Time and time again, I’ve heard educators say that the lack of parental engagement in their schools is what is holding them back.
But, when I listen to families, in Philly or Chicago or any other urban city, I hear about the shoes that educators often don’t slip on. Families speak of unwelcoming environments—hostile, even. They speak of educators who fail to consistently demonstrate the humility and respect that serving others should engender.
I hear families who know that education is a key component of their child’s success, but also demand for their humanity to be respected and honored. Families know it is a privilege for educators to teach their children and they want us to act like it.
SOME SOUL SEARCHING
Educators get frustrated with a child’s spotty attendance or reading level, or even their misbehavior, though it is often age-appropriate or trauma-induced. They sometimes place the blame on the family. And, while I believe that families are a child’s first teachers, educators are crucial to developing the systems of support needed for our children.
I cringe every time I hear a teacher or a principal say that they need to hold parents accountable. What I hope they mean is that they deeply desire a partnership with the families of those they serve. But I’m not naive enough to think that educators never resort to judgment and shaming before pursuing the parental partnerships they desperately seek.
Teachers and principals should not seek to hold families accountable. We should hold ourselves accountable for being the best, most welcoming partners we can be.
BLACK FAMILIES AND TRUST
It is unreasonable for educators to expect that Black families should automatically trust other Black folks who are working within the existing school system. As Cecil B. Moore, a legendary Philly activist, once frustratedly (but accurately) said, “Often when I get a Black man a good job, I make another White man.”
In other words, Moore meant successful Black people, including educators, can fall into traps of “serving” Black families while simultaneously holding them in contempt. When the sacred work of service and teaching is approached with this elitist mindset, it only pushes families further from embracing the school as partners.
All educators should consistently do some deep soul searching to determine what implicit biases they may harbor about the people and communities they profess to serve. Even when we believe we have the right outlook about service, biases may surface. It is ongoing work and professional development.
As educators we should be the first to recognize the deep-seated and well-deserved mistrust of institutions, including public schools, in our marginalized and oppressed communities. For generations, government institutions have conspicuously demonstrated that they were not established for the well-being of Black students and communities. Policies and practices were deeply anti-Black. As a form of resistance, some families decided not to put all of their eggs in the public school basket.
It is a huge step for educators to recognize the deep and historic mistrust Black communities have for many institutions—even institutions with Black folks in them, like schools.
Next, educators need to ensure that they have a welcoming school. That they hold themselves accountable for students’ performance, regardless of who the parent is. That they are as transparent as possible about how they serve other people’s children.
When we hold ourselves accountable for how well we serve children, families will respond. Together, we can build the ecosystem that our communities’ children deserve.
I deeply believe in the power of partnerships to move schools to higher levels of achievement, and the partnership and engagement of families is the most important of them all.
Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a neighborhood public charter school in Philadelphia that serves 750 students in grades 7-12. From 2013-2015, he was one of three principal ambassador fellows working on issues of education policy and practice with U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan.