By Michele Cousins Bandler
Current research shows that students whose families are engaged in their education are more likely to adapt well to school, attend school regularly, complete homework, earn better grades, attain higher test scores, graduate from high school, go to college, have good social skills, demonstrate positive behavior, have better relationships with parents and have higher self-esteem.
As an ESOL teacher (English for Speakers of Other Languages) I always advocate for parent or guardian involvement. I have learned that parents care about their children’s education and future, but factors such as their limited education, negative experiences with the education system, cultural norms that do not emphasize parental involvement, hectic and variable work hours, or mental and physical health issues prevent them from engaging more.
Fast forward to present – when schools closed suddenly due to the pandemic, and all stakeholders were thrown into a tailspin. Educators had to figure out how to best reach students in a distance learning era. Parents had to figure out how to enable this, especially as most of my students did not own devices or have access to internet. They have all immigrated to the U.S. within the last year, so parents are still sorting out basic needs such as jobs, transportation, and living arrangements. For them, even getting to the schools to procure paperwork packets (in lieu of video classes) could be a challenge.
At first, I found that despite our best attempts, most of my students’ parents were not connecting to anything, and I was worried about them. It was as if some of our students had disappeared. In fact, this was true of our non-immigrant parents as well who live in underserved neighborhoods. Our school paraeducators and I began a long and tedious process of making phone calls and emailing every family to first ask them about their health and access to devices and wifi connections. I realized how huge the “digital divide” is in my city. Parents were not always reachable, so I tried at different times of day and left messages. Discovering that most of my families use WhatsApp to text, call, and share pictures, I put that app on my own phone. I kept a log of which parents were in touch. I updated phone numbers as we learned more information. I set up “phone ESOL class” to practice English conversation for students who did not have access to any technology.
Out of this process, the parents realized how much I care about their children, and we came to know each other and their trust in me and our system grew. The more I contacted parents, called them by name and reminded them about my availability in virtual classrooms and by phone video, the more the students and I found one another for learning. The numbers of children who I taught on a regular basis grew and my percentage was high as a result of my regular conversations, texts, and emails with every single family. Sometimes they were in the background while doing chores or just listening. Sometimes they were even in the middle of taking their child along on an errand walking or on a bus while the student attends the virtual classroom. While it could be distracting, that the students’ siblings, parents, aunts or uncles were in the background – at times waving at me – while the student was engaging with me , put them in touch with what their student was learning and strengthened the bonds between them and me.
This level of involvement may not be required when children are dropped off at brick and mortar schools, but would go far in increasing student attendance and achievement in either case. However, in a teacher’s typical day of teaching, grading, testing, progress monitoring and administering state and city compliance oriented tasks, regular meaningful, intimate interaction with parents often gets put on the back burner. It shouldn’t.
I propose that school leaders from the CEO/Superintendent to the principals support these efforts. Look to Head Start which has had success by incorporating and requiring family involvement in its educational model. Create additional planning time by prioritizing this over meetings that could be e-mails. Encourage family outreach planning and contact during some team meetings or teacher professional days. Make more home visits a common practice. Students, families, teachers and whole communities would thrive.
Michele Cousins Bandler is an ESOL Teacher at John Ruhrah Elementary Middle School.