Ban the word “Parents”

August 24, 2016

This school year, I want to challenge you to ban certain words from your vernacular. We each have our own set of words and phrases that are taboo in our classroom, like “stupid” or “I can’t”, but this year I want to challenge you to stop using the word “parents”.

This may sound like a strange request – don’t we want parents to be engaged in our classrooms and schools? Absolutely, but I want to challenge you to realize that many of our students live in settings where “parents” are not the only figures who are important to their success.

The phrase “parents/guardian” started to mean something different to me when I began my NBCT certification journey. I was creating a survey for my students to take home, and I sought the advice of a wonderful guidance counselor at my school. I hadn’t had great return rates on my beginning-of-year survey in the previous years and I sought her help. Her support helped me realize that many of my questions had implicit bias that placed value on certain experiences not applicable to all families. And one of her best suggestions was to change “Parent Survey” to “Family Survey.”

This may seem like a small change, but take a look at a recent example in our culture. A newscaster said in a Tweet that gymnastics star Simone Biles’s mom and dad were not her “parents” since they weren’t her birth parents. While the newscaster later apologized and said that wasn’t what he really meant, it is a clear example of how our culture has so much to learn about family dynamics. The way that one person defines family may be different from how another person defines their family. And as a mother who is forming my family through adoption, I’m increasingly aware of the importance of recognizing all of the people who provide vital support and form the families of our students.

I’m also thinking of Yohanna, a student in my biology class who lives with her aunt and uncle. Instead of marginalizing or ignoring her experience, I take steps to show that I value it. When I give out the survey, I encourage my students to deliver it to whoever plays the biggest role in supporting them. It’s an interesting experience to watch students think about who in their lives offers them the most academic support. I sometimes see students stop and think about the answer, write something down, think some more, and then erase or cross out their first answer. Students are used to thinking about who gives them the most emotional support (in high school, students often list a peer), but it is such a valuable experience for them to really reflect on who they see as an academic support in their lives.

The survey includes a place for name and relationship to the student, so that when I make my first phone calls home, I can accurately ask for this person by name and relationship instead of the “May I please speak to the parent/guardian of…” that I used to say. When I called and asked to speak to Yohanna’s uncle by name, he was thrilled to talk to me about her progress in class, and I mentioned how I’d love to see her raise her hand to participate more in class discussions. The next day, I enjoyed watching Yohanna beam as I told her how much I enjoyed talking to her uncle and I noticed that over the next week, she began engaging in class more actively. By really getting to know my students, I found that I could support her emotionally and academically.

When we substitute the word “family” for “parents”, we communicate to families that we value all of the support the family can offer. Many of my students are hesitant to give me a phone number to call home because their parents don’t speak English fluently. I used to accept that, but I was losing out on the chance to engage that family and genuinely support the student. Now that I encourage students to write the name and number of the person they want me to “brag” to, I find that I am often calling an older brother or sister. Take Corey – a student of mine who wanted me to call his older brother since his mom didn’t speak English fluently. I ended up speaking with Corey’s brother at points throughout the year, and Corey’s brother would share the information with his family. We often had a call on speakerphone so that everyone could hear, but Corey and his brother would lead the conversation. Instead of leaving Corey out of my family communication, I found that I could honor his family by including them in a different way.

So, are you ready to ban the word “parents” with me this year? Below are some strategies shared by three classroom teachers, offering ideas that you can use to boost family engagement, while honoring all the different people who influence and support our students. If you have strategies that have worked for you, please share them with the #nbct #banthewordParents

Shemika Banuelos, NBCT, 1st grade teacher

Obstacle: Families may have a negative association with school. I’ve had many families tell me they don’t like coming to school because they didn’t enjoy going to school.

Solution: Send home positive notes or postcards. I love sending unexpected notes sharing something interesting a child said or did during class.

Diana Luong, Biology teacher, NBCT candidate

Obstacle: Often the language used in education can prevent families from forming relationships with educators. Families where English is a second language can be comfortable in everyday conversations, but when a letter from school comes home, the formal academic language (curriculum, interventions, individualized education plan). can prevent families from engaging on a deeper level with the school.

Solution: Remember that relationships can be built in other ways than just progress reports home. Consider reaching to families in a way that brings the community together. This past year I participated in the trunk-o-treat celebration at my school, and it was a fun way to meet parents face-to-face in a low-stakes setting. There are no serious discussions, and nothing to worry or feel embarrassed about. Events like these can help bring families out to the school, and feeling familiar with your environment leads to feeling comfortable.

Marcello Sgambelluri, 3rd grade teacher

Obstacle: Families are getting access to the information you are sharing, but they don’t appear to be engaging with it.

Solution: Use a more personal and empathetic approach, such as Flamboyan student-led conferences. Once you build a deep trust and relationship, you can then dive deeper into data and academics.

Joanna Schimizzi, NBCT

Joanna Schimizzi is a National Board Certified Teacher in her 8th year teaching Biology and AP Biology in public schools in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District. Schimizzi has been passionate about helping increase student interest in science and careers and has pursued that passion by forging a variety of community and university partnerships. To help ensure that all students have access to excellent teaching, Schimizzi has also collaborated with organizations that advance the teaching profession, and presented at conferences including the 2014 Teaching & Learning Conference.