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.
Somehow, I get it all done.
I dash back to my office, sit down, take a breath and log in hoping that I appear together and fully present. 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. I take that very seriously and try to bring the unique perspective I have to every discussion I participate in. As an educator parent, I’m constantly juggling my commitments to my students and to my own children and I’m not alone. Many of the teachers at my school are also parents navigating this overwhelming struggle. The dual role of educator and parent is a precarious balance to maintain and often feels impossible. 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. But this conversation often gets sidelined as the year gets started and other priorities come into play. 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. The first relates to the conflation of these two 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. Think volunteering for a bake sale versus attending a parent-facing academic workshop.
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. I am responsible for supporting the teachers and students in my school. 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.
To be fully present for my students, I need to make tough decisions sometimes. 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 need to do more than just know that not all systems are created to support diverse family structures equitably. We need to shift our mindsets as we design systems that do better. It is common for a teacher to express frustration about a family missing a conference or a parent who never seems to pick up 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. If we want to better serve families with similar struggles to the ones educator parents face, we must acknowledge that one size does not fit all. And to deeply understand the diverse needs of our families, we need them to be a part of the process so we can build strong, sustainable systems for meaningful and impactful family engagement and involvement.
So where do we start? Outside of becoming clear on the distinction between involvement and engagement, we need to create a vision for what we want each one to look like at our school and what our ideal outcome would be if the system functioned successfully.
Our school holds high expectations for our families. However, our definitions of partnerships are stringently defined and unforgiving. We currently provide limited engagement opportunities and inflexible 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. We must find ways to help families have both worlds coexist successfully.
As I continue to reflect on these issues, I see a pathway to creating better systems, but only if we design them with these considerations in mind.
Keep Accessibility Top of Mind
As an educator parent, the accessibility of information and materials in diverse formats can be game changing. For example, if a meeting or training is pre-recorded or uploaded to a website or social media platform, this allows me flexibility around how and when I access the information I need to support my child.
Present Engaging Resources
Our days are long and our minds are preoccupied with never-ending lists of things we must accomplish. Some of us have multiple children across different grade levels or even schools. Communication that is succinct and engaging allows for easier absorption of all the information we need.
Share High-Impact Strategies and Materials
Although I am an educator, I look to my children’s teachers as the experts on their learning. I love hearing from their teachers because it helps me understand how best to support them. Families do not always have the knowledge needed to meaningfully support their child’s learning. Materials from educator-led workshops or links to resources can be so 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 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 unable.