Just… listen to them

Authentic Family Engagement Starts with Listening

In my earliest days working with kids, I remember a mentor telling me to slow down and just listen to families. I was just out of college, eager to make a difference in the world. I joined a community-based organization that works with Latino youth and families (like my own), and I felt a sense of urgency to do as much as I could to make a difference for my students. I asked her what advice she had for me, hoping she would give me a list of things I could do. I wanted to know what I should be telling my student’s’ parents. What did they need to know? What resources should I tell them about? To this day I remember her words: “just… listen to them.”

I learned parents love to talk about their kids. And of course they have endless wisdom about their children, which is very helpful for our work as educators if we have the patience and the interest to seek it out. But somehow we as educators seem to have gotten the message it’s our responsibility to tell parents what we think they need to know, and because we’re busy and prioritize other things, we usually leave the communication to urgent situations like behavior concerns or rote rituals like parent-teacher conferences. Perhaps this is why a shocking 90% of parents in America think their child is on grade-level when it’s actually closer to a third (18% for Black students and 23% for Hispanic students).

How did we get here? Everyone – parents, teachers, school/district leaders – everyone seems ready to acknowledge what the pandemic has laid bare: family engagement has simply not been a priority in our schools, and our systems are not designed to encourage it. In fact, when we start to dig a little deeper, I believe we can see how they are designed to discourage it, notwithstanding anyone’s good intentions.

Family engagement has simply not been a priority in our schools, and our systems are not designed to encourage it.
young girl sitting on a desk and woman hugging her
Photo by ergonofis on Unsplash

I recently co-authored a report with Dr. Karen Mapp to share what we learned from the pandemic and to offer a roadmap for prioritizing authentic engagement with families as an engine for equity in schools. We call it, Embracing a New Normal: Toward a More Liberatory Approach to Family Engagement. We frame our nation’s collective challenge as one that is rooted in long standing historical patterns of oppression and hierarchy. Power imbalances characterize home-school relationships in low-income communities and communities of color, so despite our best intentions, we reflect and reinforce these imbalances in most of our day-to-day interactions with families. Thus, we typically treat parents as spectators to our work. We devalue their cultural wisdom and expertise. And our existing family engagement efforts take on an assimilation function whereby we deploy whatever scant resources we assign to this challenge toward “fixing” families and making sure they have “resources” and the “support” they need to resolve the problems we think they have.

If we spent more time listening to families, we might actually build (or restore) some trust.

No wonder parents don’t show up to our events. If we spent more time listening to families, we might actually build (or restore) some trust. Anyone who’s ever worked in schools can attest to the importance of trust in building a strong learning environment for children and adults. Research backs this up – in a seminal study of 400 schools in Chicago, the presence of “relational trust” predicted whether schools improved over the 10-year period of the study.

But of course we need time to build trust. That’s why our first recommendation in the report is to call on leaders to provide teachers and educators with time in their schedules to build trusting relationships with families. To maximize this new investment in time, we also suggest districts re-purpose their family engagement funding allocations to focus on capacity-building support for staff, especially if traditional family-facing work only serves a small share of families. This means we need to deploy real resources (in time and dollars) to help educators unlearn current mental models about families and begin developing new strategies based on what they uncover about themselves and their families through the process of deeper trust-building. The north star we suggest is a family engagement practice that is driven through a lens of solidarity, has a clear focus on equity, and embraces a spirit of liberation – because that is the only antidote to the current system based on hierarchy.

I hear from educators all the time asking for examples of what this work looks like in practice. On October 28th, I will be hosting a live panel discussion with three fabulous principals who will discuss their journeys leading for more authentic family engagement in their schools. They are a diverse group of leaders – from traditional and charter schools, seasoned veterans and newer leaders. They are a racially diverse group who will discuss how their racial identities show up in this work. Most importantly, we will share what we have tried, what’s worked, what hasn’t, and what we’ve learned along the way.

Please don’t hesitate to reach out if you have any questions for the panel ahead of time, or if you’d like to be in touch with me for any reason.

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