Sunday, September 14, 2014

Connecting with Families

One of the many advantages of looping with students is gaining the opportunity to connect with parents and other family members.  My school held their annual Back to School Night on Thursday and I had a great time catching up with my students' families as well as reminding everyone of our shared goal to create first-generation American college graduates.  Overall, my school had a pretty good parent turnout (at least judging from the parking lot).  However, despite the turnout, I know that certain colleagues will lament about the lack of parental involvement for the remainder of the school year.

I am not naive to the challenges that my colleagues face.  I have also experienced frustration over getting parents to show up to meetings or implore their child to take school a bit more seriously.  However, by and large, I have been able to connect with families and would rank parent involvement towards the bottom of my list of challenges as an educator.  Here are a few of my secrets:
  • Be Explicit: One of the reasons why so many of my students' families show up to events such as Back to School Night is because I explicitly say, "I want to meet/see your family."  Their responses are usually along the lines of "Am I in trouble?" or "They can come even if they don't speak English?"  Once I reassure the students that they are not in trouble (at least in 95% of the cases) and that I will figure out a way to communicate, they are usually on board.  In fact, most are proud that their teacher would take a such an interest in their family.
  • Be Respectful: In my opinion, one of the main reasons why teachers have such a difficult time connecting with ESOL families beyond Back to School Night is due to the fact that the families feel uncomfortable.  Just like American parents, ESOL parents want to be acknowledged and welcomed.   When teachers gear their presentations and attention towards English-speaking parents while ignoring the parents of ESOL students, the community does take note.  If you can, learn a few words in your students' primary language.  If you are unable to do that, a handshake and a smile are universal signs of friendliness and respect.
  • Be Flexible: Many schools have a set time during the school day for parent conferences.  While some of my students' parents are able to attend meetings at 10:30 in the morning, many of them have uncompromising work schedules.  Rather than take the "if they really cared about their child, they would take off or just quit their job" attitude, I have met with families as early at 6:30 A.M.  I have also held phone conferences and arranged for sub coverage to meet with parents if the only time they could meet was when I had a class.  The families appreciate the effort and are usually willing to partner with me.
  • Be Memorable: Juan is one of my current eighth grade students.  I have been teaching him since he was in sixth grade and when I first met his father, he was wearing a New York Yankees hat.  With the help of a translator, I explained that the Yankees are the despised rival of my Boston Red Sox.  He laughed and has made sure to wear that hat every time he comes to the school.  If I'm not in the office, he makes the effort to come to my classroom, point to his hat and smile.  There may be a language barrier, but we have kept up the inside joke for over two years and the one time that Juan was unwilling to cooperate in class, Sr. Martinez came right up to the school to back me up.

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