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Virginia Journal of Education


First Person: Narratives from the Classroom


Perceptions


by Amy Issadore Bloom 


Johan, a first grader, came to school in shorts. In December. It was cold out, too, not a fluke 70-degree type of day.  

I knew his parents worked, probably a couple jobs each. Johan told me they weren’t home in the morning when he left for school. I had assumed that they left him, a six-year-old, to pick out his own clothes. He ate breakfast at school, so at least that was taken care of. I was prepared for his mother to make up some excuse about not getting to the laundry or something. 

The secretary put the receiver down and looked at Johan. “Your mother said she left pants out for you. Why aren’t you wearing them?”   Johan got very serious, paused for a moment, and said, “It’s ‘cause I got too fat, and they don’t button.”   

We couldn’t control ourselves, and burst into laughter.   It was cute and funny, but later I felt pretty bad. I consider myself an open-minded thinker, as well as an advocate for the families I work with. And yet, I already had that mom figured out. It’s easy to do – lump everyone into one category. But it’s dangerous, and leads to stereotypes, low expectations, and negative attitudes. 

From teachers to politicians, everyone agrees that parent involvement is crucial to student success. But all too frequently, we create situations that discourage their involvement. We assume that they are too busy; they don’t understand, they don’t care. However, poverty, limited English, and educational background don’t have to be indicators of inadequate parent involvement. 

There is a lot of talk these days about “high expectations” in education. But are we putting it into practice? High expectations should extend beyond academics. It extends to families and the role they’re expected to play in their child’s education. And it extends to teachers and administrators who may, even unwittingly, perpetuate misconceptions. 

Whether dealing with helicopter moms or recent immigrants holding down multiple jobs, we should not make assumptions. The wealthiest of parents can be neglectful and clueless about their child. The timid mother who speaks little English might be extremely close with her children, despite working a double shift and unable to attend school functions.      

“A lot of it is perception. Teachers perceive that families don't want to be involved when, in fact, families don't know how to be involved," says Karen Salinas, communications director for the Center on School, Family and Community Partnerships at Johns Hopkins University.    

If you find certain parents never attend school events, or don’t participate actively in their child’s education, look for ways to fix it. Consider offering an alternative time and day for meetings and functions. If you always hold special events on Thursday evenings, and the parent works that night, they’ll never be able to join you.      

It can help to know that in some cultures, parent involvement in school is discouraged. Other parents might be uncomfortable in school because of their own limited education. I know of parents who stopped attending PTA meetings because they felt like it didn’t make a difference, like nobody paid attention to them. Not only were there no translators, but certain families were perhaps too involved and controlling - never letting others have a voice.   

Everyone with a child in school should feel that we are listening, that we appreciate their concerns, ideas and opinions. Our schools must be places where the diverse backgrounds of students, teachers and the community are respected. It’s not enough to teach the same old Martin Luther King Jr. lesson every year. It’s not enough to eat chips and salsa for Cinco De Mayo. We need to create an atmosphere where all backgrounds are not simply celebrated occasionally, but respected and valued consistently.   

Just like our students, their families are unique, each with a different story. They are not the same. They are not numbers. They are not statistics. Become an advocate for the families in your school who are struggling – struggling to keep their homes, to provide food for their families, to acclimate to a new country. By utilizing parent liaisons and forming connections with the community, we can empower all families to be active participants in education.

As educators, we are under a tremendous amount of stress. We labor in an over-worked and underpaid profession. But we’re also part of a profession with an incredible power to change things. Day by day, student by student - we can make a difference.

Issadore Bloom, a former member of the Fairfax Education Association, is now a freelance writer in Washington, D.C. Read more of her writing at www.bloomindc.com.


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