A Counternarrative

Imagine if at the beginning of every school year, teachers greeted parents with some variation of the following. In a plastic baggie, place a cotton ball, a tissue, and a tea bag, along with the following poem:

Dearest Kindergarten Parents,
Here is a little “gift” for you as you leave your precious one with me on the first day of school. As you hold this cotton ball in your hand, the softness will help you to remember the gentle spirit of your child. After you’ve gone home and dried your tears, make yourself a hot cup of tea . Put up your feet and relax. Remember that together you and I will work for your child to be the best they can be. Thank you for entrusting your child to me for the coming school year. I will do my very best every day to be your child’s guide in learning and exploring this bright, new world they’ve just stepped into.

Your Child’s Teacher

It seems obvious this counternarrative example would inspire much more trust in teachers on the part of families. And though this idea is typically shared with early childhood educators, I would argue parents of children at every age want to know that their children’s teachers think of them with such positive regard. This goes both ways, of course.

In my re-imagined world in which the relationships between schools and families are reconstructed and, teachers would welcome parents and caregivers in the morning with this on their minds, if not in their mouths, “You are so awesome for making it here this morning! I bet you’ve been up for hours, that you are exhausted and wanted to sleep in for 10 more minutes, that your kids yelled at you, threw things at the wall, threw themselves on the floor, refused to eat breakfast, cried about their clothes, dropped their toothbrushes in the toilet, and pulled each others’ hair the whole way here. But you made it! Welcome! Awesome! High five, and have a fantastic day because your kid is in great hands with me, and I am so excited to learn with her today.” And I want families to welcome teachers in the morning with this on their minds, if not in their mouths, “You are so awesome for making it here this morning! I bet you’ve been up for hours, that you had to get your own kids ready and out the door, that your bus was late and the train was crowded, that you were thinking about each and every one of the children in your classroom and wondering how each would be today, that you were actually excited to have 25 small people clamoring for your attention and praise all day, that you worried about whether you would have the supplies you need to do the special activity you’ve been planning, and that you already know that by 3:00 pm, you will be ready to drop to the floor from exhaustion. But you’re here! Thank you! You rock! High five, and have a fantastic day because I know my child is in great hands with you and that she will learn so much from you today.”

Skeptics will call this view naïve, but I think the real issue is we prepare ourselves for the exception more than we do the rule. Of course we will encounter difficult parents, challenging students, and unqualified teachers. But these are the exceptions, not the rule. And I would argue that when we allow the exceptions to dominate and shape our approaches to and strategies for relating to one another, we begin from a place of weakness, and we set ourselves up for failure.


Example 2: What Teachers Really Want to Tell Parents

In this article, teacher and school founder Ron Clark sets a combative tone for telling parents what their teachers really wish they could tell them if they could, beginning with, “For starters, we are educators, not nannies.” Clark goes on to list more complaints, supported with examples, of parents not trusting teachers and not taking them seriously. Whatever truths may or may not be represented in Clark’s article, I believe the key to repairing the breach between families and schools is that both sides should approach one another in a spirit of kindness and humanity, not in a spirit of accusation or opposition.


Example 1: Teachers to Parents: We Don’t Suck, You Suck!

This satirized enactment of how teachers supposedly “really” feel about parents makes us laugh, but also points to our taken-for-granted ideas that parents and teachers have competing goals, rather than compatible ones. That they are on different teams, rather than playing different positions on the same team: Team Child.


Challenging Dominant Discourses About Families and Schools

The term “discourse” represents both the day-to-day “language-in-use” that serves to “enact activities and identities” (Gee, 1999, p. 7)—what James Gee calls “little d” discourses—and the myriad non-language elements of communications (posture, dress, gestures, and so forth) that assist us in the process of performing activities and identities. When these non-language elements combine with the language of given identities or activities, such that, these identities or activities are performed in credible ways, Gee explains, “big D” Discourses are at play. To understand how our attitudes about parent involvement (PI) develop, it is important to unpack the ways in which PI is talked about (the day-to-day language about PI), as well as the “big D” Discourses surrounding PI. Certain types of PI are deemed more legitimate than others. Certain parents are perceived as more or less involved (as well as more or less interested) in their children’s education. In truth, the dominant d/Discourses of PI privilege mainstream, majority experiences and marginalize the experiences of linguistically, culturally, and socioeconomically diverse (LCSD) families. Check out the two examples in my following posts, and then look for A Counternarrative for an example that contradicts the dominant discourse.

We Are Natural Allies

I want to change the conversation. For decades we talked about parents as deficient. Thankfully we are at least in our second decade of documenting and noting and promoting the ways in which parents are not. Yet our national discourse is still weighed down by rhetoric that shows a profound lack of respect for one another. I believe this is because our focus has been in the wrong place. We now have quite a number of books and articles that tell us families are more than bake sale planners, that they should be involved in making decisions, etc. But for all this advice, I am still asked by most principals and school leaders I meet for ideas on how to get their families more engaged. Why? Because the rift between families and schools is caused by a fundamental gap in relational understanding. It all comes down to relationship. Families don’t feel respected or seen, teachers don’t feel respected or seen, administrators may feel respected but certainly not seen…and the children are stranded in an ecosystem laden with mistrust and misunderstanding, rather than in a nurturing space where the adults agree to conspire together to give the children their best chance. I argue that the foundation for this agreement, this silent contract to be a team on behalf of the child is respect. Within respect there is trust and mutual admiration. Within respect, families and teachers see one another as natural allies, rather than natural enemies.