R-E-S-P-E-C-T: Find out What it Means to Immigrant Families
by Fabienne Doucet & Rose Vukovic - December 19, 2011
This commentary positions respect as an essential concept when thinking about how teachers and other school people should relate to immigrant families. In this piece, respect stands for a form of humanization in response to historical and chronic dehumanization that immigrants have long faced. The piece draws examples from the authors' work with Haitian immigrant families.
Johnny Desilhomme migrated to the United States in 1988 from Haiti, where he was a sergeant in the army of dictatorial president Jean-Claude Duvalier. Mr. Desilhomme left behind this past for opportunity in the United States, where he obtained an Associates degree and was close to earning his Bachelors when the first author was collecting data in Greater Boston for a study of immigrant youth and family adaptation to the U.S. (Author, 2010; Suárez-Orozco, Suárez-Orozco, & Todorova, 2008). Mr. Desilhomme is the father of two daughters who were then enrolled in the Greater Boston public schools. In an interview about his experiences raising children in the U.S., he was asked about negative aspects of his childrens educational experience. He responded: [Coming from a] Third World country, some teachers do not expect them [the children] to go to college. Even when you show your own background, when you talk about your goals for your child, they are often surprised.
This stinging accusation represents one of the most significant obstacles to family-school linkages: a perceived lack of respect. The need for respect is a two-way street. Teachers want the adults in their students lives to value and appreciate them; to recognize the hard work they do; to comply with their requests to assist students with homework; and to reinforce their directives. Likewise, parents and caregivers want teachers to acknowledge all they do on behalf of their children; to recognize that they have dreams and aspirations for their children; and to show consideration for their complex lives and the many demands on their time, energy, and resources. For immigrant parents and caregivers, the longing to be understoodrespectedis perhaps even greater, given the major upheavals that accompany immigration (Suárez-Orozco, et al., 2008). Yet, judgments that immigrant (and urban, working class or poor, and black or brown) parents just dont care about their childrens education are made far too easily by teachers and administrators (Abdul-Adil & Farmer, 2006; Author, 2008; Lightfoot, 2004). These judgments seem especially harsh given the narrow ways the mainstream paradigm imagines legitimate parent involvement, such as volunteering in the classroom or chaperoning on field trips (Henderson, Johnson, Mapp, & Davies, 2007; Warren, Hong, Rubin, & Uy, 2009). Most of these forms of involvement require presence at the school, which is challenging for working parents and/or parents who do not speak English as a first language. Equating lack of presence at school with lack of interest in childrens education fails to consider that in most other countries around the world, parents are not expected to participate in school lifein fact, such involvement would be viewed as strange. Furthermore, insistence on involvement ignores the point that parents beliefs and expectations related to their childrens education are even more powerful predictors of high achievement than are traditional involvement activities (Englund, Luckner, Whaley, & Egeland, 2004; Fan & Chen, 2001; Lee & Bowen, 2006; Authors, 2010, May).
While we are critical of mainstream assumptions about parent involvement, we advocate for a new model of home-school relationship--one that is bidirectional and child-centered rather than school-centered (Author, 2008; Author, 2007; Lawson, 2003). In order for immigrant families to have more genuine and meaningful relationships with their childrens schools, some important changes are needed in the way teachers and other school people perceive, interact with, and engage these families. Using the fundamental principle of respect as our guidepost, we propose that re-imagining the family school relationship will require educators to Rethink family roles; Examine biases; Share power; Practice empathy; Expand notions of involvement; Communicate; and Tap into families funds of knowledge.
RETHINKING FAMILY ROLES
As currently conceived, good parent involvement is embodied by white, middle- and upper-class stay-at-home mothers (Cooper, 2007; Descartes & Kottak, 2008; Author, in press; Lightfoot, 2004; Smith, 2009). As educators, we must make more room at the table for the whole village of caring adults who advocate for, support, and invest in childrens educational success. Author (in press) found that Haitian families preferred to send adult males (fathers, older brothers) to school to speak on behalf of the child and/or the family. This was due to a number of reasons, ranging from the tendency for fathers to be more fluent in English to traditional beliefs about the role of men in the family. At times a grandparent, aunt or uncle, or even a close family friend may serve as the liaison between family and school. Hardly a demonstration of apathy, then, some parents lack of presence at school might, in fact, evidence the familys desire to put their best foot (or family representative) forward. Thus, redefining family roles is an important step toward respecting the needs and circumstances of immigrant families.
When teachers and the families they serve come from different backgrounds (e.g., race/ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, ability status, social class) misunderstanding and mistrust can flourish (Author, in press; Gonzalez-Mena, 2001). At the core of culturally relevant teaching is a sound understanding that how teachers perceive their students can be a conduit or an obstacle to those childrens academic success (Ladson-Billings, 1994). Similarly, at the core of respectful parent-teacher relationships is a thorough understanding of how teachers own attitudes toward parents color their perceptions of, interactions with, and openness toward those parents (Lawrence-Lightfoot, 2003).
When schools set parameters and agendas for parent participation, they typically do not involve including parents in decision-making or other roles that would call schools to share their power (Fine, 1993; Graue, Kroeger, & Prager, 2001; Lawrence-Lightfoot, 2003; Lightfoot, 2004). Even when parents are invited to participate in dialogue about policies or structural issues, often they feel these invitations are just for show, (O'Connor, 2001) because once a decision has been made at the organizational level, there is little they can do to change it (Fine, 1993). Parents who feel patronized in this way are not likely to remain engaged in their childrens schools. Yet parents can be empowered by participating in the design, implementation, and evaluation of educational programs (Delgado-Gaitan, 1991; Hong, 2011). This level of involvement increases buy-in on the part of parents, who see their ideas and experiences reflected in their childrens classrooms. As Henderson and colleagues (2007) state, To be serious about partnership, a school also must be serious about following democratic practices (p. 187).
By learning about the life circumstances of parents occupying different social spaces than the ones in which they operate, teachers can create safe spaces for parents to share their experiences and contribute to various aspects of school life. As mentioned earlier, immigration creates major upheavals. Coming to their childrens school can trigger feelings of powerlessness or child-likeness, particularly for immigrant parents who must learn a new language, decipher a new culture, navigate a new landscape (literally and figuratively), and for parents who have had little formal schooling experience, or whose formal schooling experiences were negative (Lawrence-Lightfoot, 2003).
EXPANDING NOTIONS OF INVOLVEMENT
What parents believe about their childrens abilities is a stronger predictor of childrens math achievement scores than what parents report doing with their children (Authors, 2010, May). This and similar findings regarding the unique contribution of beliefs to achievement (e.g., Englund, et al., 2004), may be important especially for working with families whose life demands limit their availability for engaging in traditional PI behaviors (Heymann & Earle, 2000). Unrealistic expectations of the kinds of involvement activities in which parents can engage lead too easily to judgments that parents who are not doing involvement do not care about their children.
Dialogue between teachers and parents can encourage teachers understanding of parental cultural and educational values (Tobin, Arzubiaga, & Mantovani, 2007). Teacher ratings of kindergarten childrens academic abilities are related to teachers perceptions of congruence between their educational values and those of parents from different cultural backgrounds than their own (Hauser-Cram, Sirin, & Stipek, 2003). Teachers who engage meaningfully with immigrant parents are more successful at getting parents involved in the life of the school than teachers who fail to develop productive relationships with parents (Delgado-Gaitan, 1991; Valdès, 1996). Genuine, reciprocal dialogues acknowledge that challenges may be experienced both by parents, who must learn to navigate a new culture and educational system, and by educators, who must understand how mainstream ideas may clash with the cultures parents bring.
TAPPING INTO FAMILIES FUNDS OF KNOWLEDGE
The concept of funds of knowledge (González, Moll, & Amanti, 2006) emphasizes the value of teachers of poor and immigrant children coming to understand and appreciate the knowledge already available to their students at home and in the community. This approach to family involvement is based on identifying and supporting parental knowledge and making connections between this knowledge and the school curriculum. For example, immigrant adults who were farmers in their countries of origin would have many contributions to make to science lessons; former street vendors could add real-life examples to mathematics teaching (Civil, 2007). Dialogue between the home and school should, therefore, focus on establishing shared expectations for meaningful family involvement and should build on the existing wisdom, traditions, and talents that families possess.
Abdul-Adil, J. K., & Farmer, A. D., Jr. (2006). Inner-city African American parental involvement in elementary schools: Getting beyond urban legends of apathy. School Psychology Quarterly, 21(1), 1-12.
Civil, M. (2007). Building on community knowledge: An avenue to equity in mathematics education. In N. S. Nasir & P. Cobb (Eds.), Improving access to mathematics: Diversity and equity in the classroom (pp. 105-117). New York: Teachers College Press.
Cooper, C. W. (2007). School choice as "motherwork": Valuing African-American women's educational advocacy and resistance. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 20(5), 491-512. doi: 10.1080/09518390601176655
Delgado-Gaitan, C. (1991). Involving parents in the schools: A process of empowerment. American Journal of Education, 100(1), 20-46.
Descartes, L., & Kottak, C. P. (2008). Patrolling the boundaries of childhood in middle-class "ruburbia". In E. Rudd & L. Descartes (Eds.), The changing landscape of work and family in the American middle class: Reports from the field (pp. 141-155). Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.
Englund, M. M., Luckner, A. E., Whaley, G. J. L., & Egeland, B. (2004). Children's achievement in early elementary school: Longitudinal effects of parental involvement, expectations, and quality of assistance. Journal of Educational Psychology, 96(4), 723-730. doi: 10.1037/0022-06126.96.36.1993
Fan, X., & Chen, M. (2001). Parental involvement and students academic achievement: A meta-analysis. Educational Psychology Review, 12(1), 1-22. doi: 1040-726X/01/0300-0001
Fine, M. (1993). [Ap]parent involvement: Reflections on parents, power, and urban public schools. Teachers College Record, 94(4), 682-709.
Gonzalez-Mena, J. (2001). Multicultural issues in child care. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield.
González, N., Moll, L., & Amanti, C. (2006). Funds of Knowledge: Theorizing practices in households and classrooms. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Graue, M. E., Kroeger, J., & Prager, D. (2001). A Bakhtinian analysis of particular home-school relations. American Educational Research Journal, 38(3), 467-498.
Hauser-Cram, P., Sirin, S. R., & Stipek, D. (2003). When teachers' and parents' values differ: Teachers' ratings of academic competence in children from low-income families. Journal of Educational Psychology, 95(4), 813-820.
Henderson, A. T., Johnson, V. R., Mapp, K. L., & Davies, D. (2007). Beyond the bake sale: The essential guide to family-school partnerships. New York: The New Press.
Heymann, S. J., & Earle, A. (2000). Low-income parents: How do working conditions affect their opportunity to help school-age children at risk? American Educational Research Journal, 37(4), 833-848. doi: 10.3102/00028312037004833
Hong, S. (2011). A cord of three strands: A new approach to parent engagement in schools. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.
Ladson-Billings, G. (1994). The dreamkeepers: Successful teachers of African American children (2nd ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Lawrence-Lightfoot, S. (2003). The essential conversation: What parents and teachers can learn from each other. New York: Random House.
Lawson, M. A. (2003). School-family relations in context: Parent and teacher perceptions of parent involvement. Urban Education, 38(1), 77-133.
Lee, J.-S., & Bowen, N. K. (2006). Parent involvement, cultural capital, and the achievement gap among elementary school children. American Educational Research Journal, 43(2), 193-218. doi: 10.3102/00028312043002193
Lightfoot, D. (2004). "Some parents just dont care": Decoding the meanings of parental involvement in urban schools. Urban Education, 39(1), 91-107.
O'Connor, S. (2001). Voices of parents and teachers in a poor White urban school. Journal of Education For Students Placed At Risk, 6(3), 175-198.
Smith, M. J. (2009). Right directions, wrong maps: Understanding the involvement of low-SES African American parents to enlist them as partners in college choice. Education and Urban Society, 41(2), 171-197. doi: 10.1177/0013124508324028
Suárez-Orozco, C., Suárez-Orozco, M. M., & Todorova, I. (2008). Learning a new land: Immigrant students in American society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Tobin, J., Arzubiaga, A., & Mantovani, S. (2007). Entering into dialogue with immigrant parents, Early Childhood Matters, pp. 34-38.
Valdès, G. (1996). Con respeto: Bridging the distance between culturally diverse families and schools--An ethnographic portrait. New York: Teacher's College Press.
Vukovic, R. K., & Doucet, F. (2010, May). Parental involvement and mathematics achievement in urban contexts: In what ways do parents count? Poster presented at the 2010 Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Denver, Colorado.
Warren, M. R., Hong, S., Rubin, C. L., & Uy, P. S. (2009). Beyond the bake sale: A community-based relational approach to parent engagement in schools. Teachers College Record, 111(9), 2209-2254.
We are grateful to David E. Kirkland and Jacqueline Mattis for their valuable feedback on earlier drafts.