I was asked by my Assistant Principal at my daughter’s school to serve as the Parent Council Representative of the local chapter of the NAACP. In that role, I am charged with bringing together African–American parents in the school and creating an opportunity to share information, network, and discuss issues that affect our children in the school.
In preparation for this, I began reflecting on my past experiences as a teacher…. Wondering what am I going to do?
Early in my career, I was teaching in an inner city elementary school in Washington DC. I was very idealistic and somewhat naïve. It was the first Back to School Night in September. I remember working tirelessly for days prior to the night; preparing my classroom for the room full of parents I was expecting. I put together a PowerPoint presentation; describing my classroom procedures, the class curriculum, my expectations of my students and parents. I even set up some music to play in the background to “set the mood” before I began my presentation! LOL I put my all into preparing for that event; in quite the same way I did (back in the day) when I was an aspiring professional dancer. Getting ready for that big opening night… doing whatever it takes to shine.
Yeah, You Know What Happened!
Well, out of 25 students in my class. The parents of 2 students showed up!!! One was the single mother of one of my brightest students; (I knew she would be there.) The other, a grandmother of another who admitted to me (still can’t understand why she did this) that the only REAL reason she came out that night was to pick up her grandson’s jacket that he had accidently left in class…. Really??? Yeah, Really!! LOL
Meanwhile, on the “Other” Side of Town….
During this year, I was also taking some professional development courses at a university. I was the only African-American student in the class, and the only teacher in an inner city school. My classmates were mainly all Caucasian female teachers in either an affluent suburban public school district or in a private school. We were all chatting before class on this particular evening and I listened with envy as they shared stories of their Back to School Night Events. They were talking about how many parents were there; how the parents were bombarding them with questions, and how SO many parents joined the PTA and signed up to volunteer in the school building. When they asked me how my Back to School Night went, I froze… I just gave some real general “Oh it was fine.” statement and whispered “Hallelujah” to myself as the professor called the class to order!
What’s Wrong with this Picture?
Ok, no need to explain it any further. We know what’s wrong. An alarmingly high number of African-American parents in inner city schools are NOT actively engaged and involved in their child’s school and do not support the teacher’s efforts in the home. Too many parents; don’t come out to Back to School night; don’t join and are not active in the PTA (the same 5-6 parents do ALL the work); Many don’t even come out to pick up report cards, or attend previously scheduled parent teacher conferences. I can’t tell you the number of phone calls I’ve made literally begging parents to come to my class. Overall, a few here and there actually showed up.
The Next Question is Why?
Just like everything else, there has been a ton of research out there on the issue. Unfortunately, it’s not a new problem. The lack of parental involvement in inner city schools has been studied by many educational researchers and scholars. It’s a complicated issue, and YES, I’ll say it again… one of the BIG underlying reasons is POVERTY…. So many, do not understand the devastating impact poverty has on not just the economic structure of the inner city, but also on the emotional psyche of its’ residents. Poverty =low self esteem =low expectations= a “why bother” kind of attitude.So many don’t get that equation… it’s generational… and extremely dangerous.
While the specific answers to WHY will vary based on the school district, community and city/state; there are some generalizations we can make based on the research out there.
- Parents feel disenfranchised by the school system, they are intimidated by it. They see it as “the enemy” instead of an ally.
- Many parents who were poor students themselves, or had bad experiences in school do not want to be reminded of their past failures.
- Parents feel that “those” teachers (usually someone other than them) don’t respect them. Those teachers look down on them, and don’t understand where they (parents) come from.
- Some parents feel that it’s the teachers’ job to teach. They get bothered when they have to always go up to the school. These parents don’t see why “they have to come up here (the school) to do the teacher’s job! (I actually, had a parent lay me out over that once!)
- In short, many parents in the inner city do not trust the school system and the people in it. This lack of trust is exasperated when teachers are of a different race, culture and do not live in the community.
Ok, So What Do We Do About It?
Fixing the problem is about building relationships. Trust between the parent and teacher must be established. Teachers have to find ways to convince parents that teaching their child is about more than just a pay check, (because in most cases, it actually is) and they are genuinely concerned about the growth and development of their child. Teachers have to prove that they LOVE their students, as much as their parents LOVE them.
Teachers must understand and respect the cultural differences between them and their students’ families. Teachers must spend time in the community. Teachers must be sensitive to the differences in culture, language, family relationships and community traditions that may be different than their own. This holds true for even some African-American teachers who have had the benefit of formal higher education and enjoy a higher socio-economic status than that of their students.
Many inner city parents want the school to be an extension of their home; a part of the community. They want to feel comfortable when in the school building. Many parents complain that teachers do not “really care” about their students; at the end of the day, they get in their car and drive to the other side of town, without looking back.
That means that teachers must be seen in the community! Attend community events; create opportunities to interact with families outside of the school building, on weekends or holidays. Develop a vested interest in the success of the community. That way, you won’t be perceived as an outsider who comes into the community simply to earn a paycheck.
I know funding is tight and this may be hard; but let’s figure out a way to keep the school building open in the evening. Hire a second shift set of teachers, tutors and counselors. Provide dinner. Offer homework help; extra-curricular activities; including THE ARTS and SPORTS! Computer training and STEM related programming. Ok, let’s add to the wish list, training for parents! Offer GED courses, workshops on just about anything! How to be a better parent classes; maybe even financial management or learning how to improve the nutrition of your family! Sounds like a community center right? YES, that’s exactly what it is… or should be.
But Wait, What About Parents?
Parents…. It’s time to get off the fence and change your ways! Whatever the issues are that’s keeping you from being an active and engaged parent; it’s time to deal with them and put them behind you. If I may put it bluntly… BGOI !! (Better Get Over It) Time is short; you only have one chance at this; your child’s future is at stake. It is time to stop playing around. I know it’s hard to get out of that comfort zone. People don’t like being pushed into action, but please realize the power you have in your child’s life.. I’ll say it again. REMEMBER that YOU are your child’s first and most influential teacher. If they see you engaged and involved; they’ll become engaged and involved also.
Reach out for help. Email me, if you need to!! I would be glad to help you talk it through and work it out! This year, promise yourself to do at least one thing, in the school and in your home. True educational reform of YOUR CHILD starts and ends with YOU. Start off small if you need to, but please do start… what exactly are you waiting for?
Ok, Now Some Resources…
Check out the following to learn more and ways to get parents involved.