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ENGAGING FAMILIES - COVID AND BEYOND




Years ago, when I picked up my youngest from her last day of Grade

Three, I looked at her teacher’s cheerful expression and said, “You see that

smile on your face? That will be me in September.” The root of this joke, of

course, is that our children are shared responsibility between teacher and

family, albeit one that has relied on a clear division of time and labour.


No-one is laughing this year. We have experienced a very difficult three

and a half months, uncertain about what learning happened at home, how

our children are faring, or where to go from here. My great hope, however,

is that school and home have come to appreciate each other and see the

advantages of working together, sharing and valuing our different skills and

knowledge.


What have we learned from distance teaching - other than neither group

was prepared and it’s a bad name? I think school and home have finally

discovered that

1. we are not alone, working in solitary silos;

2. everyone has a better chance at success if we are prepared and

confident in our capabilities;

3. when we feel supported, our strength multiplies and our children

benefit.


Silos Don’t Work

Research tells us that when schools engage in authentic family

engagement, one of the bonuses is teacher retention and family

satisfaction. Why? Because as important as it is to have cohesion

amongst the school staff, it’s equally consequential for teachers to feel

supported by their families - and vice versa. During these past months,

families have discovered how difficult it is to teach. They are challenged

with scheduling, discipline, curriculum content and delivery, expectations,

and technology. Teachers, meanwhile, have struggled with the challenge of

transferring learning from the classroom to the living room in effective,

differentiated ways. Neither school nor home is in it alone and each has

come to respect the trials and efforts of the other.


Building Bridges

We no longer have an excuse to separate the two aspects of a child’s life

and assume one does not need the other. We realize now that life has

ways of blurring those lines and showing us how dependent we are on the

healthy functioning of the other. Moving forward, we need to build those

collaborations. It’s not doing more, it’s doing differently.


First, we have to work to maintain and strengthen relationships with our

families. This will lead to mutual trust. Two-way communication is the key.

Schools must find ways to share, and receive, information. But it goes

beyond that. Educators must be primed to listen to, as Dr. Debbie Pushor

puts it, “parent knowledge”. This particular knowledge should then be

incorporated into future pedagogy. Similarly, “teacher knowledge” can be

imparted to families so that they may fully support learning at home. When

school and home co-plan, we are on the road to creating and

understanding reasonable and achievable expectations.


Authentic family engagement is not fundraising, school concerts, or letters

home. As Dr. Karen Mapp argues, it is relational, linked to learning and

builds the capabilities of families to support learning. It is valuing what

families bring to the table rather than viewing them through a deficit lens.

We can share our worries and limitations. We can ask for help. When we

school and home work together, we can confidently celebrate our

successes and find ways through our challenges.


Re-thinking Covid Through the Lens of Family Engagement

How much easier would this final term have been if family engagement

was systemic and already embedded in our education systems? I believe

it would have been much easier. Teachers would have a better

understanding of their families’ capabilities. They would have an

awareness of the lived experiences of their students; resources available

at home and in the community; availability of parents/guardians/caregivers

to guide learning; the number of children under one roof and their needs.

Families would have had a better grasp of curriculum expectations, how to

assist with school work, and whether their home technology and

knowledge could support online learning. Families would have felt more

confident in their role of “coach” and teachers would know what and how

to move learning into their student’s homes. Need I add that this would

have been particularly important for our families struggling within the

opportunity gap— families hindered within the system by biases and

assumptions.


I am reminded of family engagement and the necessity of school-home

collaboration everywhere and in the most unexpected places. In 2018, I

was watching a Q & A with Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Speaking

about his practice toward “interaction, and a team working spirit”, Clinton

advised, “Diverse groups make better decisions than homogenous ones.” I

wrote it down. Little did I know that two years later, a pandemic would

sweep the world, throwing school and home together in supporting the

education of our children. The lessons we have learned may profoundly

change our practice. While teachers and parents may be frustrated that

they can no longer easily hand off our child to the other at the door, our

new immersive connection reminds us that, “Diverse groups make better

decisions than homogenous ones.”

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