Voices in Education

What Inspired Me to Study Parent and Community Engagement
As is true for many teachers, I have fond and not-so-fond memories of my first year teaching. It was a year both of trial and error, of extreme joy and disappointment—that led to self-doubting about my effectiveness as a teacher. The first couple months were, at times, terrifying and discouraging. There seemed to be little I could do to assemble order and cooperation in the classroom. I found myself raising my voice, pleading for cooperation, and scrambling to find valuable instructional time. All I had learned in my training seemed futile and irrelevant in those first weeks on the job.

At some point during that first month of teaching, I realized that while I had many demands and expectations of myself as a teacher, I lacked something that everyone else in the school building had—prior relationships with others in the school. I called a class meeting with my fourth graders—the first of weekly meetings we would have that year—and told them that I wanted to start over. I began building one-on-one relationships with each child, either during lunch or before/after school. Rather than negotiate for their cooperation, I earnestly sought to get to know each one of them on a personal level. We talked about our progress as a group during class meetings, where we also learned to speak honestly, openly, and with respect to one another. By the end of October we were a different classroom. In fact, I recall one student saying that we were becoming more like a family. I can still feel the rush of emotion that overcame me when he made that statement.

Maybe I was a naive 23-year-old, but I was never prepared to understand just how important it was for a classroom teacher to be relational. I came in with theories and strategies of graduate training, but I soon learned that without mutual relationships centered around trust and caring, the knowledge and skills amounted to nothing. As I got to know my students, I learned about the people who were important in their lives—siblings, cousins, parents, grandparents—as well as the places, activities, and traditions they cherished in their communities (locally and in native countries their families had emigrated from). I decided to extend this relationship with students’ families to communicate what I was learning about their child and to share a moment of kindness, community, and caring. I wanted this to happen early in the school year, so I made a commitment to call each student’s family within that next month of school to have this conversation.

With each phone call home, I noticed a trend. When I explained who I was and that I was calling about their child, there was almost always an awkward silence on the other end of the call. When I explained that I wanted to share a moment that we were proud of or an uplifting event that happened that day, the silence was almost always followed by a deep sigh of relief that the child wasn’t “in trouble.” These initial conversations were an important first step in engaging with families. Over time, I wanted to build a closer connection to my students’ families. Yet, when I used the few strategies I knew, such as parent-teacher conferences, open houses, and other school events, I achieved infrequent and superficial interactions and only with some of the parents. I began to see how disconnected schools could be to a student’s family and community life.

This experience—the isolation between school and family life—is not unusual, particularly in urban schools where the majority of students are students of color and are taught by White teachers who often live outside the school community. Racial, ethnic, cultural, linguistic, and socioeconomic differences abound between school staff and students’ families. As we place greater emphasis on academic success defined by increasing standardized test scores, schools focus singularly on the instructional practices inside classrooms that will produce the “right” results. If and when parents are consulted, it is often to educate them about the ways they can support a school’s agenda. Under this pressure, teachers have little incentive to build meaningful relationships with parents, particularly when these efforts require added time and the benefits are ambiguous. As my experience confirms, this is made more challenging by teacher training programs that fail to recognize the significance of a teacher’s responsibility to build deep and meaningful connections with families and communities.

In A Cord of Three Strands: A New Approach to Parent Engagement in Schools, I document the evolution of one model of parent engagement in Chicago that goes beyond the superficial and universal practices that are commonly seen in schools. In these Northwest Side schools, we see parents everywhere—they work in classrooms, plan assemblies, read with students in hallways, patrol the playground, participate in school committees, and lead local school councils. They develop close relationships with teachers that inevitably break down layers of distrust and misunderstanding. At the same time, teachers find ways to work collaboratively with parents and learn about students’ families—for example, by conducting home visits that are often a teacher’s first experience in the local community. These elements are part of a model developed by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association (LSNA), a community organization with deep ties to the Latino immigrant families in Chicago’s Northwest Side. In a community where schools struggled to connect with families, this community institution served as a bridge. The book is an exploration into how we build these necessary relationships when present models fail us. Out of this successful collaboration between schools, families, and communities there emerges an important framework for reimagining parent engagement that is useful to us all.

About the Author: Soo Hong is an assistant professor in the Department of Education at Wellesley College and author of A Cord of Three Strands: A New Approach to Parent Engagement in Schools (Harvard Education Press, 2011).