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Negotiating the Boundaries of Parental School Engagement: The Role of Social Space and Symbolic Capital in Urban Teachers’ Perspectives


by Tina M. Durand & Margaret Secakusuma - 2019

Background/Context: Research has documented the benefits of family and parental involvement in children’s schooling, both developmentally and across domains. Classroom teachers play pivotal roles in establishing and maintaining home–school partnerships because of their sustained contact with children. Despite this, few studies have examined empirically how urban teachers actually define their own roles in helping schools to connect with diverse families and, especially, the power asymmetries that exist between families, teachers, and schools themselves in a climate of increased accountability and scrutiny of urban public schools.

Purpose/Objectives: Using Bourdieu’s concepts of social space and symbolic capital, this qualitative study examined urban teachers’ perspectives on their roles in facilitating effective partnerships with diverse families and the ways that issues of power, authority, and the need for boundaries in home–school relationships were expressed in their discourse.

Setting: Data were gathered at four public schools in a major metropolitan city in the Northeast. All were racially/ethnically diverse (more than 50% non-White in all schools) and served high percentages of low-socioeconomic-status families.

Participants: Participants were 44 classroom teachers. All but two teachers were female; participants were racially diverse (42% White, 42% Black, 16% Latino/a) and had been teaching for an average of 17.25 years.

Research Design: Qualitative focus group interviews were conducted with teachers at each participating school site over the course of six months.

Data Collection/Analysis: Focus group data were analyzed using qualitative content analytic techniques.

Findings/Results: Analyses generated three themes that illustrated the powerful but contradictory positioning of teachers in facilitating authentic partnerships with families—(a) creating responsive relationships, (b) casting engagement as education, and (c) creating varied and tailored opportunities—yet also revealed teachers’ assertions of power and authority, most often expressed as a need for boundaries between home and school.

Conclusions/Recommendations: Findings support a progressive approach to family engagement and educator resistance whereby teachers engage in collaborative advocacy with urban families to reclaim the notion of teaching as a public service aimed at the promotion of equitable, accessible, and culturally responsive schools.



Parental involvement in children’s schooling is widely considered an essential element of their school success, both developmentally and across domains (Barnard, 2004; Fan & Chen, 2001; Jeynes, 2003, 2007). Informed by Epstein’s (2001) theoretical framework for conceptualizing key dimensions of parental involvement, research over the past decades has provided empirical support for a broad definition of the construct, to include out-of-school, home-based involvement strategies such as scaffolding homework and academic learning (Durand, 2010a; Hoover-Dempsey et al., 2001), structuring time and space for studying (Ramirez, 2008), and academic socialization via communicating high expectations (Hill & Tyson, 2009; Jeynes, 2010), as well as dimensions of school-based involvement, such as parents’ participation in school activities (Dearing, Kreider, Simpkins, & Weiss, 2006; Durand, 2011) and school-sponsored parent involvement programs (Jeynes, 2012). Overall, although the salience and impact of both home and school involvement practices on children school experiences vary according to the particular outcome being studied, it is clear that schools have typically taken the lead role in delineating “effective” ways for families to be involved, especially within the confines of the school setting.


In this investigation, we build on the extant literature and delve a bit more deeply into the dimension of school-based involvement by examining attitudes around the potential for more dynamic forms of parent involvement and engagement in urban public school settings, and how these intersect with issues of power and authority among key stakeholders: classroom teachers. Our current focus is well justified; as public schools continue to be driven by high accountability standards within the context of an increasingly diverse student body, scholars (e.g. Auerbach, 2010; Durand & Perez, 2013; Hong, 2011; Warren, Mapp, & the Community Organizing and School Reform Project, 2011) contend that school partnerships with families must become more egalitarian, with parents contributing their own unique sources of insight and support for the betterment of the entire school community. If we accept the premise that schools must engage in the difficult work of partnering with families in more extensive ways, it is reasonable to assume that much of this work will ultimately rest with classroom teachers, who play pivotal roles in establishing and maintaining home–school partnerships because of their sustained contact with children (Hoover-Dempsey et al., 2005; Lawrence-Lightfoot, 2004).


Despite this, few studies have examined empirically how urban teachers actually define their own roles in helping schools to forge partnerships with diverse families, and the extent to which they believe boundaries are necessary in this area. As well, even fewer have used a critical lens to examine the power asymmetries that exist between families, teachers, and schools themselves. Indeed, it is critical to address issues of power and authority within debates about parental engagement, especially within the urban school context, where the voices of diverse families are often compromised or silenced by dominant middle-class ideologies, ethnic minority or immigrant status, low socioeconomic status, limited English proficiency, or cultural discontinuity and mistrust (Fine, 1993; Hong, 2011; Lareau, 2011; Rishel, 2008).


Toward this end, this qualitative study explored urban public school teachers’ perspectives on parental engagement using focus groups with early childhood, elementary, and middle school teachers. The following research questions were addressed: (1) How do urban teachers across varying grade levels describe their roles in facilitating diverse forms of parental and family engagement? (2) Are issues of power and authority expressed in their discourse? How, and in what ways? (3) Do teachers believe that boundaries are necessary with regard to families’ involvement in school and, if so, in what areas? On the one hand, exploring teachers’ own conceptualizations of their roles in the parent engagement process, as well as their readiness to engage in more equal partnerships with families, is critical to understanding how school communities can avoid the adoption of a “one size fits all” approach to parental involvement (Crozier, 2001). On the other, urban teachers’ strategies for engaging families must coexist alongside their having to manage structural, administrative, and pedagogical constraints and navigate the complexities of standards-based curricular mandates such as the Common Core (Porter, McMaken, Hwang, & Yang, 2011) and the implications of the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). In this study, we use Pierre Bourdieu’s (1989) concepts of social space and symbolic power as explanatory constructs to shed light on both of the mentioned realities as they regard the relationships between teachers and the families they serve.


PERSPECTIVES ON DIVERSE FORMS OF PARENTAL ENGAGEMENT: DEFINITIONS, THEORY, AND PRACTICE


The term parental involvement has been used in both federal mandates and the research literature to delineate the various ways parents can support children’s learning in school; the United Code of law, USCS 7801 (32), within NCLB defines the term as “the participation of parents in regular, two-way, and meaningful communication, involving student learning and other school activities.” However, many scholars have called for a shift from the more traditional concept and terminology of parental involvement, to the idea of parental partnerships (Epstein, 2011) or engagement (see Alameda-Lawson, 2014; Hong, 2011; Olivos, 2012) because of their more dynamic focus on the iterative process of building strong home–school relationships rather than on the specific activities parents engage in. In this process-oriented model, as families become more authentically involved in schools, their social networks (within the school and among other families) are strengthened and broadened, empowering them to become advocates for their children and for best practices within the school community. In this study, we use parental engagement as our leading theoretical framework and terminology, often substituting family for parental, as a more inclusive term.


Similar to the evolution of the terminology that is used in the literature, the past decade of research has continued to build on Epstein’s (2001) seminal framework of six key components of effective parent involvement: parenting, communicating, volunteering, learning at home, decision-making, and collaborating with the community. In her more recent (2011) work, Epstein skillfully operationalized these dimensions in her model of family–school relations as overlapping spheres of influence, which stresses that there are mutual interests and goals of family, school, and community that constantly interact across historical, organizational, and interpersonal domains to influence student learning. Notwithstanding this, we, along with others (see Alameda-Lawson, 2014; Jeynes, 2012; Olivos, 2012), argue that Epstein’s model continues to place the school as the sole architect in defining the boundaries and goals of parental involvement (i.e., that it must serve the values and priorities of the school), while ignoring the potential for families and parents to initiate and lead efforts for authentic, context-specific improvements and change.


In contrast to Epstein’s model, an ethnographic accounting of an illustrative parent engagement initiative that sought to challenge the historically asymmetrical relationship between schools and urban families is exemplified in Hong’s (2011) study of the work of the Logan Square Neighborhood Association (LSNA) in northwest Chicago. LSNA is a grassroots parent and community organization that has been involved in building authentic participation and leadership among diverse families in local schools. In particular, Hong (2011) used the success of the LSNA’s Parent Mentor program as an exemplar of an initiative that drew on the lived realities of urban parents to bring “cohorts” of women and family members into schools and classrooms in innovative ways. This resulted in a sense of personal empowerment and a set of mutually engaging practices through which parents became legitimate collaborators in children’s educational best interests. Volumes by Auerbach (2012) and Warren et al. (2011) also documented school reform initiatives that use a more critical, participatory approach to transformative partnerships between urban schools and families, adding further depth to Epstein’s framework.


RESEARCH ON TEACHERS’ PERSPECTIVES ON PARENTAL INVOLVEMENT AND ENGAGEMENT


Research has demonstrated that classroom teachers are the strongest influence on parents’ engagement and involvement, especially during the early and middle childhood years of school (K. J. Anderson & Minke, 2007; Dauber & Epstein, 1993). Becker and Epstein’s (1982) large-scale survey of 3,700 teachers in Maryland on their involvement practices provided a seminal contribution to the field in this area. Survey results indicated overall positive views on parent engagement and widespread use of conventional involvement techniques (e.g., talking with parents, sending notices home, interacting at open-school nights) among respondents. However, only a minority of teachers initiated interactions with parents that went beyond “what is traditionally expected of them” (as cited in Epstein, 2011, p. 98), because of what they reported as limited time to develop parent-related initiatives, a limited sense of their own efficacy, and lack of clear assurance of the benefits of involvement for children’s success. In later work that examined 171 elementary and middle school teachers’ attitudes on parent involvement in urban Baltimore, Epstein and Dauber (as cited in Epstein, 2011) found that many teachers were hesitant to invest in expanding the boundaries between school and home because of a perceived lack of support for parent involvement among administrators, colleagues, and parents themselves.


The extent to which ethnic and class-based differences between teachers and parents influence teacher behaviors and attitudes regarding involvement has been examined in the work of A.Y. Ramirez (1999, 2002, 2008). For example, in empirical research conducted in schools with high populations of Latino families, Ramirez (2008) found that teachers were less inclined to adjust for and accommodate parents of low socioeconomic status and that communication between teachers and parents in such communities was often ineffective and misunderstood in ways that transcended language barriers (although these were also salient).


Taken together, the mentioned studies suggest that many teachers are not equipped to partner with families in nontraditional ways while attempting to address children’s diverse needs and that schoolwide support for teachers is pivotal to countering what might be an ambivalence to increased family engagement, especially with marginalized populations. How do we understand what underlies such ambivalence, as well as the reasons for teachers’ difficulties in forging partnerships with diverse, urban families?


SOCIAL SPACE AND SYMBOLIC POWER


Bourdieu’s (1989) theoretical concepts of social space and symbolic power are effective analytic tools for examining the tensions around teachers’ ability to stretch and transcend the traditional boundaries that exist between home and school. First, Bourdieu (1989) noted that interactions cannot exist outside of a structure and, in fact, that the social world is a highly structured reality. He used the term social space as a symbolic, geographic metaphor that denotes the structure of reality and for how individuals are arranged in society; within this social space, then, people are unevenly located across hierarchized “fields,” or social and institutional arenas (e.g., law, politics, education) that implicitly guide, inform, and constrain interactions.


Bourdieu (1989) further contended that individuals vary in the social field according to two dimensions: (1) the various forms of capital (economic, cultural, and social) that they possess, and (2) the relative prestige and power that each respective form holds within society. This latter characteristic is what is referred to as symbolic capital, or “ the form that the various species of capital . . . assume when they are perceived and recognized as legitimate” over time and through previous struggle (Bourdieu, 1989, p. 17). Symbolic capital carries with it universally recognized honor and prestige, such as having a formal educational credential. By its very nature, the possession of symbolic capital confers symbolic power. Those who hold symbolic power have “obtained sufficient recognition” (Bourdieu, 1989, p. 23) to impose a set of ideologies, policies, and practices that play out at both individual and institutional levels.


Applying Bourdieu’s concepts to the interactions between teachers and diverse families, teachers inhabit a particular field within a social space—the education system—that is legitimized and imbued with symbolic power. Parents inhabit a different field, and their positioning within this also varies, such that some families (e.g., low income, immigrant) might inhabit marginalized positions and/or are simply less represented. Hence, teachers may find it difficult or impossible to perceive the actions and intentions of diverse families outside their own habitus around what family engagement should look like in schools and the boundaries that are required to maintain it. Also, it may be difficult for teachers to relinquish the symbolic power that is conferred in their position as “teacher expert” despite their earnest attempts to do so.


In the present study, we explore these concepts using rich data from focus group interviews with teachers across multiple school sites in an urban city. Our multilayered analyses illuminate teachers’ perspectives on their role in engaging diverse families, and the varied and often creative strategies they use to do so. At the same time, the ways that power and authority are expressed in their discourse, often expressed as a need for boundaries between home and school, lend support to Bourdieu’s (1989) contention that “the visible, that which is immediately given (i.e., interactions between individuals), hides the invisible (i.e., the social space and field) which determines it” (p. 16).


METHOD: CONTEXT FOR THE PRESENT STUDY


The present study was part of a larger, collaborative partnership between 13 diverse (public, charter, and Catholic) urban schools and families, and a neighboring social-justice-oriented college that was designed to significantly advance family engagement within these school communities (see Grant, Styles, Solomon, & Durand, 2014). The partnership included multiple stakeholders: school administrators (i.e., principals), educational professionals (e.g., teachers, family coordinators), families of children (e.g., parents, grandparents, caregivers), and higher education professionals (e.g., project managers, college faculty). A participatory approach was used in which the development and implementation of many aspects of the project were shared among stakeholders (e.g., school staff and families providing insight into study materials), participants’ voices were privileged (e.g., the use of focus groups), and project activities and findings were carried forth and built on in schools by stakeholders themselves (e.g., participating families developing outside support groups).


Data collection for the project was conducted over two academic years, from August 2012 to June 2014, and included both quantitative (i.e., a Family Engagement Survey [FES]) and qualitative (individual and focus group interviews with parent and teacher groups; participant observation of school sites) methods. Using National Center for Education Statistics Locale Classifications and Criteria, 12 partner schools were characterized as “city-large” and one as “rural-fringe.” All were racially/ethnically diverse (more than 50% non-White in all schools) and served high percentages of low-SES families. More specifically, school-level demographic data collected in each school showed that in 10 out of 13 of the schools, 70% or more FES respondents had annual household incomes of less than $75,000 per year. In all but two schools, more than 50% of FES respondents reported having less than a bachelor’s degree.


THE PRESENT STUDY


PARTICIPANTS


For the present study, six separate focus group interviews with teachers at four of the partner schools were selected for analysis from the larger study: two from one primary school, two from one elementary school, one from a K–8 school, and one from a middle school. Although a total of nine teacher focus groups were conducted within participating schools in the larger study, the six chosen represent all those conducted at public schools (i.e., the focus of the current study). In each school, all classroom teachers were apprised of the study and invited to participate in focus groups but self-selected as participants. Focus groups ranged in size from five to 15 teachers, respectively (44 focus group participants overall); the constitution of all groups was not predetermined (e.g., by grade or subject taught), but based on teacher interest and availability. All but two teachers were female. Participants were racially diverse (42% White, 42% Black, 16% Latino/a) and had been teaching for an average of 17.25 years.


FOCUS GROUP PROCEDURES


Teacher focus groups were conducted at each of the four respective school buildings from January to June 2014 and facilitated by at least one member of the research team who had formal training and experience with this methodology, led by the first author. A semistructured format was employed for each focus group, and each facilitator was guided by a set of open-ended questions that addressed teachers’ definitions of family engagement, their experiences working with diverse families, and their beliefs about their own and parents’ roles in the engagement process. However, consistent with the tenets of focus group methodology, teacher participants were allowed to control the direction and depth of the discussion in order to prioritize the interactive discourse (Kamberelis & Dimitriadis, 2011; Madriz, 2000). Focus groups lasted between 45 and 80 minutes, totaling 320 minutes of recording overall. All sessions were audiotaped with participant consent and professionally transcribed verbatim, with the exception of individual names, which were replaced in the written transcripts with the conventions “S1, S2. . .” as appropriate, so as to identify individual speakers and respective shifts in the conversation.


OVERVIEW OF ANALYSIS AND CODING


To address the research questions of the study in a comprehensive way, two levels of qualitative analysis of focus group data were employed, each with different, yet complementary goals. The first set of analyses examined the conceptual content of “what” was said across all focus group transcripts. In the second, the interactive responses of group members to a question designed to elicit teachers’ attitudes about home–school boundaries were examined. This subsequent focus on “how” the interaction occurs and its relation to the respective content that is produced by the speakers allowed us to capitalize on one of the unique benefits of focus groups (Madriz, 2000; Morgan, 1997, 2010).


Conceptual Analysis of Content


Conceptual analysis of data followed qualitative content analytic coding procedures, using a multilayered approach. Qualitative content analysis strives to examine meanings, themes, and patterns that may be manifest or latent in a particular text, and codes are generated inductively (Sandelowski, 2000; Zhang & Wildemuth, 2009). This approach aligned with the participatory framework of the study, which sought to privilege the voices and localized understandings of participants. Analysis began with open coding and memoing to expose the thoughts, meanings, and ideas that were contained in the texts (Corbin & Strauss, 2007). Specifically, following Morgan (1997), we first examined each focus group transcript separately, and all distinct statements or ideas related to teachers’ perspectives on their roles in engaging families (e.g., “the parent was able to communicate with me because I made the suggestion”) were initially marked and recorded for each; across the six focus group transcripts, a total of 99 statements were identified, and those statements that were thought to be assertions of power and authority were highlighted for later, separate analysis. All identified statements were then sorted, categorized, and descriptively labeled. Using this process, a codebook of definitions and examples was created, and three transcripts were selected to validate the coding scheme. The first author was the primary coder, and reliability of the coding scheme was achieved through the use of a second coder, who received training on the study purposes and interpretations of coding definitions. Discrepancies in coding were resolved through discussion and consensus until intercoder agreement was reached (Lewis, 2009). Subsequently, all remaining transcripts were coded, and the content and boundaries of existing codes were clarified and refined (Miles & Huberman, 1994). This resulted in a set of eight lower level concepts regarding teachers’ roles that described relatively concrete yet vivid dimensions of teachers’ role descriptions, labeled using “in vivo” codes that contained the words of participants themselves (Corbin & Strauss, 2007). Statements that conveyed more than one idea or concept were double coded.


We then proceeded to axial coding, where dimensions and properties of categories were considered, linked, and merged through constant comparative analysis to generate central, higher level categories that conveyed an overarching theme (Corbin & Strauss, 2007). Through this process, three higher level categories or themes that illuminated teachers’ conceptualization of their roles in the parent engagement process were generated (Table 1). As well, although statements of power and authority by teachers were relatively infrequent, such statements (19 individual statements; 19%) were identified in five of the six focus groups and were evenly distributed across each of the three major categories.



Table 1. Higher Level Categories and In Vivo Codes, With Sample Quotes

Creating Responsive Relationships

Casting Engagement as Education

Creating Varied and Tailored Opportunities

We Are on the Same Page


Example: “I see it as a partnership where there’s trust that’s been built, and we’re taking the good, the bad, and the ugly, and we can work together to come to some agreement.”

Explaining the Word [Engagement] Itself


Example: “And it’s this first experience to school . . . even before school begins, to meet the parents and talk to them and have this conversation, ‘what do you think parent involvement is?’”

If You Build It, They Will Come


Example: “If as a school we create opportunities to pull them in . . . and if we can set the right target to pull them in we can get them because having worked with parent groups, we can create so many things.”

But I Reach Out


Example: “You know, between the Open Houses and conferences, I understand and appreciate that some parents may not be able to make it up to the school . . . but I provide my email and phone number—reach out if they would like to talk to me about something.”

For Me, It’s Getting Them to School on Time


Example: “I think an important part of parent involvement is to help them see how crucial it is to be at school on time.”

I Have to Be Creative in My Teacher Role


Example: “Some parents can’t get here, they don’t have transportation or they work two jobs. So you got to be flexible, I’m thinking.”


Deeper Than Just “Here’s a Letter”


Example: “It’s also incorporating, making parents comfortable, having that open dialogue, talking. Showing I’m approachable, you’re approachable, so, don’t feel, like ‘well, you're the teacher’ . . . so you don’t have to fear me.”

People Need Help


Example: “I see it as come any time you feel like it. I’m here to help you, and how can you help your child?”

Don't Cross That Double Yellow Line


Example: “Well, because that’s just teacher etiquette . . . and I happen to be a parent who will challenge, and I always feel bad about that, and I do think that’s going back to there needs to be a protocol [for families] on how you engage.”

Note: Columns represent each respective category.



Analysis of Interactional Group Responses


Morgan (2010) commented on the validity of considering the interaction in focus groups as the data (i.e., as a unit of analysis in itself). In this regard, the sequence of interactional responses to the specific question “Are there areas or specific practices that families should not be involved in at school?” was examined in each separate transcript. This question was posed directly to teacher participants in all but one focus group1 and was constructed to tap teachers’ comfort level with less traditional, more pervasive forms of parental engagement in an open-ended way (i.e., we reasoned that asking them directly about boundaries would elicit positive response bias). Morgan’s (1997) concept of “group-to-group validation,” or the extent to which a specific topic generates consistent energy across groups, was used to provide internal validity to the analytic process.


FINDINGS


The qualitative data from teacher focus groups well illustrate the process-oriented nature of the term family engagement as we defined it earlier by providing rich insights into teachers’ conceptions of their roles in facilitating and maintaining sustained partnerships with families. These insights were revealed in three distinct categories: (a) creating responsive relationships, (b) casting engagement as education, and (c) creating varied and tailored opportunities. We discuss each category separately, highlighting the lower level concepts, presented as in vivo statements that illustrate respective category dimensions. Following the discussion of each broad category, we present the “assertions of power and authority” that were extracted in each. Our analysis of the interactional group response to the question of whether there should be limits on families’ involvement will be presented in the last section of the findings, providing more nuance and complexity to teachers’ responses. To provide a rich synthesis of the data and interpretations, some discussion of the findings is integrated throughout this section (see Sandelowski & Barroso, 2003).


CREATING RESPONSIVE RELATIONSHIPS


“We Are on the Same Page.”


The work and writing of Lawrence-Lightfoot (1978, 2004) that has examined the relational interactions between families and schools across several decades has shed light on the complexity of the parent–teacher relationship as it plays out within the microcosm of school, itself shaped by the economic and sociocultural landscape of the community and the larger sociopolitical context. Although the expectation and rhetoric surrounding teachers and parents (namely, mothers) is that the two come together willingly as natural allies in their respective roles as primary socializing agents of children, Lawrence-Lightfoot (1978, 2004) noted that this relationship is often quietly adversarial, riddled with hesitation, unease, and tensions that may be exacerbated by discrepant racial, language, and class-based differences. Within this context, teachers and parents must strive to maintain relationships with children—and each other—that are comprehensive and differentiated, mindful and respectful of each other’s unique contributions (Lawrence-Lightfoot, 1978, 2004).


In our data here, striving for these kinds of relationships with families—ones that were based on working together to support children’s best interests—was an aspect of teachers’ role descriptions that was articulated in all focus groups. For many, this was a central aspect of their work with families, with the goal of “letting parents know that we are one, we are on the same page,” as one female teacher described it. Several teachers described the processes that were necessary in reaching such a goal, such as a willingness to see parents as “equals,” or viewing them as “partners.” Many teachers who were parents themselves found that sharing their experiences with their own child’s schooling helped them establish stronger, more empathic connections with families. Even so, several participants commented on the mutual unease that often exists between teachers and parents noted by Lawrence-Lightfoot (1978, 2004):


And as you were saying, if we break down the barriers, I call it a misunderstanding with each other, a barrier where sometimes you fear to call this parent . . . and sometimes parents are like not comfortable calling you . . . so we tear down those barriers and like okay, we both have the interest of the child here, let’s work together. (Female teacher)


The preceding reflexive statement is interesting in that it places teachers themselves as objects of inquiry (“where sometimes you [teachers] fear to call this parent”) and illustrates that misperceptions and “misunderstandings” between teachers and parents are often not one-sided, but held by both parties.


Although the nature of the “barriers” between teachers and families is not qualified in the preceding quotation, this was a prominent discussion in all focus groups. Many teachers elaborated on a variety of external factors that often serve to undermine the development of responsive relationships. These were most commonly noted as the result of language issues, the parent’s own history with schooling, or, more specifically, cultural differences between families and schools:


We have to look at the role of the teacher in different cultures. (Female speaker)

Yeah, I was just going to ask about that . . . I was thinking about the connection between that and barriers, and what that means to families, like what is family engagement with the family you spoke to with hesitation because maybe they don’t, you know, negativity, bad news . . . how do families feel they’re welcomed, do they feel like it’s their place to ask a teacher a question or invite a conversation of a teacher, is that sometimes perceived the role of the teacher? (Second female teacher)


The preceding excerpt reflects the speaker’s ability to consider the issue of barriers as influenced by the culturally informed perspectives, cognitions, and experiences that different families may have regarding school interactions, itself a necessary aspect of culturally competent work with diverse families (Durand, 2010b; Lynch & Hanson, 2011). Finally, several participants in each group expressed the belief that trust was essential to the formation of relationships and is often the result of parents and teachers navigating challenges together, where “there’s trust that’s been built and we’re taking the good, bad, and ugly, and we can work it out. We can work together to come to some agreement,” as expressed by one early childhood teacher.


“But I Reach Out.”


In her ethnographic work that examined the ways that professional and working-class families structure their children’s daily lives and interactions with schools, Lareau (2011) found that working-class families, as compared with professional-class families, rarely contacted the school on either their own or their child’s behalf and were much more likely to expect teachers to initiate all contact with them. This resonated with the teachers in our sample, who appeared resigned yet very comfortable initiating contact with and reaching out to families throughout the school year, and for a variety of reasons. In fact, one teacher commented specifically on what families might conclude as a result of not hearing from the school: “I think sometimes parents think that, okay, the teacher’s not calling me then I don’t need to worry about anything. But I reach out.” Participants also discussed how the contextual circumstances of families, especially lack of transportation or work schedules, could dramatically impact their ability to be present at school, and the accommodations they made for this, most notably through the use of electronic media (e.g., texting). Many participants were also very thoughtful in considering the way families might perceive their efforts to involve families, and the salience of “the tone” that the school sets, as reflected by one elementary teacher:


I’m thinking too engagement almost feels like you have to be welcomed in to be engaged for you to really be engaged in something. I just wonder what they [parents] perceive the tone to be. I think we send fliers, we do a good way of communicating, a good job communicating, [we use] ConnectEd, but whether they feel engaged by that I think is a question . . . so it makes me think of the tone.


The preceding quotation is interesting when compared to the earlier comment (from a participant in a different focus group) suggesting that feeling “welcomed” is in fact culturally determined. In the preceding selection, the teacher goes a bit further, implying that the school has a role to play in creating a welcoming “tone,” while perhaps suggesting that the school may not be doing enough: (“I think we send flyers . . . but whether they feel engaged by that I think is a question”).


Overall, however, many teacher participants were not content to wait for parents to contact them and saw it as part of their role to reach out; only two individuals (in two separate focus groups) made statements suggesting that families should share some of the initiative, such as one female teacher’s comment: “It [positive family engagement] means that families are engaged without you having to hound them . . . you don’t have to call them 20 times . . . they want to be involved . . . not that we don’t have a part in getting that, but. . .”


Such comments, however, did not gain traction in either focus group; rather, the practice of teachers initiating contact with parents was described as an aspect of both the development and maintenance of their relationships with families.


“Deeper than just ‘Here’s a Letter.’”


Over and over, teachers clarified the necessary characteristics of positive home–school relationships and effective communication, noting, as also implied in the preceding selection, that the traditional, default method of communicating across the school–home border by sending written material home was inadequate with the families they served, as stated very clearly by one female participant:


And being informed, I don’t think sometimes just a letter is enough . . . they want to be informed, but they want to kind of hear it because some of them may read the letter and not even understand it. So I think being informed goes deeper than just “here’s a letter sent to parents” . . . you really sometimes do have to like call them and say do you understand . . . because I’m really direct with my parents.


In the preceding excerpt, the teacher acknowledges that not all parents of children in her classroom are able process or understand material that is sent home despite their desire to be informed, and she signals her commitment to making sure they do understand by reaching out to them. Her comment about being “direct” with her parents may be both effective and appreciated by families; as noted by Delpit (2006), explicit knowledge and instruction of the requisite skills, modes of communicating, and “ways of being” within any given sociocultural setting are profoundly helpful for individuals who may be operating outside their own cultural milieu. Hence, many teachers’ comments about transcending traditional methods of communication provided additional insight into creating a shared habitus around school engagement and of what “reaching out” to families should ideally consist of: being “direct,” establishing personal connections with families, having open dialogue, establishing trust, and allowing time for relationships to form. In each focus group, it was also acknowledged that responsive interactions with families required teachers to offer them a sense of comfort but also included a willingness to listen and integrate their perspectives; as articulated by one participant:


I think we don’t know the perspectives sometimes of our parents to be, to know what’s important for them, how does it work for them. . . I think the more you know that . . . I think everybody looks at it differently. That’s the piece that we are forgetting about, that, you have to first have that parent meeting or that comfort, and kind of help people mesh what our expectations are with what they can do or what they think, what they expect, or what they see it as . . . and that’s the hard piece, the really hard piece. Juggling what we can do as people, with what they need.


As reflected in this last selection, we again see a willingness to acknowledge the perspectives of parents—to question, “How does it work for them?” That such reflexive comments appeared in each dimension of the category of empowering relationships is very encouraging. However, teachers’ descriptions of their ongoing interactions with families were not unanimously egalitarian, as we now discuss.


Assertions of Power and Authority: Together, but Teachers in Charge


Embedded in teachers’ conversations regarding the salience of positive relationships with parents and families was also the sentiment that such relationships were not without hierarchy. From the perspective of several teachers across half of the focus groups, it was important that although it was essential to communicate to parents that working together was a priority, when it came to matters concerning school, and even sometimes beyond, they were in charge. One middle school teacher shared her beliefs about the school needing to take the lead role in preparing students for “how to present themselves in society, and in school.” She went on to note,


I don’t care where [students] are, and I’m big on that. I don’t care whether your mother told you or not because I’m telling you. That’s the way I see the partnership: that parents do their part, and then they send their child to school and we continue what the parent is not.


The teacher’s comment that she was willing to override what the parent told the student, stated authoritatively, suggests that she felt justified in doing so. In addition, although we again see the acknowledgement of a “partnership” with families, her statement contains what may be a deficit-oriented conclusion that that the parents aren’t doing enough, because the school has to “continue what the parent is not.” Hence, on several occasions, such as the one just mentioned, teachers conveyed that they had the ultimate authority or the final say on things, especially on matters of curriculum, school policies, or classroom procedures.


There were also several examples of statements where teachers’ ideas around collaboration and authority were contrasted in the same sentence. The following statements from two different female teachers in two different groups are illustrative:


One time, I didn’t like the behavior I saw. . . and I felt comfortable enough where, no matter what happens between them, or between her and I, that I can tell her [parent] like it is. I understand where you [parent] are at. . . but remember where you're at, and what’s expected.

I don’t think a parent should—and I don’t have a problem—should come in and try to tell the teacher, “well this needs to happen, that needs to happen.” No, we can work together, but you can’t come in here and tell me.


The italicized words in the preceding quotes that denote inflection/stress in the speakers’ voices are very interesting in that they convey strong assertions of both the presumed authority and esteem of the school (“but remember where you’re at”) and the teachers (“but you can’t come in here and tell me”). In both selections, it appears that collaboration is somewhat conditional; “working together” is okay and welcomed, as long as it does not conflict with the expectations of the school, or the teachers’ agenda. The statements of both teachers, and the tensions that they may reflect, may be typical and expected when others with a vested interest in children (namely parents) enter the classroom environment, and they may be a manifestation of teachers’ legitimate desire for appreciation and respect in a sociopolitical context where such is not freely given (de Carvalho, 2001; Miretzky, 2004).


CASTING ENGAGEMENT AS EDUCATION


“Explaining the Word [Engagement] Itself.”


Present in every focus group was a conversation around the need to clarify for families the definition of engagement and involvement in school, in terms of both its relevance and scope, and the school’s expectations that it would indeed occur. Although many teachers made reference to school-level practices (e.g., schoolwide orientation, Open House) that could support efforts to educate families on this topic, the majority saw this as part of their own role as teachers. Hence, there were many occasions when teachers took a step back from discussing the particulars of effective strategies for supporting and building relationships with families and focused on what appeared to be “direct instruction” of families regarding the meaning of family engagement in school; this is illustrated by one teacher, who clearly stated that it was her “responsibility” to do so:


And some of them [parents] you need to even explain what the word itself, family engagement, what is it?. . . You have to even give them a workshop. Because it’s so broad, to me it’s whatever they bring . . . it’s my responsibility to kind of show them a little bit, “If you do this and that then you are being involved.”


As noted in the preceding selection, the teacher took nothing for granted in terms of her assumptions about what the families she served understood engagement to be. She commented, “You need to even explain the word itself, family engagement,” and she also articulated the need to be very concrete about what she expected, by “show[ing]” them ways they could be involved. On several occasions, many teachers elaborated on the ways they do this. Examples include offering within-classroom presentations and providing families with a menu or list of involvement options; one early childhood teacher suggested “researching other ways that they [parents] can physically come here so they can see . . . show them how can you get involved in the classroom.”


As is well documented in the literature, parents’ own understandings about what constitutes education and their role in supporting it vary widely with regard to sociocultural factors such as ethnicity, social class, and immigrant status (Durand & Perez, 2013; Gonzalez-Mena, 2008). This has obvious implications for parents’ beliefs about their involvement and for the way they view the respective roles of home and school in supporting children’s growth and learning. An awareness of the potential for incongruity between parents and teachers regarding expectations around engagement was mentioned in all focus groups; as one teacher stated elegantly, “I think that they [parents] feel like they’re at school, so you, you take care of them, and you really have to like get in there and say no, you have to be involved with your student, you’re part of this.” Similarly, several teachers showed particular empathy for the ways that some families might feel marginalized:


Some parents I don’t think feel they are important because they don’t speak the language so they try to avoid that content in the way that they don’t feel comfortable bringing anything, when they have so much that they can bring. But they don’t know it until we let them know here, “we need you because of. . .” and give them examples of which ways they can help us and help our school, and how much we appreciate their presence. They need to know that. (Female teacher)


Here, the teacher acknowledges possible sources of parents’ feelings of inadequacy (“because they don’t speak the language”), as well as a willingness to capitalize on the contributions they can make (“when they have so much that they can bring”). This is an important finding and is consistent with research suggesting that the most important aspects of fostering parental involvement and engagement may not be the specific tutelage that teachers offer to parents, but their ability to provide loving, encouraging, empathic support (Jeynes, 2011; Mapp, Johnson, Strickland, & Meza, 2008).


In addition to educating families about the nature of engagement in school, a discourse that included self-reflective comments on their own understandings of engagement—in particular, how these had changed and evolved through teaching in a diverse, urban community—was also prominent among participants. In particular, having fluid conceptions of parental involvement was noted as an adaptive practice in all focus groups. The following selection is illustrative and emerged during a discussion in one group regarding a questionnaire that had been sent out asking parents to share areas of interest or expertise:


I just think there should be more opportunities for something like that [using parents’ talents] because I think parents sometimes do get intimidated that “I don’t know anything. I don’t know anything.” Everybody is gifted in some area. Why can’t we take what gifts these parents have and showcase that, instead of sometimes saying “[you] can’t help your student in math . . . you don’t understand it?”


The preceding teacher’s comment suggests that viewing parents’ efforts from a more strengths-based lens (“why can’t we take what gifts these parents have”) is important to consider, along with the suggestion that teachers weren’t providing enough “opportunities” for this to happen. Hence, when discussing the issue of engagement as education, teachers often placed themselves as objects of inquiry; in all focus groups, there were powerful statements that evidenced teachers’ reflective thinking about how their attitudes, behaviors, or outreach efforts might be perceived by families and how these, in turn, could influence parents’ engagement. One middle school teacher commented, “I think sometimes we expect some of the wrong things out of parents, and that’s what really intimidates them, and it makes them not want to be involved.” Similarly, teachers articulated the need for listening and for humility, as well as the need to “step back” and consider the individual characteristics of families. This is shown in the two selections that follow, from two teachers in different respective groups:


The “Listening Conference” is about explaining this, what this is, and why they have to be part of it, and building trust. Teachers really do use this time to listen, cause parents are the first experts on their children, and teachers are humble about this. We have to be humble enough to listen and hear from families.


I think it depends on the type of families you have . . . so I feel, how much do I push them? So I guess maybe I was trying to push more on them and realizing I need to take a step back . . . you can’t always think they want to have everything given to them.


Scholarly work has documented the importance of teachers’ self-reflection and inquiry to their ongoing professional development and effectiveness. Specifically, nurturing teachers’ “reflective dispositions” is an essential ingredient for improving their practices over time (Ermeling, 2010, p. 377), affording them the opportunity to grapple with the uncertainties, dilemmas, and complexities of the profession (Attard, 2008; Crockett, 2004).


“For Me, It’s Getting Them to School on Time,” Because “People Need Help.”


We also uncovered two other related dimensions of teachers’ descriptions of engagement as education. As opposed to clarifying engagement for parents (and themselves) in a more abstract sense, there was also a narrative in which this was defined in very concrete, perhaps more traditional, ways. Specifically, respondents in all focus groups discussed the need to educate families about what they considered basic information regarding school codes or school policies, such as “getting them to school on time,” providing them with examples of how they could support children’s learning at home, and communicating their expectation that parents would be present for events. One elementary teacher noted, “I would think family engagement, the family, we tell them that it means coming up to the school, showing up at events when you’re invited, Open House, parent teacher conferences, literacy night.” For a few respondents, there were some areas that appeared to be nonnegotiable, as stated by one participant: “Like to me, for instance, a parent conference, that is a must . . . you have to come to parent conference. You have to come and meet me.” The following excerpts, from kindergarten and middle school teachers in two separate groups, respectively, are strikingly similar in their focus on providing families with what might appear to be rudimentary information on children’s readiness for school:


For me it’s [family involvement] getting them to school on time, to make sure they come to school every day, that they’re ready, they’ve had their sleep. That’s kind of where my families are coming from . . . you know, toilet training one of the children . . . I have to stay on her to make sure she brings in extra clothes. (Kindergarten teacher)


For instance, the parent should know that the child comes with their notebooks, pens, pencils, ready to learn, that they should get a good night’s sleep and some kind of meal in the morning, and they should be dressed appropriately. (Middle school teacher)


The phrase “that’s kind of where my families are coming from” in the first example again suggests an understanding of the need to consider the unique contexts of families, yet it might carry with it the implication that the majority of the speaker’s families may not be positioned for more extensive forms of engagement. This may not be unfair, however. In all but one focus group, teacher participants discussed the many challenges that existed for the families of children in their classrooms, such as community violence, financial hardships, unemployment, or housing instability—all factors that can impact families’ ability to directly engage with teachers and schools. In considering the impact of such circumstances on both children and parents, Weissbourd (2009) described the resultant lack of sleep, tardiness, inadequate clothing, or undetected health issues that often manifest as “quiet troubles” among children from low-income families and noted that schools must redouble their efforts to partner with other community agencies and services in providing them with meaningful support.


Accordingly, educating families on what teachers considered to be fundamental aspects of school readiness was often framed within the view that “people need help.” Several teachers commented explicitly on the connection between parents’ own personal circumstances and their ability to support children’s schooling and development, and they saw their own (teacher) support as necessary. In fact, one teacher explicitly equated family engagement with help and support by noting, “Family engagement to me is more, how can we support them [parents]? How can we make, you know, a better understanding between school and family? How can we help, you know, with different family needs?” However, we discovered that teachers often discussed the ways they provided education and support for families using well-intentioned yet deficit-oriented language, where it was assumed that families were lacking in particular kinds of knowledge and skills, especially as they regarded the parenting and proper support of children:


People need help . . . if you sit at the front door and you see the kids come in every day and they come in with holes in their shoes, there’s other signs—like to be an outreach, to help people because you’re right, all mothers and fathers want to be good mothers and fathers, they just don’t have a set of directions. So you can’t get something you’ve never had. (Male middle school teacher)


And I also have to be able to tell that parent with tough love, you need to be an adult about this, your little boy is suffering and he’s not learning, because your home life is interfering with his learning, and you have to be strong enough to say those words. (Female early childhood teacher)


Irrespective of the truth or subjectivity of both of the preceding selections, each cast particular kinds of parents or homes as extremely lacking in—or, even more strongly, as “interfering with”—the ability to properly care for and support children’s learning. Rishel (2008) reflected on how biases and labeling of certain families can interfere with both responsibility and reality; families labeled as simply “dysfunctional,” for example, can effectively absolve school staff from offering meaningful support or from discovering more complete information. Although the participants above appear to see themselves as responsible for action in both cases (“people need help . . . like to be an outreach,” “I have to be able to tell the parent with tough love”), it is reasonable to question whether their ability to intervene sensitively and effectively will be compromised by their negative perceptions, or even how their efforts (in particular, the “tough love” noted earlier) will be received by families.


Assertions of Power and Authority: Teacher Knows Best


In our analysis of the concept “people need help,” we noticed that a large majority (71%) of segments within this heading were also coded as assertions of teachers’ power and authority. Many times, teachers articulated what appeared to be a sincere desire to provide comprehensive support to families that went beyond just school-related, child-focused issues. For example, one K–8 teacher mused about how central family engagement was to the culture of her particular school and that “the staff is exceptionally committed to families—there isn’t much we haven’t done for families.” Although it can be argued that this statement is an inherently positive one, it also contains a paternalistic quality in its use of the preposition “for” rather than “with” when discussing families.


Hence, we found that a dimension of teachers’ tacit assertions of power and authority that complemented the “together, but teachers in charge” segment illustrated earlier was their tendency to cast themselves as not only in charge, but also as experts—those who knew best—when it came to children’s education, growth, and development. All focus groups contained a robust discourse on the ways that this was the case. In the following extracts, taken from focus groups at a middle and primary school, respectively, participants discussed specific topics on which teachers need to provide instruction and guidance to families:


I do want them [parents] to know about the notebook, but even if you tell them about it, they’re still not going to get it. They're still not going to get it. It takes me to get it. And I’m going to say you owe me, you owe me, you owe me, and I know I’m not going to get a red cent, but that’s it. (Female middle school teacher)


I think that families in general are able to learn. We need to teach them about parenting. We need to teach them about managing their lives. And what does a teacher bring? Well they [parents] need to be taught how to help their child in school. Go back and stay focused on the school. As a teacher, I can help these families support their children in school. (Female early childhood teacher)


In two these illustrations, teachers clearly positioned themselves as the individuals who held the correct information and knowledge about school-related issues, as well as in both “parenting” and “managing their lives,” as noted by the second speaker. We also see both teachers asserting themselves as essential to parents’ presumed ability to learn what is being presented to them (“it takes me to get it”). It is certainly the case that having strong content and pedagogical expertise is a hallmark of effective teaching to any audience; validating and celebrating this is an affirmation of teachers’ professional roles (Addi-Raccah & Arviv-Elyashiv, 2008). Although teachers’ characterizations of themselves as experts were biased toward curricular and school-related issues, the comments here also illustrate that they bled into areas outside the classroom as well.


CREATING VARIED AND TAILORED OPPORTUNITIES


“If You Build It, They Will Come.”


It is now well established in the literature that the contextual circumstances of families exert a powerful influence on their ability to be physically present and engaged in school. The final category of teachers’ role descriptions complemented the first category, which centered on the nature and quality of the parent–teacher relationship, by delineating the activity-based strategies that develop and sustain such relationships. As well, this category reflected what appeared to be teachers’ legitimate desire for families to be physically present at school and a belief that the school had a responsibility for creating diverse opportunities for this to happen. In five of the six focus groups, teachers discussed the need for schools to create a broad range of activities to “pull them [parents] in,” as one teacher phrased it, that were varied, were engaging, and even provided an incentive for families and children. A fellow middle school teacher participant elaborated on this by drawing on her experience as a former elementary teacher in the following quotation:


I look at this from the elementary point of view again, but one of the big pulls there is, field of dreams, “If you build it, they will come.” Like, tied to Open House was like a potluck dinner . . . and if parents saw okay, I can avoid supper, that’s one time. So you’ve got to tie something in, it could even be something for the child, more gym time, whatever they want.


In the preceding quotation, there is an interesting contrast between the speaker suggesting that simply “building” opportunities will ensure that parents “come” to the school and her subsequent comment that such opportunities should be “tied” to something. Perhaps this might be interpreted as a way of tailoring opportunities to the particular contexts and needs of families, often noted as a best practice in working in diverse communities (see Turner-Vorbeck & Miller Marsh, 2008). For example, many participants spoke of creating opportunities for parents to gain new academic skills and learn more about the curriculum, such as when one middle school teacher spoke of her school adding math workshops to Open House:


Teachers sat down and looked at the topics [parents] should know in math . . . and to me, that was big because we had a set of parents that attended and they all shared in the activities . . . it was in real life, but the kids could learn from them [parents], and they could apply it to the classroom.


In another group, the conversation centered on structuring opportunities for families to connect with each other, a form of social capital that has been shown empirically to predict school-based forms of involvement among Latino families (see Durand, 2011). During a conversation regarding an event (a trip to a major league baseball game) that was provided for families and subsidized by the school, one elementary school teacher acknowledged the impact of interfamily connections:


I think it’s interesting too because it connects with one of the goals that [parent coordinator] had with that event: really trying to connect families to each other, and you know, if we could try to do that more, you know, that might help with one of our barriers as a school community.


Indeed, Hong (2011) noted that one of the most profound and impactful aspects of the LSNA’s Parent Mentor program noted earlier was that it allowed immigrant family cohorts to provide each other with culturally relevant encouragement, information, resources, and support, giving them a scaffold to “find their place” (p. 47) within what was often an otherwise unfamiliar (school) setting.


“I Have To Be Creative in My Role as a Teacher.”


In three of the six focus groups, teachers specifically identified flexibility as an essential strategy for creating opportunities and facilitating engagement among diverse families. Several teachers spoke of the need to reevaluate their involvement strategies or practices each school year, based on their classroom profile—or the “classrooms in my classroom,” as one early childhood teacher vividly phrased it. This flexibility was alternatively described as creativity on several occasions, as shown in the following selection:


I have to be creative in my role as a teacher. And I have to be creative in terms of what [parent liaison] said. Every year you get different parents, and this may not work next year. I may not get any parent who knows how to text and do all that depending on what country they come from, you know? (Female early childhood teacher)


In these ways, teachers showed an awareness of and empathy for the contextual circumstances of families and how these might impact their ability to engage with school. For example, developing a system whereby families sent “recyclables” in from home for classroom use was how one elementary teacher creatively framed involvement for one school year, capitalizing on the ability for some parents to contribute to the classroom without being physically present at school.


Relatedly, several teachers felt it was on the school to develop creative and meaningful accommodations for families with unique circumstances. Teachers in one group engaged in a rich discussion regarding a situation with an undocumented parent who had communicated his desire to volunteer in the classroom but was unable to do so because of the mandated background check for all volunteers. As noted by one female teacher participant,


He [undocumented parent] had to come to the school to pick up his son because he was sick and he wants to volunteer. He’s like “I would love to volunteer but don’t send this form in. I’m not going to fill this out.” I think that’s not fair for those parents. Somehow, there needs to be—when X and Y doesn't meet the criteria, a Z or something else needs to be put in place for these parents, because if it means that I would have to be there—the teacher would be there, or even two adults would be there—just an idea, so this parent feels he could contribute something. I think something should be there for him because he felt so bad and I felt so bad.


The prominent role that teachers must play alongside other administrators (e.g., principals, guidance counselors) in establishing structures that facilitate effective school, family, and community partnerships is not well documented in the school–community partnership literature (Hands, 2012). In the preceding sentiment, while the teacher’s desire for accommodations is clear, so too is her lack of clarity on possible solutions to the issue (“when X and Y doesn’t meet the criteria, a Z or something else needs to be put in place”). Yet, both her expressed sensitivity and the “insider” information she possesses speak to the impact that her (teacher) voice and perspective could contribute to the issue.


Assertions of Power and Authority: Boundaries and Protocols


While an acknowledgement of the multilayered benefits of creating varied opportunities for families was very present in all six focus groups, we uncovered distinct and powerful tensions around the boundaries needed for such opportunities, and the protocols that dictated such interactions that were expressed by several teachers across three of the groups. These tensions centered on several practices that offered the potential for more direct or sustained contact with families: home visits, having an “open door” policy in the classroom, and parental input into the curriculum, although this latter topic was not as robust as the other two. Several teachers in each of these groups saw providing home visits and allowing parents to visit their classrooms at any time as opportunities to build comfort and trust among families and to “have insight into what their lives are,” as noted by one teacher; however, there were also concerns raised by a small but vocal minority of teachers that complicated these potential benefits. Such concerns mostly centered on issues of respect, privacy, and ownership of the classroom space. The following segment is illustrative:


I’ll tell you a negative to this whole coming into the classroom . . . I have a parent that is calling me frequently . . . and they have seen some things . . . and now they are going downtown with it . . . so, “bring em all in, that’s great,” but you have to be ready for what the result of this is. But we invited them in, we told them to come in, so now they see more of what’s going on . . . so now it’s putting out more fires. (Female, early childhood teacher)


It is interesting to note that trust is also an implied issue in the preceding segment. The teacher’s report that after “seeing some things” in the classroom, some parents went “downtown with it”—a colloquial reference to the district’s central office and/or district administrators—left her with little confidence that this would not happen again, and further, that inviting parents into the classroom would necessitate “putting fires out.” But, it might also be an issue of teachers’ ownership and control of their professional work. In their study of elementary teachers in an affluent community in Israel, Addi-Raccah and Arviv-Elyashiv (2008) found that teachers not only felt vulnerable to the potential influence parents might have over administrative hiring and firing decisions but also believed that parental input on their teaching and instruction was encroaching on their professional role and authority over the curriculum.


For two participants, however, the need for boundaries also emerged in terms of the relationships they forged with parents. In one focus group in particular, there was a passionate discussion around the multiple roles that teachers often felt they were being asked to take on in connecting with diverse families. On the topic of home visits, one teacher noted that although she had heard about this practice, she felt like it was “crossing a border” for her. A second teacher supported her perspective with a strong assertion regarding what she saw as the appropriate relationship between teacher and parent:


I see that we’re getting a little bit too involved. I think we need to make it very clear in the public schools, is that it’s just building a relationship in which a parent and a teacher can help their child succeed in school, and I think we have to start making boundaries there, or we become overwhelmed . . . we are not social workers, we are teachers, our first job is to teach. So it’s almost like don’t cross that double-yellow line, we can’t. If we start to do it we’ll find us in their houses and bedrooms and at their pharmacies picking up their stuff.


We see in the preceding selection one particular teacher’s clear delineation of the “double-yellow line,” as she conceptualized it, that is essential in defining the limits of her role as a teacher, as well as her implication that non-school-related outreach with families will cross this line and be burdensome (“or we become overwhelmed”) for teachers. Perhaps it is fair to say that this caution is warranted; Grayson and Alvarez (2008) found that female teachers who perceived a lack of parent/community investment in children experienced more emotional exhaustion and role strain.


ANALYSIS OF INTERACTIONAL GROUP RESPONSES


The interactive response to the question regarding whether there were areas or specific practices that families should not be involved in was remarkably consistent across focus groups, suggesting that this was indeed a salient issue for teachers, especially in terms of the discomfort it elicited. Our examination revealed that in all five groups in which the question was posed, the group response fell into either of two categories or styles: qualified, where an initial, positive response to this question was soon followed with a qualifying statement that addressed limits on parents’ engagement (present in two groups), or indirect, where the question was never actually answered, and the response was recast as an opportunity to discuss already existing or potential involvement practices (present in one group). The first exchange that follows is an example where the qualified pattern emerged as most prominent and where the participants’ responses also provide insights into what might be behind teachers’ need for boundaries:


Facilitator: Where do you think families, or do you think families should not be involved in places [at school]?


S1: In terms of curriculum?


Facilitator: In terms of anything.


S1: That’s a very hard one for me because it’s the child, it’s your child . . . really, I think they should be involved in everything . . . I need to be involved [speaks from her own point of view as a parent regarding sensitive topics] . . . because I need to tell the teacher “to what extent are you going to teach this?” If I am a parent I would think I need to be involved because I want to know “if I’m being respectful, why is your door locked?”


S2: Well that’s where I tend to sometimes disagree. Maybe if you’ve set up a prior arrangement, you’ve talked and you’ve been made aware that I need to come at a certain time . . . but at this point, they [parents] should be respecting us as well.


S1: Yes, I understand that and at the same time I would say that . . . if I forgot to make an appointment to come and see . . . if I think of my school in a community, I have the right to go in there. . .”


[Facilitator offers long remarks on both sides of the issue].


S1: And yes, or someone that wants to get you in trouble may want to come in just to watch your lesson when you’re not ready or something.


In this exchange, the first speaker, who is also a parent herself, implies that she is aware of the tensions embedded in the question (“that’s a very hard one for me because it’s the child”) but quickly asserts, “I think they should be involved in everything.” Her response is immediately qualified by the second speaker, however, who responds to her desire for what sounds like an open-door policy with the implication that such policies aren’t respectful of the teacher (“well that’s where I tend to sometimes disagree . . . they should be respecting us as well”). The first speaker briefly defends her position a second time but then also falls into the qualified pattern herself after listening to the facilitator (“And yes, or someone that wants to get you in trouble may want to come in just to watch your lesson”).


In the content of this exchange, we see again that issues of respect and trust, and feelings of vulnerability are very real ones for teachers. The preceding excerpt suggests that it is reasonable to assume that teachers’ qualified responses to the question reflect that they are aware of the expectation that they should be open to parent involvement in diverse ways (i.e., a social desirability bias as reflected in their initial positive responses), or even that they have the best intentions of doing so, but the issue of boundaries is indeed a very real one—in this example, as both a moniker of “respect” and a safeguard against getting teachers “in trouble” for their work. The qualified response pattern illustrated here gained traction easily among group members across four out of five focus groups, suggesting that it resonated deeply with teachers.


The indirect response to the question regarding limits on parental engagement is exemplified in the following interaction, where the facilitator poses the question, yet instead of being answered directly, an idea for a way to involve parents in more legitimate ways is suggested:


Facilitator: Are there any areas either in the school or practices that you feel families really should not be involved in? Or maybe that it’s not, you know, a role that they can take on? [mumbling from group follows]


S1: One thing, but I’ve been talking about this since I got here nine years ago . . . one thing [another school] did that I think would be awesome is that if they sent out a questionnaire asking parents what their strengths are. And then they asked if they [parents] would be interested in doing an enrichment program after school. . .


Facilitator: Could you all see something like that happening here?


Multiple voices simultaneously: Yeah, definitely, why not?


S2: We have good turnouts for literacy night, art night, for math night, our turnouts are good.


In the preceding exchange, which again elicits initial rumination among the group, the first speaker’s articulation of a potential strategy to engage families is enthusiastically embraced, first by the facilitator and then by other members of the group, even though the first speaker did not answer the original question. As the exchange continues, the discussion that follows (for several pages in the transcript) continues to center on additional examples of family involvement practices that are already in place at this particular school, so that the facilitator herself is also drawn into it and never attempts to address the actual question regarding limits on parents’ involvement again.


Finally, two focus groups contained both response categories, as the following exchange illustrates:


Facilitator: So you’ve spoken of the commitment that the teachers have in involving families. Are there any areas or practices you think families should not be involved in at school?


[several seconds of silence, mumbling]


S1: Not much, I can’t think of any areas, really, no.


S2: Like parents here are on the Board and stuff, and like, when we have the curriculum trainings, quite a few families come to those . . . you know, all those things.


S3: But, there’s a fine line here. There was one time when a group of families that really wanted something, and ultimately, the school did not go in that direction. But it’s like “ok, we’ve listened to you, we’ve thought about it, we’ve heard you, but we are going in another direction.”


S2: Ok, that’s true, well cause ultimately, we are a staff-run school, not a parent-run school, and that is important. There are schools that exist that are parent-run, but we are not that. Ultimately, we have the final say on things.


S3: Yeah, yet, because we have an open door policy, some people push that. . . [multiple voices of acquiescence at once] . . . that they can ask anything, or ask for anything.


In this extract, we see that there is initial rumination on the issue that precedes the first speaker’s response (supporting no restrictions on parent involvement) of “not much, I can’t think of any areas” to the question. A second speaker illustrates the indirect response; she doesn’t actually say she supports this view, but rather supplants it with “evidence” of extant opportunities that already exist for families (“like parents here are on the Board and stuff”). Following this, the third speaker quickly qualifies the issue with a focus on the boundaries of parental engagement (“but there’s a fine line here”), leading to the striking comment that “we [teachers] have the final say on things.” The second speaker agrees with her (“ok, that’s true), while the first speaker who originally noted that there were no areas where families should not be involved does not attempt to lend more credence to her answer. The exchange closes with a clear articulation of a very real concern over having an open-door policy that was mirrored in the earlier exchange where unannounced parental visits were discussed: that parents will “push” the opportunities given to them. Overall, both qualified and indirect responses of teachers to the question of whether there should be limits on parents’ involvement at school were striking illustrations of their belief in the need for boundaries in this area even though they were often self-conscious (i.e., qualified and indirect) in expressing them.


DISCUSSION AND IMPLICATIONS


More than two decades ago, Fine (1993) noted that issues of power and authority must be more closely examined and addressed within urban school systems to reform parent engagement to better suit culturally diverse families. Our findings support these claims but contribute unique insights into the potentially powerful, but often contradictory, positioning of teachers in this process. Specifically, although it must be acknowledged that our study sample was relatively small, our results provide support for Bourdieu’s (1989) contention that one’s positioning in the social space, here the field of schooling and educational settings, and the respective symbolic power conferred with it, are determining forces that help to explain such contradictions.


As our qualitative results show, teachers discussed the landscape of parent engagement in their schools in terms of three broad categories, each of which revealed unique dimensions of power and authority held by teachers. First and foremost, teacher participants saw establishing meaningful relationships with families as central to their roles, but these relationships were not egalitarian ones. Second, they defined engagement in rich and broad terms and saw it as their obligation to educate families, but considered themselves to be the most privileged sources of knowledge. Most notably, teachers acknowledged the cultural backgrounds, contexts, and strengths of families and employed varied strategies to engage them; they also saw the need for boundaries on parents’ engagement regarding curricular issues, especially regarding extensive forms of contact with families, such as home visits or open-door classroom policies.


Applying Bourdieu’s (1989) concepts, our findings suggest that less hierarchical, more egalitarian relationships and practices with parents do not come easily for teachers, despite their best intentions, because they (parents) are configured in a different (i.e., inherently less powerful) position within the social space or field of school. Specifically, teachers’ perspectives of being “in charge” and of knowing what was “best” for children are consistent with Bourdieu’s notion of symbolic power, whereby those individuals who have acquired status or expertise seek to impose on others “taxonomies [beliefs and practices] that reproduce their own power and authority” within a matrix of social relations (Erickson & Murphy, 1998, p. 143). Hence, although teachers’ clear articulation of the need for boundaries around the ways that families might become more dynamically involved in school (e.g., open-door policy, curricular input, home visits) may be somewhat justified as one of professional purview or emotional health, as we have previously discussed, from Bourdieu’s (1989) perspective, they are also symbolic (as well as material) representations of the power hierarchy that exists between educated teacher professionals and diverse families—especially those who may be from lower socioeconomic or educational strata. From this view, the reality that teachers choose to see (that boundaries are essential in maintaining the home–school relationship) might both reflect and serve to maintain their own collective interests (Erickson & Murphy, 1998).


Yet it would be shortsighted to place teachers’ symbolic power as isolated or absolute in Bourdieu’s (1989) social space or field as it relates to the institution of formal schooling. Indeed, teachers themselves operate within a myriad of structural, procedural, and pedagogical constraints (Ladson Billings, 2006). Although only one of our focus groups contained a brief discussion of the pressure of external, structural factors on teachers’ classroom experiences, a critical analysis of the school “field” reveals its own hierarchical nature, whereby teachers themselves inhabit different spaces and hold less symbolic power than administrators (e.g., principals, superintendents). Specifically, that much of teachers’ work is organized by building and district administrators within the context of federal laws that exert an indirect influence on classroom pedagogy in ways that might not be welcomed (e.g., a primary focus on improving standardized test scores) might contribute to teachers feeling overextended, threatened, and less open to collaboration with families. Indeed, this may be particularly heightened in the current climate of high-stakes testing and accountability that shows no signs of abating—especially in less resourced schools serving high proportions of ethnic minority and low-income students (often urban, such as those in our study) that are often disproportionately targeted by accountability sanctions (G. Anderson & Cohen, 2015; Diamond & Spillane, 2004).


G. Anderson and Cohen (2015) noted that this focus on standardization, narrow assessment, and outcomes-based strategies illustrates a transfer of private sector logics into the public sector, leading to what they called a “de-professionalized” (p. 3) ethos and identity among teachers that erodes their own professional self-efficacy while simultaneously promoting a sense of competition among and between teachers and schools. Certainly, then, in this context, urban teachers may be less likely to embrace models of parental engagement that appear to threaten their own professional roles and spaces. However, to reclaim the notion of teaching as a public service aimed at the promotion of equitable, accessible, and culturally responsive schools (G. Anderson & Cohen, 2015), the need for teachers to join in collaborative advocacy with families and communities has never been greater.


TOWARD IDEOLOGICAL CHANGE IN URBAN SCHOOLS


In considering the implications of our findings, we take direction from a final aspect of Bourdieu’s theory as it regards the inherent conflicts embedded in social spaces, whereby those who hold symbolic power never establish an “absolute monopoly” (Bourdieu, 1989, p. 22). As noted by Erickson and Murphy (1998), Bourdieu believed that individual actors in a social space have the potential to create alternative practices that resist those that the powerful seek to impose. Our claim here is that reconceptualizing what family engagement can look like in urban schools is an illustration of such resistance. To date, few studies have suggested that teachers themselves sit at the apex of this process.


Payne (2010) argued that urban schools can be demoralizing institutions where low expectations dictate what can be done among school personnel and students and that hegemonic, racialized, and class-based notions of urban students and their families as inferior or lacking often permeate the school’s institutional culture. In our data, although the majority of teachers viewed families with a strengths-based lens, paternalistic and deficit-oriented attitudes regarding their capabilities and, ultimately, their potential were still present, as illustrated in the sentiment that many families were “needy.” At the same time, however, the teachers in our study spoke with passion and conviction about their commitment to educating children and families. The earnestness, import, and seriousness with which they viewed this aspect of their role informs our argument that despite the tensions, teachers are positioned to lead the charge in altering deficit-oriented perspectives on families and engagement that might exist in schools and that they are key figures in establishing more dynamic partnerships with families.


As a first step, our findings suggest that critical reflection and reflexivity among teachers is a necessary ingredient in changing dominant (often negative) perspectives about the potential of urban families in schools. In our data, teacher reflexivity was revealed in the content of teachers’ responses via their acknowledgement of how their own understandings of family engagement had broadened, as well as their expressed ability to take on the perspective of parents on numerous occasions. Although most empirical studies in the area of teacher reflexivity have focused on classroom pedagogy, we argue that nurturing teachers’ reflective dispositions is highly relevant to the issue of reconceptualizing the traditional boundaries of family engagement and is a particularly potent and necessary ingredient in establishing meaningful relationships with diverse families. Teachers who are committed to creating more robust opportunities for diverse families to contribute in meaningful ways must not work in isolation, but form alliances with other like-minded teachers. In doing so, teachers must question and support each other in questioning hegemonic everyday practices within the school, and the role of dominant ideological and cultural views regarding families that inform such practices (Rishel, 2008). For this process to be authentic, however, the perspectives of urban families must be seriously engaged and included, with the goal of creating a more equitable school community.


RECONCEPTUALIZING THE BOUNDARY: URBAN FAMILIES AS ASSETS AND ALLIES IN PRACTICE


The reflective praxis that we outline earlier will ready teachers and school personnel to look for and celebrate the agency that exists within so called at-risk families. G. Anderson and Cohen (2015) suggested that for teachers to resist egregious assaults on the ethos of public education, as well as on their own professionalism, a new form of educator resistance is necessary—one that includes parents. Specifically, teachers must come together with families and communities to build new, more dynamic alliances that are strategically centered on commonly identified interests that serve the public good—what Fraser (as cited in G. Anderson & Cohen, 2015) has called “counter-publics.” Such alliances explicitly include traditionally subordinated groups working in partnership with other key stakeholders to develop a deeper understanding of unjust educational systems and practices that serve to disenfranchise individuals or particular groups.


Hence, as these symbiotic relationships develop, families and schools can begin to formulate and articulate counterdiscourses (Fraser, as cited in G. Anderson & Cohen, 2015) challenging top-down mandates that are identified as antithetical to the goals of public education, and work together to push back against punitive accountability sanctions or other institutional policies that are identified as detrimental to the school community. In their analysis of dominant approaches to participation in development and education governance, Edwards and Klees (2015) characterized this approach as a progressive one whereby participation involves empowerment, defined as a process of change in which a collective shares knowledge, resources, and energy to interrogate the ways that educational systems and policies reproduce the existing social order. In this approach, the involvement of key stakeholders—especially those who are typically marginalized (i.e., both parents and, often, teachers)—to meaningfully contribute to decisions and policies that affect their own and their children’s lives is central.


When schools communicate their willingness to challenge the status quo and begin to prioritize legitimate opportunities to listen to and engage with parents, empowerment and solidarity among families is strengthened. As such, families are better positioned to offer fresh insights on school-based practices and articulate (to both school personnel and each other) the resources for and challenges to supporting children’s development that may exist within their own communities. This kind of collaboration is evidenced in recent work by DeMatthews, Edwards, and Rincones (2016), which documents one school leader’s authentic family engagement and enactment of social justice leadership at an elementary school in an urban city in Mexico. By forming trusting and honest relationships with families who were marginalized by poverty and community violence, this school leader worked closely with parents themselves to identify the barriers to children’s learning both inside and outside of school, supported families in their collective advocacy for community resources, and inspired in families a profound sense of ownership in the school.


Hence, when teachers and schools function as “counter-publics” and adopt a progressive, social-justice-based orientation, the question of “How do schools capitalize on urban families’ leadership potential?” can be asked, and parents’ assets and potential with regard to school improvement initiatives can be realized in contextually relevant (i.e., building/district specific) and realistic (i.e., not all families must be engaged) ways. For example, although teachers rightly have primary ownership over the curriculum, perhaps interested families can contribute culturally diverse perspectives that can inform classroom content and pedagogical strategies. Perhaps parents with more flexibility can assist with teachers’ ability to diversify instruction by serving in different, more extensive ways in the classroom. With sustained opportunities to be present at school, diverse parents may identify discrepancies, inefficiencies, or inequities in the institutional practices of the school that educators cannot readily see, potentially leading to better organizational effectiveness.


Yet it must be acknowledged that urban families may find it harder to find their place within the dominant, White, middle-class ideology of schools, even when schools have the best intentions. In fact, perceptions of school climate and sense of belonging are significant aspects of families’ psychological and lived experiences with children’s schools and can be particularly salient for ethnic minority families, who are often more attuned to contextual factors in the environment (Lynch & Hanson, 2011). In other work with parents that we have done with the partner schools in this project (see Grant et al., 2014), school climate and feeling welcomed were critical determinants of parents’ physical presence in school and their willingness to make connections with teachers and school staff. But again, parents themselves cannot bear the burden of change alone; schools must create the conditions for this to happen. As such, creating opportunities to listen to urban families’ honest reflections and assessments of the school culture is key. This means that schools—led by teachers—must engage in deep reflection about whether they are indeed welcoming places for all families (Henderson, Carson, Avalone, & Whipple, 2011).


Our final conclusion is drawn from what we found to be the most robust finding in our data: the salience of relationships between teachers and families. As we have argued, when schools open themselves up to meaningful and progressive forms of parent participation, strong, evolving relationships between parents and teachers provide the basis for sustained dialogue and negotiation, where both become sensitized to the differential roles that they must play in the education and support of children and where the identity of both is affirmed, rather than threatened, in our current educational climate. Meaningful and supported opportunities for interaction between teachers and families can go a long way in addressing the feelings of vulnerability, mistrust, and lack of respect that was spoken of by some of our study participants. Hence, it is a mutually constituted bridge, rather than a boundary, between home and school that becomes negotiated through legitimate relationships between these key stakeholders in the service of more improved outcomes for urban children and toward the development of more equitable public schools that serve the public good, even amid a high-stakes environment.



Note:


1. The failure to ask this question in one focus group was an oversight by the facilitator.



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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 121 Number 2, 2019, p. 1-40
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22585, Date Accessed: 10/28/2021 3:11:15 AM

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About the Author
  • Tina Durand
    Boston University
    E-mail Author
    TINA M. DURAND is clinical associate professor of applied human development at Boston University, Wheelock College of Education & Human Development. Her research examines the school transition experiences of ethnic minority children and adolescents, Latino families’ cultural beliefs about education, and facilitating effective partnerships between ethnic minority families and schools. She is the author of a chapter, “Intersectionality as a Framework for Understanding School Involvement Beliefs of Latina/o Families of Young Children,” that will appear in Academic Socialization of Black and Latino Children (Springer), and coauthor, with Nicole Perez, of “Continuity and Variability in the Parental Involvement and Advocacy Beliefs of Latino Families of Young Children: Finding the Potential for a Collective Voice” (School Community Journal, 2013).
  • Margaret Secakusuma
    Suffolk University
    E-mail Author
    MARGARET SECAKUSUMA is an undergraduate student in the Sawyer Business School at Suffolk University. Her research interests are psychology, consumer behavior, and economics.
 
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