Lack of parental participation in schools is a common complaint: “If parents are not involved, they must not care,” we often conclude.
When I hear people say things like this, I think about my mother.
My mother immigrated to America from Haiti in 1971 at the age of 20. “Ingrid,” she would say, “make sure you do what the teacher says, without school your life will be hard like mine.” She herself had stopped attending school shortly after starting high school.
My mom would sit with my sisters and I and watch “Sesame Street” or “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood.” She taught us our alphabet, to count and always made sure we were reading. She was my first teacher.
After enrolling me at the local Catholic school, the requests for volunteering began pouring in. My mother never signed up for any of these opportunities. She was not the PTA mom, nor the one who volunteered to chaperone trips, but I knew my mom cared just as much about my education as the parent that was at the school for all the events.
She had an uncanny passion for learning and pushed my sisters and I to pursue our education, offering her life as a testimony as to why education was crucial. My mom worked cleaning hotels, then became a nanny and housekeeper. She worked at jobs that often keep women, especially immigrant women, away from their homes for extended periods of time.
Mommy Lili, as we affectionately called her, would leave home by 7:00 a.m. and get on the subway. She would arrive in Manhattan to take the young man she nannied for to school, a task she couldn’t perform for her own children. Then return to the Upper West Side apartment, where she worked, to begin her day of cooking, cleaning, shopping and other tasks before returning to pick him up from school.
We saw how tired she was from working all day, spending more than 12 hours a day away and then having to take care of her family and home when she returned. Her message to us remained the same and on every occasion she had, she would remind us she does this work so we don’t have to. She would show us her hands, rough and swollen, we would see her face tired and weary, her feet aching from standing all day.
“But there is a bake sale,” we would say and she would reply, “I have to do this work, so you don’t have to.” It was the same for school trips, PTA meetings, plays and report cards. She rarely participated in traditional roles that the school provided, but we always knew her physical absence from school did not mean an absence from our education.
I now wonder how many of my own teachers thought about my mom and drew the wrong conclusions. I wonder had she been extended different opportunities, in which a teacher or school really wanted to know what she thought about the progress her children were making or how she felt about what we studied, what her involvement would have looked like.
As I now reflect on parental participation in my professional experience, I ask what non-traditional opportunities do we give families to become involved? Meaningful experiences in which we honor and respect the values they have established in their homes and create an educational environment that is in part an extension of those values.
We tell our parents to help with homework or tell them to discipline their kids at home on report card night but that is not engagement. Where are we building real avenues for them to be engaged in the education of their children? When do we really provide them dignified opportunities to partner with us?
We must re-examine what parent engagement is and stop drawing the conclusion that if parents are not involved in the way the school has defined for them, it must mean they do not care about their children. The truth is, if we want parents to know that they are valued members of the school community, it’s time we work together with them to create real opportunity for partnerships.