As I have come into this role as a parent I have a greater appreciation and sense about the families that I once taught. I have always really truly enjoyed having parents visit the classroom and I love it when they stay to join us in some learning or teaching moments. However, it wasn’t until I was taking my Masters degree at the University of Saskatchewan, that I really tried to make families a priority in my classroom. I was studying under the guidance of Debbie Pushor and focusing my learning in Reggio Emilia (which holds families and parents in high regard in the education practices). The very first class I took at the University was specifically about engaging families within the classroom curriculum. It really opened my eyes to the knowledge that families can bring to the classroom. Duh! I know it sounds like a no-brainer, but in actuality, I think there was a lot of things that I was missing in my classroom environment and teachings.
Since I began teaching, I always wondered how parents seemed to easily drop their child off at the beginning of the school year, give them a hug and leave. I was, am, and always will be a stranger to that child when the school year begins. It has not been until I have begun to speak to families and parents about the fears and aspirations for their children while attending school, that I have learned that the hug goodbye is the hardest thing they do. Parents fear for their child when they leave them at school. Not fear that something will happen, but fear that the teacher, staff, or another adult, will not love their child unconditionally as they do. Other adults may not know or understand their unique quirks, abilities, struggles, and stories. “We always walk into the middle of something that has a history long before we have arrived.” (Pushor, 2012, July) The children that we are teaching have many stories that have contributed to their lives, their strengths, weaknesses, fears, and happiness. As teachers it is our job to know these stories as well as we can in order to build upon the knowledge that a child and his/her family brings into the classroom.
We were blessed to have Maria and Walter Linklater join our class in order to hear some of their family stories. Maria said something that day that struck me to my core and acted as my “aha” moment. “Take care of our children, because they are on loan to us.” (Linklater, 2012, July) I had never thought about children in this sense and thought that she phrased her apprehension for her children and grandchildren attending school eloquently. As a grandmother, she still worries about her grandchild’s first day of school and wonders about how they are interacting with the teacher and students. Her view on family was spiritual and uplifting. After I heard Maria and Walter speak, I promised myself that I would do something different. I want to engage parents within my classroom so that they can feel confident and secure with their child being in my care.
Debbie said something over and over that term, “Invite, invite, invite.” Parents and families have their own concepts about schooling and as teachers, we have created an environment that isn’t the most inviting place for parents. We ask these families to bring us their little babies and leave them with us (total strangers!) for the majority of their day. As a mother, this is a truly terrifying thought! I can’t imagine dropping Jude or Lulu off, saying good-bye and then just leaving. That’s it! Now I’m not saying that all teachers slam the door in the face of the parents as soon as the kids walk in at the bell, but there is a large portion of us who sigh in the staff room and grind our teeth when that “helicopter mom” just can’t leave!
Here’s my thought…why is being a helicopter parent such a bad thing? Isn’t that saying to us as educators that they care deeply about their child? That they want to be a part of the classroom? I think we have been told time and time again that we know what is best, as educators, we hold the knowledge. Well, for those of you that are parents, you know that no one, not another being on this earth knows your child like you do. Not one. So why are we so quick to shut the door, ask parents to leave, or only ask them to join us on field trips when we need someone to watch a small group?
I had always sent a note home at the beginning of the year that asked parents to tell me about their child. Likes, dislikes, hobbies, if they have siblings, that sort of a thing. Then I would send home a little form that allowed them to fill in a volunteer schedule for themselves. (I am cringing at this thought now! What was I thinking??) I was going through the motions. This is what you do, you ask for a volunteer to laminate or cut things out, maybe read with the kids. Now, sure this is great, but are we really valuing parents? As I was learning in my Parent Engagement class, the real value that a parent holds is in their knowledge of the child. And this, is truly invaluable.
I began that fall, following the completion of my summer class, writing a letter to families about myself. I then asked for parents to write me back. It was simple, there was no scheduling volunteers or working on calendars, just a letter. And I’m being completely honest when I say, it changed the way I taught. I saw my students in a completely different light. Their parents wrote to me about their fears and hopes and dreams, their child’s pets, and what they liked to do as a family. I also got incredible insight into the behaviour of their child, how they acted when they were hurt or sad. Some of the letters brought me to tears. You could feel the love that those parents had for their baby. And just by allowing them to write freely, allowed them to share whatever they thought was important for me to know.
I also did home visits and used the book, Beyond the Bake Sale, to help me understand the value of a home visit and also help me understand the difference they can make. I established these beautiful relationships with families at the very beginning of the school year. I remember telling my husband I would be home within an hour or so at my first visit with a family. I left home at 6pm and didn’t come home until 9pm! Now, this isn’t always possible, and at the time I didn’t have any children of my own, but it was fantastic. I loved meeting siblings, and seeing how parents talked to their child in the home. One family was cleaning up from dinner when I arrived, and I was able to see how the dynamic of the family worked together after dinner, the roles each played, and the responsibilities that the child that I was teaching had. One of the things that I love the most about home visits, is that I don’t really talk about school. That’s not really why I’m there. I do ask if they have any hopes and dreams for their child this year that they would like to share with me, but other than that, we just chat. I highly encourage you to take part in home visits with your families.
I work hard to create a classroom environment that says to parents, “This is a place for you too.” I do not want parents to remain outside of the classroom door, but to freely walk in and linger within the classroom environment, engage in conversations with the children and myself, and spontaneously partake in the happenings of the bustling classroom. I want children to have the experience of childhood within my classroom and the years to come that they deserve.
In the words of Maria Linklater, “Take care of our children, for they are on loan to us.”
The professional photos are credit to my wonderful friend, Chelsea Klette. Check out her website here.
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