Q: I’m an elementary school teacher, and I welcome parent involvement. We have a large immigrant population in my school. Without fail, the parents who come on field trips, volunteer to read the students stories, or act as room parents are the U.S.-born parents. I think there are several issues at play. In some cases, there are language barriers. In others, I think they don’t feel comfortable reaching out. I also think there’s some insecurity that they’ll do it “wrong” or that they won’t understand expectations. And I suspect that work schedules often are an issue, too. Of course, I’m projecting. I’d like to figure it out, though, and do a better job involving all my students’ parents, regardless of their backgrounds. The kids are very aware of whose parents are in the classroom, and that can be hard when it’s the same ones over and over again.
A: I agree that this is both difficult and important, and you have to be strategic and sensitive. I’d start with logistics. What languages do your students’ parents speak? Once you establish that, I’d send home a letter that’s translated into every language used in their homes. In that note, I’d start to build a relationship. I’d include the following points: “I value who you are and appreciate your sharing your children with us. I want to build community, and I welcome your involvement in the classroom and the school as a whole. Here are several activities that you might like to participate in this year, but I’d love to hear about any additional ways you’d like to get involved. Please share any information you’d like about your interests or passions.”
Keep language barriers in mind at all times, whether you’re calling a parent or sending a permission slip home. Your school system may give you access to language lines or other in-school resources. I’d also be careful not to make any assumptions. Someone who seems distant and uninterested might be happy to help, but was raised in a country where that’s atypical. In some cultures, schools take care of education and parents don’t volunteer in the classroom.
Once you’ve addressed the language issue, I’d factor in parents’ varied work demands and be as flexible as possible on timing. Instead of inviting parents for a middle-of-the-day read-aloud, for example, you could widen the window of opportunity. For some families, it might be easiest to come right at drop-off. Others might prefer the end of the day. Work with parents and ask for feedback on availability. You also can offer activities they can do at home, whether it’s cutting out shapes or stuffing letters. Offer a range of tasks people can do regardless of their literacy skills or physical availability. One teacher told me about a parent who doesn’t have the time to go into the classroom, but who sews pillows for all the kindergartners to use during rest time.
I’d also flip the model. Instead of stating what you need, ask parents what they’d like to do. Think more broadly than “one and done.” Real inclusion means doing more than a token culture lunch. Let’s say you know you’ll be focusing for the next three months on reading about different cultures. Share your book list and invite parents to come in to read a book that celebrates their heritage, or to talk about a family tradition. Instead of designating one day as International Night, strive to infuse the curriculum with lessons about the value of cultural diversity. Regularly ask for input from your families.
Use the current room parents to help your cause. Ask them to reach out to individual parents. Often, people unthinkingly rely on the same crop of volunteers. Familiarity breeds comfort, but it also breeds exclusion. Share your concerns with the parents assuming leadership roles, and engage them in brainstorming solutions. There may even be parents in your class who speak multiple languages and can help bridge the divide. There also may be older siblings who can help transmit your message. Be careful not to put any one person in the position of speaking for their entire culture.
You also can help foster a welcoming environment by building parents’ comfort with the school. Invite them to events where nothing is expected of them but their presence. Ask them questions about their lives and follow up later. You might be able to say, “I remember you said you love to paint. Would you like to help with the scenery for the spring play?” Once you’ve removed as many logistical barriers as possible, I’d spend the bulk of your time on strengthening relationships.
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