I believe that any changes I want to make in the world must begin with a truthful reflection of myself. This belief and my past experiences, including my time as a classroom teacher, have paved the way for me to work with Family Engagement Lab.
In my short time as a teacher, I cannot count the number of long days that I ended up thinking, “Why do I do this to myself?” I truly enjoyed the time I spent in front of my students helping them unlock their natural curiosity about the world around them. But, too many days of arriving early; making a thousand small, quick decisions per second; and staying late to grade and plan left me exhausted. Plus, having to call the families of students who were misbehaving or falling behind in class had me overwhelmed.
I knew something was wrong after countless conversations with colleagues that began with, “No matter how many times I have called her mother, I can never seem to get an answer” to which they’d respond, “I could never get her to pick up last year either. Just document it and keep it pushing. You can’t expect everyone to care about what goes on at the school they send their children to.” This conversation was part of what seemed to be a self-fulfilling prophecy — we call and don’t get an answer, we converse about how difficult it is to engage families, we don’t see a change, and we become frustrated. It was a demoralizing experience. But quite frankly, it was not a reflexive one. It was not until I stepped away from my position in front of the classroom to a seat within one that I started to unpack this experience and draw a damning conclusion — making one-way calls with the intent to report was not effective, assets-based, family engagement practice. It was an audit trail.
At Harvard Graduate School of Education, I took a course dedicated to family engagement titled, “The Why, What, and How of School, Community, and Family Partnerships” led by the incomparable Dr. Karen Mapp. I was pushed to unpack a lot of what was embedded into those prior conversations and feelings shared by my colleagues and me (and as I imagine, other educators, right?). In short, I learned that we did not dig deep into understanding why the relationship between the school and the families was so fraught. Common themes were:
Armed with this new understanding of my own experience as an educator, I felt compelled to continue learning about a new way forward. While I am not returning to the classroom as a teacher in the near future, I am happy to say that partnering with Family Engagement Lab as a Summer Fellow with Education Pioneers has allowed me to use the knowledge that I have gained to help facilitate a change in perception for other educators and introduce districts dedicated to assets-based family engagement to an organization that is doing the work.
Family Engagement Lab is a national nonprofit that “catalyzes equitable family engagement and student learning by bridging classroom curriculum and at-home learning.” My role is to perform a landscape analysis and identify districts across the country that have shown dedication to practicing assets-based family engagement and perform outreach to learn more in-depth about how these districts are approaching family engagement. I analyze each district’s market-facing content on family engagement and assess what I find against a rubric I designed. Then, I reach out to districts to gain extensive insights into their family engagement practices and goals to help Family Engagement Lab learn more about how districts materialize their value for family engagement.
This experience thus far has been challenging and rewarding. The team is supportive and capable, which has been a very safe environment for me to learn, make mistakes, and pivot when necessary. I have been able to learn about their operations, strategies, internal DEI work, and their dynamic technology-based tool that bridges the relationship between the classroom and the home — FASTalk.
Admittedly, I am not a techie by any means, but the amount of care that the team has put into this tool is impressive. I found myself reflecting on my time as a teacher and imagining that with both the new knowledge that I gained about what assets-based family engagement means and access to FASTalk, the tides would have changed dramatically for my students and their families.
First, I would not have spent so much time reporting, but rather creating opportunities for thought-partnership and capacity building for my families so they would have known how to use the wealth of knowledge they have about their students to support their educational journey. I would have forgone so much effort on tasks that surreptitiously were used to account for the “gaps” that the families had with supporting their students and search for the root cause of the disconnect I felt. Finally, I know that if I had a tool like FASTalk on my hands, I would have been able to further build the capacity of my students’ families to support the classroom learning we were doing by providing them with targeted questions and tasks aligned with our curriculum. Not only would the families be able to support the students’ retention of our lessons, but also this would have improved the relationship the families had with the schools. With these benefits in mind, I would not have seen it as an extra task or some new tool that the district was requiring that I use. Instead, I would have seen it as something that accomplished what my ultimate goal was: to inspire learning in and outside of the classroom.
It’s my sincere hope that my outreach efforts can at least result in teachers and administrators becoming more curious about how it could look if they invested in two-way, capacity-building family engagement as an academic strategy. While I also have a vested interest in districts becoming curious about Family Engagement Lab and its tools, I feel that their three-fold vision built on the premise that “authentic family-school partnership is critical to a child’s successful learning journey” their creation of tools that “bridge classroom and at-home learning to raise student outcomes,” and their goal of helping students “achieve their full potential by catalyzing partnerships between the most passionate advocates for children — teachers and family members” are a recipe for more equity in the educational landscape in this country.