I was planning on writing about a completely different topic today – tune in for my future post about how schools can be places that help kids find and flourish in their “element” as described by Sir Ken Robinson.
Instead, I am writing about something that came up during a conversation that I had today, and reflection on many conversations that I have had with parents and teachers in the past. I just got off the phone with a friend of mine, and after an hour and a half-long conversation, I would feel remiss if I didn’t take this opportunity to write about it.
My friend is trying to choose which school she should send her son to kindergarten next year. I have also talked at length to families recently, who are making this decision for their children that are currently receiving special education services in a pre-school setting, and are also making this tough decision. Additionally, throughout the past many years, I have had conversations with others that are making difficult decisions such as if the school they currently send their child to is the right place for them to remain – far too many reasons to describe here, but suffice it to say that there are many reasons families and teachers have these conversations on-going from day to day, or year to year.
I have often said to people that I feel like the Lorax, from Dr. Seuss’ story – the little character that speaks for the Truffula trees – for the trees don’t have a voice when they get chopped down and made into Thneeds, which as we know, “a Thneed is a Fine-Something-That-All-People-Need!” so the Lorax speaks for them…expressing the unpopular opinion that not everyone, indeed, NEEDS a Thneed. School personnel need to understand that not all families feel that their son or daughter need the “Thneed” that schools have to offer – what they need is the opportunity to speak as an equal, informed member of a team that creates learning spaces for kids to access in schools. What families need is the empowerment and ability to speak and be heard about what they feel is right for their child, and be a part of creating a school that can meet those needs as they see them.
I feel like the Lorax because many parents have input they would like to express about their child, and schools are oftentimes daunting places for families to approach and speak their mind, so rather they come to me – and either ask me to do it, or I talk them through doing it themselves. It has been my experience that families feel like they don’t have a voice, don’t have the words to use, don’t have enough understanding of education or how school systems run, or don’t know the avenues to follow to influence their child’s education, which leads them to get in touch with me to talk over the issues and questions that they face. I am not only more approachable than many schools can be, but a person that is a parent as well as an educator – which bridges the gap that exists.
I love having these conversations, not because of the content – as it frustrates me that this pattern is seemingly repeated over and over for families – but rather I love the end result of our conversations. It is always time well spent, with parents understanding power they didn’t know they had or were scared to establish before we talked, or them feeling like they have a new vocabulary of “teacher speak” that they are armed with for future conversations at schools. By talking people through the bigger picture issues that are symptomatic of schools, and grounding them in what they already know about their child – parents can go about the business of making these tough decisions with the tools and words to use in a way that matters for their child within schools. Whether or not a child has an identified learning need that warrants special supports, or if parents are just trying to understand what realities exist in schools in order to better make a decision for their family – usually after a brief conversation, I can help them understand the different role they can and must play in schools.
There is a gap that exists, a disconnect between the families and the people in schools where communication seems to break down. As hard as teachers and administrators try to make an onramp for families to have input, ask questions and express concerns – the institution of the school system itself, and the assumed authority embodied by the school personnel that exists, makes even the most knowledgeable and vocal families remain silent or, in the least, quiet about what questions they have in many situations.
Mavis Sanders and Steven Sheldon have researched and written about this topic at length. They have emphasized the need for schools to be the kind of places that purposefully bring in parents and families in the ways that I have described above – meaningful, trusted relationships established over time, through meetings and open communication between school staff and families or communities. In their book, Principals Matter: A Guide to School, Family, and Community Partnerships, they outline why this is an important issue and how schools can get better about purposefully soliciting input from families and communities. Additionally, they summarize the research that has been done around the positive outcomes that occur when schools are places that partner with families and communities in these ways. Academic and non-academic positive effects are seen. Literacy, math and science scores increase, and there is an increase in student attendance, positive effects on student behavior, student engagement and attitudes about school, as well as students’ personal perceptions of their potential being heightened.
Even within schools that believe they are partnering with families and communities effectively, research shows more can be done, and personal experience leads me to believe that is true. The norms and patterns of behavior that define the culture of schools include: power, authoritative boundaries, autonomy, isolation, order and control. This is not irrational, if you think about schools being places where teachers feel the need to protect what they are doing from day to day from the deluge of ideas and criticisms that come from the public – a public that very often has definite and differing ideas of what constitutes effective schools and teaching. Instead of opening their door for speculation, they close their doors and let parents in only when they are needed, as a self protective measure.
How then, can we make schools more accessible for families? How can we lessen the need for a Lorax speaking for the trees? What processes are in place to assure families that they can come and have conversations with school personnel, where they will be heard? How can schools become places where parents are able to talk on the same level as the teachers about their children, and raise questions that they have about the school or classroom environment without hesitation?
Acknowledging and addressing the issues of power within a school is essential for effective partnerships between schools and families or communities. Especially in urban school settings, greater power is possessed by school authorities than by student’s parents and communities due to unequal distribution of resources (e.g. financial, political, social capital, time and information). To combat this power difference and start working on collective action in schools, there needs to be a conscious effort of establishing relational power in schools instead of positional power. This would look like all stakeholders (parents, community members, administrators and teachers) understanding and respecting the differences in the influence they have, and consciously creating networking opportunities and meetings that capitalize on what strengths each person brings to the school community.
One suggestion that I have, is ongoing community meetings throughout the school year. These meetings could be around certain topics or agendas, or they could be a cracker barrel forum, where all topics can be brought up for discussion, and questions answered. When members of the school community get together and questions are answered in these transparent and accountable ways, it strengthens the relationships and trust that exists between the families and the personnel, creating a network and shared language that then can be used when more difficult issues need to be resolved.
Another suggestion is to create learning groups that are meeting regularly around specific interests or issues. Maybe this is a book club that is open to teachers and families to read and discuss curriculum, instructional strategies or specific issues such as parenting, inclusive practices for kids with disabilities, issues that surround kids in poverty, or issues for students that speak different languages. Or maybe this is through increased, authentic, family involvement on school committees and decision making teams.
Another simple way of increasing successful school to family partnerships is through multiple ways of communication. Every school has ways they communicate with parents and families, but if we focus again on how this looks, with the specific thought of increasing parent and family involvement in the ways described above, there can be improvements made instantly that are not hard to put in place. This not only creates room for the bigger networking and relational pieces as described, but has been shown through research to decrease the number of potential conflicts that occur across the school year.
However your school is building their climate to include families and communities, and honor the strengths and perspectives that they have to offer, there can always be improvements. It is hard, I know…but it is so worth the effort! I end this post with the words from Dr. Seuss’ Lorax…
And all that the Lorax left here in this mess
was a small pile of rocks, with one word…
Whatever that meant, well, I just couldn’t guess…
“But now,” says the Once-ler,
“Now that you’re here,
the word of the Lorax seems perfectly clear.
UNLESS someone like you
cares a whole awful lot,
nothing is going to get better.
Catch!” calls the Once-ler.
He lets something fall.
“It’s a Truffula Seed.
It’s the last one of all!
You’re in charge of the last of the Truffula Seeds.
And Truffula Trees are what everyone needs.
Plant a new Truffula. Treat it with care.
Give it clean water. And feed it fresh air.
Grow a forest. Protect it from axes that hack.
Then the Lorax
and all of his friends
may come back.”