Working With Families: Meet Them Where They Are
The area in Northern California where I live has adapted to virtual learning in the schools, shelter-in-place orders to help contain the pandemic, wildfires causing unhealthy air quality, and more. These are things we cannot necessarily control, but what we can control right now is how we respond to circumstances, and to each other, and that includes the families of the students we teach. I have learned to pivot and “reframe” the issues: I take a moment and review, looking for an empathetic and positive response that will be beneficial for everyone. I’ve learned to meet them where they are.
This summer the uncertainty of the 2020–2021 school year was still in the air. A hidden gift proved to be online learning that was available. An impactful webinar series I took part in was offered by the California Association of African American Superintendents and Administrators and the lessons I walked away with from educators such as Pedro Noguera, Kenneth Wesson, and Bettina Love filled me with hope and a mission. While I always make relationships with students’ families a priority, I began to dig for ways I could demonstrate an authentic appreciation for the diverse lives in my class and school.
I vividly recall when last year, prior to the pandemic, I had a family conference with a Black student’s father. His voice cracked as he told me, “I tell my son he has to own his stuff. Everything he does reflects on an entire race. We all get judged for everything he does.” That powerful moment led him to ask me how we were teaching Black History. I asked what he had in mind, and then invited him to come to class and share contributions that Black people had made to our country’s development. As the father shared with the class, he introduced me to people I wasn’t aware of. The lesson empowered the father, inspired the son, and awakened the class. That lesson is now integrated into a project-based learning unit called “Being the Change.” I learned how important it is to make sure everyone has a voice and a safe place to use it.
I am a “driver,” which means I want to attack problems, solve them, and move on. This pandemic and shelter-in-place order humbled me. I learned that I need to be present and hold space for what is put in front of me. During a recent webinar, author and coaching consultant Elena Aguilar spoke to educators and administrators on the value of “holding silence more, talking less.” By putting aside your ego to grow empathy and perspective, you build trusting relationships.
My family conferences are more often conversations: We simply talk. I ask questions such as “What brought you to this area? What are some things that inspire you? What’s an element/celebration/piece of your culture we can share as a class year-round? What is something I didn’t ask? Tell me more. . . .” This year, I have a student whose family is from Estonia. I asked the parent what she misses, and she said, “The candy. I don’t know what’s different about it but it’s. . . .” It was a small thing, but her face lit up as she continued to talk. She felt heard and appreciated.
Students’ families are an equally important piece of our class community. If we don’t take time to see and hear them, what part of their history do we erase? I make it a goal to take the time to relate to the student’s family and learn more about what makes them them.
I’m an optimist. It takes too much from my spirit to be otherwise. I read a quote once that said “The difference between a stumbling block and a stepping stone is how you use them.” Now, I do everything possible to use the current challenges as a moment to step up and move forward. Teaching in a virtual environment can be draining and exhausting. When I feel myself creating the habitual stumbling block of seeing only a problem, I “reframe”: I stop and ask myself, “What reason do I have to value this issue/person/problem?” This philosophy often benefits my students and their families in ways I don’t even realize. For example, not long after the start of the school year, a parent approached me to share an issue they were having with the distance learning format. My honest initial emotion was one of impatience and some irritation (“What do they want me to do? We have a required process.”). Thankfully, none of that came out from my mouth. Instead, I paused and asked myself what I needed to value. My response then was more empathetic: “I’m truly sorry your family is struggling. It’s scary for students and stressful for you. He must really miss his friends.” While it didn’t immediately solve the problem (yet!), it put the conversation back where it needed to be.
When our surroundings feel out of control, we have the ability to take action, no matter how big or small. I’ve learned to put effort into finding the bright spots and turning them into situations where I can learn, connect, and release. Those lessons will stay with me during the next new normal, regardless of the form it may take.