January 11, 2021

Family Engagement Will Never Be the Same—and It Shouldn’t Be

By Kara Cisco

This post is the seventh in our Education at a Distance series, centering the voices of students, parents, and educators during the COVID-19 crisis. 

When the pandemic is over and the students are back in school full time, school cannot continue as it has before … This phrase has been repeated so many times that it’s become a cliche, and yet, I can’t help but worry that once the fog lifts on this difficult period and the end is near, the education system will do what large, inflexible systems do best: revert back to the norm and continue on with business as usual. 

This is my particular worry when it comes to applying one of the most important lessons of the pandemic for me: the way we approach family engagement. As educators we have a choice: The lessons we have learned from distance learning can help us build new norms for family engagement, or we can regress back to the failed systems of engagement that were not working, while blaming families for our own failure to connect. 

It’s a myth that a significant number (I would argue, any number) of families don’t want the best for their children when it comes to school. The onus is on us, as teachers and school staff, to reach out to families in ways that work for them. If we continue to contact families using the same failed modes of communication over and over without attempting to reach people on other platforms, what do we expect will happen? 

Family engagement and, in particular, the concept of culturally responsive family engagement calls on us to provide multiple modes of communication and engagement with an understanding that there is no one pathway to communication which will work for all families. Between emails, text messages, phone calls, small group meetings (virtually or in person), home visits, etc., the methods our families prefer to engage in are as diverse as our families themselves, and so we must adapt and differentiate. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it. 

In our household: Backpack flyers may or may not be read. They will if it’s “backpack cleaning week” (sometimes “backpack cleaning month”), which means that more often than not (when it comes to my two daughters, ages 11 and 5), I am reading about the field trip day/toy drive/incident that happened in homeroom about three weeks too late on a crumpled up paper with faded ink that’s caked in granola bar crumbs. Likewise, my personal email has about 1,700 unread messages. As a teacher, I am often too busy or too tired to be the parent I want to be – the one who reads emails on time and doesn’t let “backpack cleaning month” turn into “backpack cleaning when it starts to smell weird.” 

And pre-pandemic, as an educator: It’s not like I was particularly reflective about learning from these lessons of my own chaotic household. I sent the same weekly email (in English), hoping 20% of my students’ families would read it, and that was about it. Phone calls were for the really big problems. Text messages didn’t happen. Prior to the pandemic, it never occurred to me to dramatically change my home communication practices, because it more or less seemed to work. 

Distance Learning Changed Everything

Distance learning, of course, changed everything. Daily contact went down for some students, disappeared for others, and that weekly email home, along with a few phone calls here and there, wasn’t going to do it anymore. The system demanded that we change—so we did, and I hope we never go back. 

Just about every teacher I know has a Google Voice account at this point for sending text messages. I also use my Remind account more regularly for reaching out to students and parents at the same time. Some students and families, I’ve noticed, prefer letters mailed home. Others are more than happy to continue communicating through email and phone calls, so it’s not as if the old ways have gone away. They’ve just been augmented by new communication methods that are responsive to the real lives of our real families—not unlike the way we differentiate materials for students. 

Time is always a scarce resource for teachers and school staff, and distance learning has taught us how to do all of this efficiently and fast. Remind translates within the app. With Google Translate, it’s easy enough to do the same for Google Voice text messages, and the translation tool on Google Docs makes translating class newsletters a one-step process. Remind makes it easy to text large groups of parents or students at one time, and Parent-Teacher conferences have never been as easy as they were this year, sitting at home, speaking with families via video conferencing on their schedule without the need for childcare, transportation, and all of the other accommodations that we know families need—but we consistently fail to provide. 

I also can’t help but reflect on how little I learned about family engagement from my teacher preparation program. It’s overwhelming to consider that something which has become one of the most critical parts of my practice when it comes to student engagement is something that we barely touched on in my teacher preparation program. Family engagement also one of EdAllies’ recommendations for the updated standards of effective practice. For context and more details, it is included in the 10 Things All Teachers Should Learn in Teacher Prep report.

There are so many ways that our system needs to change. And so many reasons why this terrible situation is at the same time an opportunity for us to reimagine all of these failed systems and start anew. Imagine – post-pandemic – a classroom of students who are more deeply engaged in learning due to regular, meaningful contact between teachers and families, using the style and methods of engagement that work for them. As the recipient of so many failed backpack flyers, I am so excited for this future.

EdAllies seeks to elevate diverse voices and foster a candid dialogue about education. While we provide our blog as a platform for EdVoices and other guest contributors, the views and opinions they express are solely their own.