Straight Talk About Parent Engagement

Teachers and administrators alike desire to increase the number of engaged parents it has within its school. When I taught, teachers frequently lamented that not enough parents would show up for parent-teacher conferences; administrators did also. I also heard educators lament that parents weren’t regularly involved in the school community; that the only time parents showed up to school was (a) if a child was in trouble academically, (b) if a child was in trouble for their behavior, (c) if something bad happened to the child, or (d) some combination of a, b and c.

In my experiences, educators attempted to engage parents in various ways, aside from the traditional back to school nights. Student and family barbecues happened for returns to school and to conclude the school year. Parents were invited to visit the school to receive legal help. Parents were able to receive medical care at the health clinic that partnered with a former school of mine. Also, parent-teacher conference meeting times were extended to meet the demands of the varying work hours of parents. However, none of these things got the level of engagement educators were looking for. Here are some reasons why:

  1. The educators are too White. If the teaching and administration were too White, expect parents of color didn’t necessarily engage with them. They knew that White educators didn’t live in their neighborhoods, frequent the community for their leisure, to purchase goods or obtain services. They may not have trusted them because there was no connection with them other than they taught their child. Educators being too White sets the tone for the rest of this list.
  2. Parents have no attachment to the school. Some parents were transplants from other areas. Or, their child(ren) attended a new school with no history; no tradition that attached parents to the school. In my experiences, parent engagement is strong in schools with an established tradition; whether it surrounds sports, music or academics. Parents who have attended the schools where their children attend have a vested interest – not only in their child but in the school’s success as well. Without an attachment, it was hard for parents to engage.
  3. Parents had bad experiences with school. Unfortunately, public schools that service Black and Brown children have not always provided the best of experiences for students; particularly those schools that had few Black and Brown educators. There are distinct differences between schools where children of color are the majority versus schools where Whites are the majority. These differences play on the psyche of people – especially when you see that your school resembles a prison (due to the aesthetics and the treatment) when compared to a school that appears to resembles an oasis. Those feelings don’t leave an individual after their graduation and when their child is attending school, they find themselves revisiting those feelings and they may choose not to engage.
  4. Educators look down on parents. Either educators think they know what’s best for children, more so than the parents; or educators believe that the parents (and family) are an impediment to student success. Parents do not want to be told that they don’t know what is best for their child(ren) or that they don’t know what they’re doing as a parent to help their child(ren) succeed. Parents might feel intimidated by educators, who have more education than them, telling them what they aren’t doing, how their child is doing and what they and their child needs to do. This can be exasperated if the educator is White.
  5. Schools either:
    • Want to engage parents on their terms. Some schools want parents to meet them where they are rather than the other way around. The mantra “If you build it they will come,” doesn’t play well. It may be true for students but that’s because the law says they [students] have to come to school. Parents do not.
    • Don’t really want to engage parents. Some schools really don’t care if parents engage or not. Others rather that parents don’t even show up and only deal with parents because they have to. Parents feel that spirit from a school and will certainly stay away from a place they don’t feel wanted.

You may say, well I have great relationships with my parents. You might… with some of them, but damn sure not with all of them. You cannot be so caught up in what you do have to qualify those parents who choose not to engage with you as having the problem. You certainly can do more to make your parents a part of your community. Your school without the community is ineffective… no matter what your growth models says; no matter how great your PR people make you sound in commercials or advertisements. If you really want to increase parent engagement, here are some things that you must consider and things that you must do:


  1. CONSIDER WHITE SUPREMACY – Consider White supremacy’s impact on the lives of Black and Brown people; how White supremacy impacts the condition of the students you teach and their families; White supremacy’s role in your privilege, your biases, and your behavior; how White supremacy shapes public policy. If you fail to consider the ramifications of White supremacy, you cannot engage with families in an authentic way.
  2. CONSIDER THE CONSTRUCTION OF THE COMMUNITY – Consider the political, social, economic, and physical makeup of the community where you educate. Consider how things get done politically – the stakeholders, the activists, the politicians and people who play a role in what happens. Consider the social scene(s) of the community – the hangouts, the special events, the regular events, the major figures in the social life of the community and how these things shape what goes on. Consider the lay of the land; how people get around and how that impacts daily life. Consider the resources and how folks access those resources.
  3. CONSIDER PUBLIC POLICY – Consider how past and present public policies i.e. mandatory minimums, gerrymandering, segregation via federal housing subsidies, illegal activity impacting a family’s ability to receive public assistance and the repeal of DACA, impact the focus and circumstances of families and the students that you teach. Consider how these very real issues and the very people you may vote for can and do impact your classroom on a daily basis. Parents who deal with the harsh realities of these policies may have little time to visit a school unless it is absolutely necessary.
  4. CONSIDER EMPLOYMENT IN AMERICA – Consider the employment conditions of your parents. We love to place blame on individuals and cite individual responsibility when one brings up the low paying jobs of parents of color in urban communities. Yet teachers are quick to point out how the government is taking away their pensions and increasing the cost of their healthcare. Consider the employers who only pay minimum wage (and a government who won’t increase it). Consider employers who do not give full-time hours to workers to evade paying medical benefits. Consider that Black and Brown city dwellers may have to leave the city to get to work; they are subject to public transportation or carpools where they do not determine when they can arrive home or to school for a function. Consider employers who don’t pay for sick-time; parents who are sick that must work in order to get paid. Consider what some of your parents go through.
  5. CONSIDER YOUR OWN ATTITUDE – Consider your biases and even your racism. Consider your own attitude. Consider that you may judge your parents and that you may sentence their children to a life of hopelessness each day in the classroom. Consider your ways. Do you really seek after parent engagement or do you seek notoriety and acclaim for “trying” or saying that you did thus and so? Your attitude has an impact on parents engaging with you, or parents staying away. If you are in leadership, your attitude maybe the difference between a school that is engaged with parents or a school that is isolated.


  1. LOVE THE PEOPLE – This is a call to display Agape love. Agape love is the highest form of love. It is an unconditional love; that no matter what you may say or do, I will love you. It means that you will put the needs of the people before your own. It means having the best interest of the people at heart. To do so may be uncomfortable. It may require you to do things you never considered. It may require some sacrifice. However, when your parents feel the spirit of agape over you, they will trust you and open up to you. Having agape love for the people will enable you to do the rest of the items on this list.
  2. FREQUENT THE COMMUNITY – I have made this point numerous times; there are few things more powerful than seeing an educator that your child is taught or led by in the community. Whether attending services, getting groomed or eating dinner at a restaurant, being seen out and about where your students live is a powerful image and goes a long way to earning their trust. It also helps you overcome your own biases, privilege, and behaviors. You can begin to see things from the perspective of the people you serve. You begin to consider the community you serve. You begin to be selfless and this will have a real impact on how you interact with students and parents.
  3. VISIT THEIR HOMES – Home visits can go a long way to engaging parents and families with the school community. When parents know that you are not afraid to come to them and are willing to give of your time to meet and fellowship with them, they will open up. The opening up is gradual; it may take time for genuine trust to build but the more you engage with them, the more they are receptive to your promptings. A home visit shouldn’t be a “gotcha.” It should be a time to break bread with families to get to know them and their child(ren). Humbly enter their home and be a gracious guest.
  4. RECOGNIZE INJUSTICE – You must recognize the various injustices that impact the condition of your parents and your students. Urban Decay isn’t the fault of Black and Brown people. Political corruption, political maleficence, White flight and public policy are to blame for much of what we see in urban communities. You CANNOT teach in an urban school (or teach Black and Brown children) without recognizing the systemic and institutional racism that impacts the daily life of the people. For example, recognize that poor health among people of color isn’t simply attributable to poor eating habits. It actually has to do with the lack of supermarkets offering quality produce and fresh meats that are affordable and accessible for people of color in their neighborhoods. Also, factories and industrial parks that release cancer-causing gases into the atmosphere does not help. Ghettos and housing projects that house violence and criminal activity didn’t magically appear when Black and Brown people appeared. These injustices were facilitated and now function on their own.
  5. ADVOCATE ON THEIR BEHALF – Recognizing injustice isn’t enough. You must call it out and advocate for justice on behalf of your parents. Some parents may have a voice to speak up for themselves and others may not. More support in the form of advocacy can go a long way with improving the conditions that parents and students negotiate daily. Attend a city council meeting, attend a community meeting, attend a rally… let the people know that you care enough about their condition that you wish to engage with them beyond the parameters of your job.

Parent engagement isn’t simply about having programs and event that parents want to join or attend. It is about meeting parents where they are. It is about looking in on the condition of parents; not to serve as a savior but to assist as a partner to improve their community; to improve the human community. If you are willing to partner with parents to improve the conditions that impact how they parent and live, they will be more than willing to partner with you to improve the conditions that impact how you teach their children.

Let’s continue to press towards the mark!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s