Walk into just about any school in America and you’ll see that most teachers come from the same demographic—white, middle class women. Like me. And we white, middle class women have pretty clear ideas on what parental involvement means when it comes to our own kids. We bake (or at least buy) organic, gluten-free cupcakes. We show up early to parent-teacher conferences with documentation in hand and a list of prepared questions. We keep math manipulatives around the house to help with homework. We know what our kids are learning about it school and we’re very invested in finding ways to help them. And that’s great.

As teachers, we spend a lot of time bemoaning the lack of parental involvement for our students, especially in low-income schools. I’m not on my high horse here; I’ve done the same thing. It’s taken me nine years of teaching exclusively low-income students to figure a few things out about parental support and parental involvement.

When I first started, I had tons of ideas for parental involvement.  I’d send home newsletters. I’d have performance nights where kids could show off their work. I’d be the queen of parent-teacher conferences, because I always wanted parents to be aware of and proactive about any problems that might be on the horizon. But that didn’t work. I realized pretty quickly that lots of the parents at my school don’t read English, and some don’t read at all. Many parents have had negative experiences in school, and don’t feel comfortable attending events if they can avoid it.
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As for those parent-teacher conferences, well…if I need a conference with my son’s teachers, it’s fairly simple (although it doesn’t always feel that way). I get a sub for an hour, drive to his school, talk to his teachers, and head back to work. Because, you see, I have a car. And a driver’s license. I don’t have to choose between walking the last mile from the train station to the school, paying for a taxi (with no carseat for any babies or toddlers who might come along), or risking arrest if I drive myself. It makes a big difference.

At first, if parents didn’t show up for a conference or were reluctant to schedule one at all, I chalked it up to apathy. After all, what could be more important that their child’s education? As it turns out, nothing. Many of these folks literally walked through the desert to get their child into school. If they can’t make it across town to discuss why their daughter is failing three classes, they probably have a damn good reason.
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So I learned that parents who aren’t able to be highly involved can still be extremely supportive. But it turns out that support often looks different in different cultures, too. A few years ago, a colleague of mine had a meeting with a dad about his son’s failing grades. When the student walked into the room, his dad immediately delivered a backhand that took the kid to the floor. It wasn’t okay. We brought in a counselor. We changed some things about the way we communicate with parents.

But eventually, we also realized that this was a father who cared deeply about his son, and who was trying to support our school in a way that was culturally appropriate for him. Maybe it’s disingenuous to compare a slap in the mouth to gluten-free organic cupcakes, but there are real cultural differences in the ways parents reinforce and support what we teach.

The vast majority of parents I’ve met care passionately about their children’s education, but they show it differently than the moms in my own social circle. If I’m not careful, that disconnect leads me down a train of thought that goes something like this: “Well, if they can’t even bother to show up for a conference, how do they expect their kid to care about school? It’s no wonder so many of these kids drop out; they’ve seen that education isn’t a priority from their parents. What’s the point of calling home if the parents are just going to scream at the kid and aren’t going to actually try to figure out the problem?” These thoughts don’t make me a better teacher.
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Over the years I’ve spent with these families, I’ve figured out a few tricks to make it easier. These days we mainly meet with parents if their kids are failing multiple classes or if there’s a major miscommunication between home and school that needs to be clarified. I’ve driven parents home from these conferences a time or two. Generally, I spend a planning period every week roaming around the school looking for a faculty member who speaks Spanish or Bengali or Amharic so I can let parents know how their kids are doing.

I don’t send home a class newsletter anymore—it was pretty much an exercise in futility that stressed me out and wasted those precious copies. But I ask the kids to talk to their parents a lot for homework. Nothing difficult; no advanced math here. Questions like, find out how your parents chose your name, and why it’s meaningful to them. Or ask your parents what they think is a reasonable age to get married and why. Often the kids come back with responses that are way more detailed than I expected, and it lets parents know a little about what we’re doing in class.

I try to call home about good stuff as often as I can, and I’m a lot more careful when I call about problems. I’ve learned that some of my students’ parents are likely to solve those problems with a belt, and I personally don’t feel like it’s the most effective way. Usually I look to the kids for guidance on situations like this. Here’s what that conversation might sound like: “David, you cheated on this paper. The entire third and fourth paragraph are plagiarized, and I know you know what that is, because this is the second time this has happened. At this point, I have to assign you detention, give you a zero on the paper, and call your parents. Would it make your life easier if I give you tonight to talk to your parents about it first, and then I call them tomorrow? Or would you rather I asked them to come in for a meeting so we can all talk about it together?” The parents get the information they need, but it gives the kid a little more accountability and preserves my relationship with the student.

I still have rough patches with parents. And the sad fact is that not every parent cares about their child’s education. But the vast majority of them do care, and realizing that has made my interactions and relationships with parents much easier and more productive. We all love the kids. We all want them to succeed.  And it’s only if we remember this that we can really work together to help them.
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