My dad attended a school vastly different from mine. He grew up in Spain and learned multiplication tables by singing them in a classroom chorus led by a priest. I learned my multiplication tables by using flashcards.
As a kid, I remember arguing with my dad about math homework. Specifically, it was about problem-solving in algebra: my teacher had taught me one way to solve problems, and my dad wanted to show me an easier way. I would listen to my dad (probably not for long) and then, frustrated, huff and puff that I was going to “do it the teacher’s way” because his way was confusing.
It didn’t occur to me that I could listen to my dad, understand both methods, and probably gain a deeper understanding of math. It also didn’t occur to me (this is embarrassing now) that he was an engineer. His entire job was math, and really, I could have learned a lot from him. But I was a kid. I was defending my teachers’ method, insistent that it must be the “right” way if my teacher was teaching it.
No matter how modern or educated parents are, their children are probably having a school experience that is vastly different from their own. Talking with my dad about this now, he still remembers his own frustration in wanting so much to help me and trying to understand “the teacher’s way.”
“Your parents are not your partners”
Last year, my school had a comprehensive evaluation. Our evaluator visited classrooms, looked at data and artifacts, and spoke to students, teachers and parents. Overall the results were good, until our evaluator said, “Your students’ parents love the school but they aren’t your partners.” She elaborated that while the parents genuinely felt that we cared for their children, they weren’t able to speak to most of our initiatives or goals for their children.
This was humbling and extremely valuable. At first, I argued with it in my mind: “We changed our entire grading system so parents could understand it better. We’ve worked on explaining our teaching methods without using jargon.” But truthfully, we hadn’t done enough so that parents truly felt they could speak to what we were doing.
Many of our parents, hailing from Latin America, Yemen, Bangladesh, Africa, and Albania, have a very high regard for teachers and schools. It’s unusual for our parents to complain to us. It’s not that they’re not involved; it’s that they come from cultures where one trusts the school to do its job. Perhaps I interpreted this trust as— “you do your job, we’ll do ours”—as opposed to, “We trust you, and we’re also interested in what you’re doing.”
Teaching Instead of Announcing
This year, we got more parents than ever at our first Parent Association meeting and have put far more care into our communication, making sure that it really explains to parents what they can do to support their child, in anything from how to dress for cold weather (very relevant to our population), to which tutoring opportunities can support their child. We’ve put more time into using Kinvolved, a schoolwide text-messaging system that sends text messages in hundreds of languages, as well as more colorful, better- designed parent fliers and letters that teach rather than announce.
A major shift in having parents as partners is regarding them as genuinely having something to contribute. We switched our math curriculum two years ago when a parent shared her daughter’s frustration over the wordy, dense homework. Her concern got us thinking, and we ultimately got far better results by using different materials. I’ve started wondering how I can open up more pathways for parents to express noticings like this.
I’m the mom at school, you’re the teacher at home
I recall a worried mom of a new 9th grader from Dominican Republic. “Don’t worry, you’re the mom at home, and I’m the mom at school,” I told her. “All of the teachers are your child’s mom and dad at school. We’ll take good care of your child.”
It occurs to me, though, that I didn’t add, “And you’re the teacher at home.” Because she is. Even if a language barrier, or time, might prevent her from helping her child with schoolwork, her child is learning from her everyday. In the life of the student, she’s our co-teacher.