Unlikely Gifts: How the Pandemic Deepens Relationships between Schools and Families
When COVID-19 began its destructive path through the United States, it was hard to imagine that there could be any blessings left in its wake. Pain, however, usually has a purpose. In the case of the pandemic, some lessons are crystal-clear. To start, our essential workers are indispensable and we owe them a debt of gratitude. Almost a decade ago, I experienced a similar kind of appreciation that resulted from what began as a distressing situation at my children’s school. Born out of that inner discomfort was a deep and abiding appreciation for the role of parents (as well as siblings, grandparents, and other trusted adults) in their child’s educational success. The home-school partnership is critical as schools and families continue to reimagine their relationship in a world persevering through COVID-19.
I can clearly remember the evening I attended my first Parent Teacher Association (PTA) meeting. I was tired from the day’s customary antics. Dylan, my fourth grade son, was wrapping up a passionate plea for why he needed another Bionicle to add to his Lego collection. Marissa, my second grade daughter, was tasked with returning all my high heels she had “borrowed” and pulled out of the hall closet. As I stepped around the mountain of shoes and opened the door to the garage, the night’s darkness and chill on that Fall evening in Chicago made it feel much later than it actually was.
Upon arriving at the PTA meeting, the small assembly of parents, teachers, and school administrators greeted me with sincere smiles and a genuine appreciation for my presence. Still, I was there without any other close friends. I resorted to pretending to be busy on my phone and texted my husband needlessly to appear busy until the meeting began. When I left the meeting, I was confronted with the ways I had distanced myself from others and I was discouraged that I felt like an outsider when all the people at the meeting did indeed put their best foot forward. If I felt this way, I wondered how other parents whose first language and culture do not match the majority might feel walking into this type of environment.
The unsettling feelings I felt from this meeting propelled me to develop my own sea legs when it came to partnering with my children’s school. Over time, I made a concerted effort to volunteer in my child’s classroom and get to know the parents of my children’s classmates. I experienced firsthand the value of relationships on campus. Having grown myself as a parent leader, I developed a passion for growing more parent leaders in my school community. I wondered if my own parents, immigrants from India, would have attended more of my school events if they had felt included in the school community. They never developed their identity as a stakeholder at my school. This belief that parents are important stakeholders and had much to offer the school community eventually led me to become a Community Organizer with the Parent Mentor Program (PMP) in Illinois. The PMP is a nationally recognized parent engagement model that builds deep and lasting relationships between students, teachers, and parents. Parent Mentors bridge the school and the community by drawing on the strengths of neighborhood families.
In the PMP delivery model, community organizations partner with schools to recruit a set cohort of parents per school to assist teachers several hours every day. Before entering the classroom, parent mentors participate in a weeklong leadership training. Parents are then assigned to a classroom where they are mentored by a teacher and work one-on-one and in small groups with children. After reaching a minimum number of volunteer hours, parent mentors receive a stipend. In the process of spending time inside the classroom, parents in the program gain valuable skills from watching and modeling the classroom teacher and applying these new skills in their own home. Logan Square Neighborhood Association (LSNA) and Southwest Organizing Project (SWOP) have 23 combined years of experience with parent mentors and run programs in 30 economically disadvantaged neighborhood schools across Chicago. Together, LSNA and SWOP run the Parent Engagement Institute to guide new communities through the program. Notably, student outcomes improved as a result of the PMP. For example, 92 percent of teachers report that the PMP helps students improve in reading and math. Further, the number of parents reading with their child increased nearly 15 times as a result of one parent becoming a Parent Mentor (Niles Township School ELL Parent Center, 2020).
I continued my career in family engagement after moving to Austin, Texas. As part of the Parent Team with Round Rock Independent School District (ISD), I applied my background in community organizing to the field of family engagement. Strong relationships remained the foundation of healthy partnerships regardless of my zip code. According to Dr. Karen Mapp, Ed.D., Senior Lecturer on Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) and the Faculty Director of the Education Policy and Management Master’s Program, “One of the things many people said, and is actually born out through the research, is that the relationship, the development of relational trust between home and school, is key for any other partnership work to actually take place.” (Boudreau, 2020).
The partnership between home and school could not be more important than it is now as parents continue to be key players in their child’s daily learning. The pandemic of 2020 is not something any of us could have anticipated. Now that it’s here, we can use the opportunity to deepen the home-school connection. At Round Rock ISD, we embrace parents as partners. We recognize that the relationship between school and parent has an impact on student success. The tips below highlight several ways in which parents and teachers can partner together precisely because of the pandemic.
See each other as people, first. Before the coronavirus, parents saw teachers through their role as educators. Teachers saw parents, at best, as stakeholders who they could partner with to increase student success. But did we see each other as actual people? Before virtual learning began, I never saw my child’s teacher make a mistake. After virtual learning began, I saw my child’s assistant principal deal with technical glitches in real time. I saw him respond with humor, reminding the families in the virtual meeting, “Well, this year is certainly not the year to be a perfectionist!” If your child’s teacher is working from home, her cat might walk past the computer screen. Her bird might be squawking in the background. Wait, what? Teachers have pets? But I thought only people had pets. Oh…I get it now. Teachers are people too.
Well played, Pandemic.
Recognize that parents possess funds of knowledge. Teachers are traditionally considered the “expert” when it comes to educating students. School staff often consult each other to problem-solve. This puts a lot of pressure on teachers to always have the answer. Teachers don’t have to have all the answers. Parents have much to contribute about their children’s lives and their interests which may help teachers understand how to best serve them.
Further, parents could be a valuable resource to teachers depending on their experience and skills. I met a parent new to the United States who practiced as a veterinarian in his home country of India. He was passionate about his profession and shared vivid stories about his diverse patients, including cows and snakes, every chance he had. If skills are connected to curriculum and content, invite family members to share their story and their base of knowledge. When teachers leverage these funds of knowledge, they are bridging the gap between home and school in a way that bolsters parent confidence, empowers the parent, and allows the child to see their family member participating in “their world.”
Make your post-pandemic goal “back to better” rather than “back to normal.” It would be completely natural for us to want to return to our pre-pandemic lives. Dr. Steve Flores, Round Rock ISD Superintendent of Schools, challenged us to go “back to better.” He urged us to look at this crisis in education as an opportunity to improve ourselves and our systems. The pressure this period of history has put us through can be used to create gems that remain long after this crisis. As parents and teachers, we can make a commitment to keep at least one positive habit related to family engagement from this pandemic.
As a teacher, will you consistently send positive feedback home? Listen with the intention to understand rather than be heard? Take the initiative to follow up on a matter that involves your student? As a parent, will you paraphrase to the teacher what you think you heard or read in order to gain clarity? Set a consistent time to check your child’s assignments or grades each week? Take initiative to ask for help if you see your child struggling? These are just a few of the ways we can model positive habits and problem-solving for the youngest learners in our lives. In the process, we are left with gifts that were unintended but perfectly timed.
Reimagining education means reimagining ourselves. Systems, after all, are made up of individual people connected by common goals. If we can hold a vision for the future that incorporates all the lessons learned, we will all return to the schoolhouse transformed by what we experienced. As Joseph Campbell, American professor and writer, reminds us, “The very cave you are afraid to enter turns out to be the source of what you are looking for.” (Campbell, 1995, p. 24).
Adopt One Habit that Brings You “Back to Better”
As a teacher, you might…
As a parent or caregiver, you might…
This article is available and can be accessed in Spanish here.
Niles Township School ELL Parent Center, Parent Mentor Program. (2020). Retrieved from http://www.skokie68.org/ellcenter/parent-mentor-program
Region 16 Education Service Center, Educator Training: Building Authentic Relationships with Parents. (2020). Retrieved from https://www.esc16.net/upload/page/0367/Educator%20Training%2003.30.20.pdf
Boudreau, E. (2020). Effective Family Engagement Begins with Trust. Retrieved from https://www.gse.harvard.edu/news/20/04/effective-family-engagement-starts-trust
Campbell, Joseph. (1995). Reflections on the Art of Living: A Joseph Campbell Companion (D. Osbon, Ed.). Harper Perrenial