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Virginia Journal of Education


First Person: Narratives from the Classroom

 

Inclusion is Important Outside the Classroom, Too

By Amy Issadore Bloom

Jessie and I rolled our eyes as the vice principal announced that we could sign up for two committees. We all knew this was mandatory “volunteering,” but in that strange, passive-aggressive way we adults sometimes communicate, it was made to sound like something fun and optional.

I certainly wasn’t keen on joining the Sunshine Committee and collecting money for bridal showers, but I did want to help the greater good. As a career switcher, I figured I had something to offer from my previous professional experience. Plus, in graduate school, I presented a project on improving parent involvement in schools. It made sense to join the Parent Involvement Committee.

The school was diverse, and received Title I funding (the majority of students qualified for free/reduced lunch). We had a large population of English Language Learners. As an ESOL teacher, I saw it as part of my job to help them and their families navigate the school system, know their rights, and become a part of our community. 

I went to the first committee meeting eager to share my ideas, and with a positive attitude. The two committee heads sat in the front of the room. They hadn’t even bothered to put the chairs into a circle to create at least the illusion of a participatory meeting.

One of the two rattled off a plan of action, while the other committee members graded papers, updated their lesson plan books, and nodded along. Despite what the committee chairs thought, it was far from perfect plan, even if it had been in place for several years.

I suggested something small and easy to change. Meeting times were always the same, making it impossible for a parent who worked Tuesday nights to participate in the PTA. I mentioned this, and my graduate school project. I was met with a flip of the hair and, “Don’t worry. We got it.”

The whole thing was like a scene from “Clueless” or “Mean Girls.” It wasn’t an isolated incident, either. The school seemed to be eerily made up of young, attractive teachers. They were cliquey, gossiped and tried hard to become the principal’s favorite. They rarely questioned the status quo. I probably should have left after my first year. It just wasn’t a good fit, as the principal so kindly pointed out years later. Looking back, I’m not sorry I didn’t fit in to that kind of atmosphere.

What did it say about our school when the very people tasked with including parents couldn’t even make their committee members feel valued and included?

I wasn’t alone in feeling uncomfortable at certain meetings. One of my favorite teachers—with decades of experience, yet still always so up to date on the latest approaches—actually left a meeting in tears once. This is not OK.

Teaching is stressful enough, so it’s completely unnecessary  to also find yourself undervalued and excluded, or to wonder who might be gossiping about you in the lunchroom. I didn't know yet that advocate organizations like VEA could have helped those of us who felt bullied by the principal or other teachers.

The hair-flipper happened to be an excellent teacher, effectively incorporating the latest strategies and best practices into her classroom. For this, she was an obvious choice for leadership roles in the school. But where she and most of the others failed was her inability to accept new ideas, and in being a little less of an authority on everything.

The school had wonderful parent liaisons who translated everything into Spanish and Vietnamese, held parents’ hands during difficult IEP meetings, and organized coffee klatches to discuss the educational system. They walked effortlessly between different languages and communities, and would have made ideal heads of the Parent Involvement Committee.

The results of that parent involvement committee were not terrible; the major events still drew a big crowd. But our limited English families rarely did more than bring food. They didn't attend PTA meetings, and if they did, they didn't speak.

I was quiet and bitter at the next committee meeting. Eventually, I started speaking up again, but usually ended up regretting it. Over the years, I learned to control my instinct to ask questions. By my fourth year at the school, one of the committee chairs actually sought my input on some issues she was having with the new ESOL teacher. She still had a habit of being dismissive, but it didn’t offend me as much.

My ESOL team leader, on the other hand, was a model for all. She was dedicated to the students, advocated for her fellow teachers, and had that rare ability to make people feel special. She also started each school year by giving us a goody bag of school supplies and chocolate - a small, but much appreciated gesture.

Issadore Bloom (bloomindc@gmail.com), a former member of the Fairfax Education Association, is now a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C. You can read more of her writing by visiting her blog, www.bloomindc.com.

 


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