
The second barrier is grounded in a dangerous misperception that families who cannot be involved and engaged are disinterested in their child’s educational experience. But that isn’t always the case. I was late to my son’s first grade orientation, not because I wanted to be, but because between the hours of 8 a.m. and 3 p.m. My school has teachers and students that I support. A family’s commitment to their child or children shouldn’t be measured by how many book fairs or field trips they volunteer for. And missing a conference, forgetting to sign a permission slip or being unable to support a child with homework, doesn’t necessarily signify disinvestment.
A fellow dean recently shared with me that at his son’s end-of-year class event, he was approached by another parent who asked who his child was. He shared his child’s name and that parent responded, “I was just wondering because I’ve never seen you around.” He explained to her that it’s hard because he works at a school and he can’t leave his school to attend events that happen at his son’s school during the day. When he shared this experience with me, he revealed that it made him feel awful 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 every event at my son’s school.
The teaching profession requires us to be dedicated to our students and school community, but for those of us educators who are also parents, the job doesn’t always offer us the flexibility to play an active role in our own children’s learning. The system isn’t designed in a way that allows us to be both.
Sometimes I have to make difficult decisions in order to be fully present for my children. Sometimes I can’t be with my son when I’d like to be. Sometimes I’m late. With so many educators straddling teaching and parenting, why don’t our approaches to family engagement and involvement consider the difficulties of navigating multiple roles while trying to be present and engaged parents?
We must do more than simply recognize that not all systems will support families with different family structures. It is important to shift our mindsets in order to design better systems. A teacher may express frustration at a family that misses a conference or a parent not answering the phone. I have felt that frustration and at times made judgemental comments based on assumptions that those parents just don’t care. However, it’s important that we check our assumptions. For my son’s first grade teacher, I was the late parent who may have appeared to be disinvested.
As our team is working to redesign our approach and change our practices, we’ve been thinking a lot about what we can do to bridge the divide between families and schools. We must recognize that not all families have the same struggles as educators parents. If we are to serve them better, one size doesn’t fit all. To fully understand and meet the needs of families, we must include them in the process. This will allow us to create strong and sustainable systems that enable meaningful and lasting family involvement and engagement.
We need to know where we can start. We need to be clear about the difference between engagement and involvement. Also, we need to have a vision of what each one should look like at school. And what the ideal outcome would look like if the system worked well.
High expectations are placed on our school by our families. We are very strict in our definitions and cannot be influenced by partnerships. We currently offer very limited engagement opportunities and no flexible involvement options. As our team reflects on changing the way we approach building these partnerships, I keep coming back to my son’s orientation and my co-worker’s experience at his son’s event. We must find ways to provide all families—including working families and families with educator parents—with a fair opportunity to partner with us and support their students no matter what other daily responsibilities they may have. Families must be able to coexist with both the good and bad.
I’m continuing to think about these issues and see a path to better systems, but only if these considerations are considered when designing them.
Keep accessibility top of mind
Accessibility of information and materials in different formats is a huge advantage for parents who are educators. Pre-recorded training sessions or uploaded to social media platforms allow me to access the information whenever and where I want.
Use these Engaging Resources
Our days can be long, and our minds are filled with endless lists of tasks that we need to accomplish. Many of us have multiple children in different grades or schools. Simplified and engaging communication allows us to absorb all the information more easily.
Share high-impact strategies and materials
Although I am an educator, I look to my children’s teachers as the experts on their learning. Their teachers are invaluable to me because it allows me to better support them. Families do not always have the knowledge needed to meaningfully support their child’s learning. It can be very helpful to my child to access materials or links to resources from educators.
Give parents the benefit of the doubt
If I’m not there, it’s because I cannot be there. If I don’t review their homework every night, it’s because I’m reaching out to the parents of the students I serve, reviewing lesson plans, grading papers, compiling observation notes or cooking for my family. I won’t get it right every time, but I hope that my child’s teachers will assume the best of me. Sometimes a parent isn’t unwilling. Sometimes, a parent is not able to do so.