(Considering the class I worked with in the Spring it was hard for me to continually use the word “parent” because some of the children were foster children, others lived with relatives, etc. So, I use parents and families interchangeably)
One of the main issues that teachers face when working in multicultural and linguistically diverse classrooms is effectively communicating with the parents of English Language Learners (ELLs). In some cases, depending on the country of emigration and socioeconomic status, some of these parents are not literate in either English or their first language. Based on my research the best way for teachers to effectively bridge the communication gap between these parents is to collaborate closely with the school and school district to develop programs that will encourage parent participation.
This reflection focuses uncovering alternative approaches for reaching out to parents when the school system or district is not cooperative. In light of my reflections I have set up a six step plan. The following steps are for teachers to look at the types of parent involvement and strategize on ways to get those parents involved in their children’s education. All the steps are interrelated and do not need to be followed in the order in which I list them. The final goal of these steps is to help teachers consider how they can build effective relationships with the parents of the children in their classes, thereby increasing parent participation and collaboration.
The first step is, learning about the families. This step is a year long process that can be explored in various ways. First, it is crucial for the teachers to learn about each student. Through students, much can be learned about their families. How do we get to know our ELLs? “Of particular importance are the students’ native languages and cultures, the length and quality of prior formal education in their native language, any previous education that they have received in U.S. schools, the amount of time they have been in the United States and the extent of the exposure to English” (Hill & Flynn, 2006, pp. 112) Many of these facts are readily available through each students’ records.
To acquire more information about the students and their families, teachers can draft their own surveys for the families of their students. I know a few teachers who do this even as a personal precaution; at the very least they need personal information such as emergency phone numbers and addresses an essential part of their files. So, if by some chance general information about the children’s prior schooling is not available through records, teachers can ask questions in their surveys. Another resourceful strategy to getting to know the parents or families through the survey would be to find out “what the parents knew about school systems in the United States” (Hill et al., 2006 p. 114) Depending on how much the teacher wants to learn about the families they serve, they can also attend community functions and events. By just getting to know the community, teachers’ insights about family challenges may become clearer (Freeman & Freeman, 2001).
Reaching out to the parents as early as possible, either before or during the start of the school year, transitions easily into the second step which is, encouragement. Getting an early start on welcoming parents into the brand new school year of their children’s education connects the teacher to the parent immediately. Depending on the teacher’s resources, parents can be welcomed through a letter or by invitation to visit the class with their child. Teachers’ goals in this step should be to demonstrate that they care and instill conditioned expectations in the parent-teacher relationship. What I mean by conditioned expectations is that as teachers, we want to somehow get parents conditioned to at least expect correspondences with us. Teachers need to be bold and confident in this step because it sets a first impression. Research shows that one factor affecting parent participation is “teachers’ belief in their ability to teach and their pupils’ ability to learn” (Caballero, nd, p. 2).
Encouragement is also somewhat of a persuasive measure. Teachers want parents to feel encouraged or invited to participate in their child’s education and that can start with a warm welcome. One reason why encouraging parents to participate in their children’s education is important is that “parent involvement reduces dropout rates and improves school performance” (Caballero, nd, p. 2). Some valid points discussed by Freeman and Freeman are that parents do not have to be educated, literate, or proficient in English to engage in certain conversations and activities with their children (2001). Moving forward, if a warm welcome was not enough to engage certain parents then teachers can consider which activities students can take home and actually do with their families, i.e., book readings and translations. Send children home with books they can read or have read in class and let them do a read a loud at home as well as translation. Or facilitate library projects for students and parents to listen to, read, and discuss books on tape translated in English and the primary language. Then students can write about that experience and their discoveries. “Though parents may ask themselves how they can help when they do not speak English, what children need to learn are ideas, concepts and processes, and it does not matter in which language they learn these things” (Cummings, Krashen et al., as cited in Freeman et al.,2001, p. 261).
While step 2 might sound like a relatively simple step it is the most difficult to assess. What do you do if all your efforts to reach out to certain parents are fruitless? To answer this question I offer a very plain solution, the third step, which is readiness. If teachers have done their homework as suggested in step 1, and they know the families they are dealing with, then they might realize that the parent is not responding because they do not know how to write back, or their working conditions are hindering them etc. The bottom line is that there are a variety of reasons why teachers may not be able to initiate a relationship with parents. While there might be a slim chance that the parent just do not care, Freeman and Freeman offer the following alternative and prevalent reasons why parents or families ELLs “seem” to not care:
Teachers who criticize parents for not trying to learn English and for not spending more time with their children, however, may not realize how difficult it is for immigrant parents to adjust to life in a new country, to understand the school system, and to comprehend the expectations schools have of parents. (Freeman et al, 2001, p. 247)
Why is readiness important? The answer is simple, readiness is important to salvage the teacher’s mental health. Some teachers think that because they are a force for change that they can take on the burdens of the world. I am like that, so I speak from experience. A colleague of mine plainly said to me “you are going to burn yourself out, and you won’t be able to give the students what they need.” I offer these words to other teachers as pure tokens of wisdom. Readiness simply suggest that teachers prepare themselves for the difficulties they will face while doing their job; but they have to know what they can change, and what they cannot change and just do their best in the circumstances.
The Communication Connection is the fourth step. This step stresses that teachers need to reach out to whichever parents they can. Furthermore, they should show parents that communication is an effective tool that will only help further their children’s education. Teachers can communicate with families using various methods and tools. The Communication Connection involves teachers knowing the languages represented in their classes, familiarizing themselves with resources and tools that can facilitate the communication process with parents or families and finally seeking and using opportunities to validate both the languages and cultures of the families represented in their classes. Since the first step in communicating with parents and families would be to connect with them, I suggest teacher leveled “intensive outreach” (Hill et al., 2006 p.114).
A few connection tips teachers might like to consider include, having meetings with the parents or families just to get to know them; follow-up meetings or parent / family nights updating families about their children’s progress or simply giving them tips about how they can help their children with English acquisition; Making visuals that communicate with children, either through their languages or universally, part of the class environment (if children feel their culture is acknowledge and affirmed in class, they will tell their parents about it); Getting to know the community and community workers is a great way to build understanding about the parents and families the teacher is involved with (partnering with community workers can be valuable to teachers they can serve as translators and even guest speakers for related events for class). All of these suggestions are simplified outreach approaches, or as I have said, teacher leveled. District leaders devise more complex ways to uses these approaches but again if teachers can not get the help they need these techniques might be useful (Hill et al., 2006).
A colleague of mine once described teaching as a multifaceted career that entailed not just research and learning but also counseling, nurturing, and educating. I would like to add one more characteristic to her list, advertising. The fifth step is Recruiting. In other words, teachers should elicit parents or family help in the classroom or for activities. This is a direct way to demonstrate your interest in having them participate in their children’s education. In the event that parents do not contribute to activities or events teachers can invite trusted community workers and friends who represent the same cultures included in the class. Again, if the children are excited about how their culture is being honored in the class, they will motivate and encourage their parents to also be partakers. Of course teachers need to influence the students in that thinking by suggesting that next time maybe one of their parents or someone they know can help. Children can also assist n creating invitations for their families to participate in various class functions.
Going back to the suggestion that various types of parent- teacher meetings would be beneficial, teachers can also consider this an opportunity to encourage parents to come in and assist in other class activities. If teachers even go as far as to encourage parents to take active roles in their children’s education by helping to choose books for class read alouds, for example, family responses may be overwhelmingly positive. Evidently, this step requires persistence teachers should extend invitations “often and in several ways” (Hill et al., 2006 p.116).
The final step is Being an objective problem solver. Researching other ways to engage the parents is a vital aspect of this step. As teachers we may find that much of our efforts to improve our children’s education outside of school seem futile. In my opinion, despite these results we cannot give up, nor should we jump to conclusions about the parents and families responsible for these children after school. Instead, I would like to challenge educators to be objective problem solvers. Although they may observe something, the contributing factors involved in that observation vary. So, this step also encourages teachers to be strategic in their thinking and in how they respond to certain family related dilemmas. One example of why this approach is important is that “Keys to reaching Latino parents are strong personal outreach, warm, non-judgmental communication and the ability to convey respect for the parents’ feelings and concerns (HPDP 1990)” (Caballero, nd, p 12)
Researcher Joyce Epstein has delineated five types of parent involvement including: “meeting basic obligations of children and building positive home conditions; school-home communications about programs and progress; in schools as volunteers and as programs and workshop participants; in learning activities at home and in monitoring and assisting with homework; and governance, advocacy and monitoring schools” (1) Considering these five types of family participations, teachers need to develop realistic expectations from these parents. This measure also relates to “readiness.” Many factors can lead parents and family involvements to develop the way they do. But as teachers it is still our responsibility to give parents what they need to participate in their children’s education, in as many ways as possible. This is important because research has found “parents’ participation in schools to be positively correlated to student achievement” (Caballero, nd, p 1).
Caballero, D. (n.d.) Latino Parent Involvement: The Challenge to Principals. New York, NY
Freeman, D. E., & Freeman, Y. S. (2001). Between Worlds: Access to Second Language Acquisition. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Hill, J. D., & Flynn, K. H. (2006). Classroom Instruction that works with English Language Learners. VA: ASCD.