We all know the old saying, "An apple doesn't fall far from the tree." We use it to reference the similarities between parent and child, but trees are also an apt metaphor for families -- as a tree grows tall and sprouts up and out, our family histories, stories, and traditions provide the nutrients a child needs to flourish. Who we are and where we come from matters, and if we look at the tree as the family -- the strength, the life-giver -- we want to make sure that we are tending the tree and enriching the environment that it grows in.
As educators we spend thirteen years poking, prodding and buffing the apples to be their best. But we can't just focus on the apple. We have to remember the source: the tree, complete with a trunk, branches, twigs, leaves, and blossoms.
Research tells us that cognitive, social, and emotional development stems from the family. Study after study shows that parental involvement with school age children correlates to the success a child experiences as they move into adulthood. So we must find a way to build a trusting, collaborative, and receptive relationship between schools and families – both of which have much to offer.
What are we, as educators and school leaders, doing to help nourish families? Here are a few tips to make sure our students' families are supported, productive and feel that we are all working toward our common goal of student success.
Know what you believe
Spend time reflecting on your true beliefs when it comes to families and school. How do your beliefs about families impact student success? Ask many questions and be honest with the answers. Here are a few to think over, ponder on the commute home, or journal about:
- Do you resist parents volunteering in your classroom because they make you feel self-conscious?
- Do you avoid contacting parents because you feel you will be judged? Do they make you nervous? Are you afraid of confrontation?
- Are you judgmental when talking with parents? What is your tone and approach?
- Do you instantly put off engaging with families that don't speak English fluently?
- Have you made attempts to learn about cultures different than your own through interactions and authentic experiences?
Be sure to reflect on your answers and your actions. Are there other opinions, approaches or stories you need to hear? Be open to other perspectives found through conversations, practice, experiences, or primary and secondary research. Ultimately, you must believe that families are central to the success of our students and we, as educators, have responsibilities in supporting the needs of our families. We must be sure families are included in the education of their child.
Speak the same language
The jargon we use in our school system does not always resonate with families when discussing their child. Immerse yourself in your students’ experiences -- in their culture, not just their language -- to understand where they and their families are coming from. Teachers need to develop trusting relationships with families, based on mutual respect, and where two-way communication is open and frequent.
Engage the family holistically
When our educational system was established, the "typical American family" looked very different from what it looks like today. A new family paradigm means we have to change and innovate our approaches for how we get them involved:
Find out what families in our community need. Provide access and coordinate experiences for families around life skills (technology, social media, dealing with stress, finance, literacy, etc.), parenting (health and nutrition, communication, study skills, adolescence, etc.) and education (navigating the educational system, advocacy, curriculum, etc.).
Carve out times for families to interact with each other to foster community and cultivate connections. Integrate family history and involve parents in students' learning. And learn from families, beyond formal parent-teacher conferences, in order to best communicate and have the most impact on their child’s success story.
We are not just caretakers of children, we are the caretakers of the whole family. By recognizing, nurturing and supporting families’ needs, crafting shared responsibilities, and consciously moving forward together as partners, we all win. Most importantly, students win. Families matter.