Q&A: Connecting With Teachers: A Parent’s Perspective

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I first met Tenisha Day in 2004, when her daughter was in my first grade class. This was only a few years into my teaching career, and looking back, there is so much I would have done differently, especially related to building strong relationships with families. I did a lot of talking “at” kids and talking “at” families. I have always wished I could somehow go back to change that. I learned, and one thing I do better now is talk less and listen more.

I was thrilled to have the opportunity to connect with Tenisha again to discuss how educators work with families. She shared valuable perspectives as a mother to four daughters who have experienced two very different school systems and she reflects on her own experiences with that duality. (Note: This has been edited for length and format.)

Q. What have schools done to connect with you as a parent that you appreciated?

Tenisha Day: It’s always important that teachers use multiple forms of communication because sometimes emails go to the junk mail folder. I’m a night-shift nurse, so I sleep during the day, and we can end up playing phone tag, so I like when teachers are tech-savvy and have learned to text message or use apps that help connect us, like posting pictures of the kids. It makes me better able to be involved. I think that if the stigma were erased that because you’re not physically present you’re not participating, it would do a lot because we are no longer a society of stay-athome moms and parents, it’s just not feasible.

The schools where we currently live are really good about bringing parents in and hosting events for families. Normally, the timing is awful, but the kids love it. They love seeing their teacher. It’s not something they did in our previous neighborhood. I think that’s a great way to include families.

But I think communication is the biggest factor —having multiple avenues of communication with families. Not a newsletter, but a regular text message just saying, “We’re still here, doing well!” It’s not that I’m not present, or I don’t care, I just have all these things going on! All the things you have to do, I have to do.

Q. One of the guiding principles of Responsive Classroom states: What we know and believe about our students—individually, culturally, developmentally—informs our expectations, reactions, and attitudes about those students. How does that belief connect to your children’s experiences in school?

TD: In reference to my third daughter, she doesn’t work well unless she is seen. She really needs to be seen, and heard, and acknowledged by whatever adult is caring for her. So if a teacher is just performing their job or is someone who is very task-oriented, my daughter just doesn’t do well. My daughter needs to connect and her worst experiences in school have been with teachers that don’t connect with her. She has an artsy sort of brain and she is a wiggle worm. I think it’s off-putting for some people, and she won’t perform well for that person. There was one teacher who didn’t encourage her, and instead she berated her, and yelled at her. It was a tough time for my daughter. And it was hard building her back up. My husband and I try to have a really great balance of not sheltering the girls and trying to fix everything for them, and being honest with them that everyone isn’t going to be nice. Everyone isn’t going to like you, you can’t like everyone, and you can’t let it rule your thoughts all of the time. But the central question for all of us should always be: “What’s best for the students? What does this student need?”

One of the main reasons we moved was because of the older girls. I remember thinking things would be better if I just got them into a different school district. At least they’d have a better shot in life. The school systems where we used to live couldn’t support their needs after elementary school. Middle school was dangerous, and it terrified me. They didn’t support the children. They didn’t support the needs of the community. They didn’t have the capacity to support what was happening. But then I had an epiphany after being in our current area for a while, that I did my kids a disservice. Now they were the minority and I worried that I had forgotten about their social needs. I was so focused on their academic needs that I didn’t consider the social dynamic that they were thrust into. It messed them up.

My oldest struggled being around others that weren’t like her. She never was able to catch up education-wise. She is a pretty girl, and she’s meek and quiet and polite, and didn’t question anything as the teachers just kept pushing her through. They put her in a little pocket of kids in a low functioning core where she had A’s and B’s the whole time. I didn’t even know that was a thing. It wasn’t until after high school that she opened up about the insecurities she had talking to teachers and relating to them.

Q. Center for Responsive Schools has a commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. How have these issues been woven throughout your or your daughters’ experiences with schools?

TD: There is a problem that no one ever wants to talk about—that education should be an even, equal playing field. The way that we segregate our public schools by income is wrong. It should stop. It is failing our country. And no one ever wants to discuss that because the people who are not benefitting don’t realize it—they’re often blind to it—and the people who are benefitting are asking themselves why would they want to stop something that benefits their children?

I have a different perspective than a lot of people. I got to see both sides of America. I grew up in Virginia (also where we now live) with my grandparents in an upper-middle-class neighborhood and I went to a school where I was one of two kids that looked like me. Not that it was comfortable, but it was my “normal.” I was raised by my grandparents, and they were the first generation in our family out of poverty. I was introduced to my mother when I was 13. She lived in Philadelphia and didn’t keep with the trend, so by default, I was the second generation. I moved there just to form a relationship with her. And I was completely naïve.

There were two things that I recognized as a teenager in Philadelphia. It was all brown, and I didn’t stick out. I felt comfortable. And it was really poor. We had been around places, and my grandparents had exposed me to some things, but I remember one of my first thoughts was “I feel comfortable here,” even though I knew that I shouldn’t because I didn’t feel safe there. The part of Philadelphia where my mother lived was dangerous. It was in the early 1990s, at the downtrend of the crack era, and was just a completely different world than what I knew. But at the same time, I could walk into a store and people would just talk to me. A huge part of me will always call Philadelphia home, but it makes me sad that it’s not getting what it needs.

In Virginia, I had gone to really great schools. I was able to run track, and I was in chorus. To go from a school where I had everything, all the things that were there, and then to my introduction to Philadelphia schools—I went to school and there was a metal detector, there were bars on the windows, security guards, lights that didn’t work. There were locked bathrooms you had to get a key to use. There were no books. My first year, I played hooky the whole time—do you think anybody even tried to call my mom and say, “Hey, your kid’s in not in school?” No one called.

There were sports like track, basketball, and football but nothing that was enriching for me. And there was the violence that was in the school. There were two neighboring projects that were against each other and they brought them together and put these children in one school, and all they did was fight. That’s all they did. So you couldn’t even get the violence under control. That’s part of the reason that I wasn’t in school. It was like, how do you learn? The teachers spent most of the time just trying to get the kids to be quiet. It was something I wasn’t used to.

It’s not all on the school, though. There were a lot of social issues that schools weren’t prepared to deal with. I can’t tell you how many friends I had that didn’t have parents at home, were taking care of siblings, that lived at homeless shelters, or that only came to school to eat. That was just life there. I can’t count how many young males that I knew growing up that had already given up on life, had already quit, like, “Somebody got to be poor.” And I stuck out because I had a different mindset: “Why aren’t you doing anything else? We just gonna sit here on a step all day?” For me, I thought the world was so wide open to me. I saw that life could be different. It made me question at a very early age why there weren’t affluent Black communities. I don’t mean wealthy, just flourishing. I looked for it. Why weren’t there middle-class Black communities? Why weren’t there upperclass Black communities? Why weren’t there Black communities that were functioning like the one I came from that was primarily white? It made me question things. When I was 14, I remember thinking, “Why is everything Black bad? Everything that’s associated with being Black or African American is bad.”

I was always interested in history, especially African American history, and I used to spend time at the library because it was open, free, and dry. I would just check out books and I would read, and then when I started college, I took a lot of African American literature and history courses. Things that people are just now learning about this system, I knew when I was 15 years old. I did the best I could with the people I would encounter, saying, “The system is set up this way, you can’t quit because the system has been rigged, you can’t quit, you just can’t quit.” But people were already defeated.

When I was in a good place I was always trying to speak positivity and tell people to get their lives together because there’s more. When you and I first met, I was maybe 22 years old, and at that point I had no relationship with my mother, I had no family connections. I was literally in that city alone. I had become a single mother two times. I had my own apartment, my own car, I was working two full-time jobs, and there was one point when I was working three jobs—two of them were full-time, one was part-time—and I was in school, too. And when I wasn’t spinning, I would say to people around me, “You have to want it. You have to push for it. You have to try.” I think it’s because I was educated differently from early on. I was educated in a place where they weren’t allowed to not include me in the lesson of “You can be anything you want to be. You can do anything you want to do. Anything is possible.” Elementary school education is so important for that foundation. I always say, I left Philadelphia with a seventh grade Virginia Beach education. Even then, I was above average. They told me I was reading at a college level.

One of the reasons I never quit on myself is that I went to this program to support pregnant mothers who had dropped out of high school. I had taken this entrance test and they had classes that you could take to help you get through the test, and I thought, “No, I’m gonna just take it and move on with my life.” The teacher went over the test results with me and I could tell she already thought she knew what she was going to see but then I saw her whole demeanor change as she looked over my test, and she looked at me and asked, “Why did you quit going to school? You’re really smart.” And I told her, “I just couldn’t fit it in my life any more. It was taking more time that what I had.” She looked at me and said, “You need to finish. You’re capable of so much more.” And her words have carried me through so many obstacles in my life. Just her words. I was a 17-year-old pregnant homeless teenager and it carried me well into adulthood. At 42, I can still remember the look on that woman’s face when she told me I could do something with my life. I would love nothing more than to thank her.

Teachers need to keep that in mind. All the time. That opportunity they have to make such an impact on a child’s life. To encourage them to move forward. That’s a part of their role.