By Katie Carr
I’m white... really white. I’m blonde and have blue eyes. I grew up in a rural, white Connecticut town where all of the black and brown METCO students traveled over an hour on a bus from Hartford. I went to a private college in a struggling city where campus gates firmly divided the elite white students from the “townies.” Like so many white people, I had little reason to question race; I was thriving on white privilege.
When I became a teacher, I joined the ranks of millions of other white women who had little reason to notice race within the classroom.
I was so wrong.
For the past few years, I’ve done the work to understand the harmful effect that color-blind approaches have on students. I’ve dissected and scrutinized my whiteness, acknowledging many cringe-worthy moments. I’ve examined the ways in which my whiteness shows up in the classroom and have shifted my practice to be more color-conscious and culturally responsive. Shifting my approach to students felt challenging, yet do-able. Critiquing my approach to family engagement, re-evaluating it from a color-conscious perspective, felt overwhelming.
These are three lenses through which I evaluate each family engagement initiative and strategy.
1. Awareness of whiteness
I often wonder, “What does it feel like to walk into your child’s school and not feel a sense of belonging?” In the process of re-examining the parent-teacher conference experience, I started sending simple surveys before the conference in which I asked, “What do you want to be sure to discuss?” and “What are your hopes and dreams for your child this year?” During our conference, I resist the temptation to direct the conversation and instead focus on listening, shifting to “dialogue” rather than “presentation” mode. We discuss the concerns of the family early on to provide sufficient time.
In the case of one family of color that I had a difficult time connecting with, I named my whiteness, saying “I am yet another white lady teaching your brown son. I promise to challenge him.” The statement served to diffuse some of the tension and demonstrated that I saw her; I was aware of the effect of my whiteness on her family.
Like Robin DiAngelo discusses in her work on white fragility, I rarely questioned how I’ve benefited from the oppression of others. Accepting and owning my whiteness is a process of retraining myself to look toward, instead of away from, systems of oppression and then taking action. A colleague of mine once suggested that I practice asking myself, “Where is my whiteness in this?” each time I have a new curricular idea, interact with students, families, or colleagues, or agree to a new initiative. I have developed the habit of asking myself, “Whose voice is not included? Whose identity is not validated?”
2) Cultural responsiveness
A subtle but powerful shift has involved consciously approaching each family with compassion. Since becoming a mother, I now appreciate that there is no single formula for parenting. Regardless of our race, ethnicity, family structure or parenting style, we all want success and happiness for our child. When a family seems upset or distant, I reframe my thinking and check my biases. I do work to see if I’m missing something, sometimes asking others in my community to help bring my blind spots into view.
One of the ways that I’ve increased perspectives is by opening up my classroom to families. Early in the school year, I sent an email to all families in which I invited them to visit the classroom; the structure of the visit intentionally left open-ended. The purpose of the visit was to create a shared experience among the student, the family, and me. This type of engagement says to the families, “You have something valuable to share with the classroom community and school. This space belongs to you, too.” So far this year, over half of the families have visited the classroom.
Another avenue for building my competency has been through participation in a Professional Learning Community (PLC) focused on a critical reading of Zaretta Hammond’s Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain. Our readings and discussions helped me recognize that if I want to create an affirming and inclusive environment, I need to know a lot about each of my students. I view the families as gateways to that information. When I interact with families, I ask questions that help me learn more about them, and I actively listen. I put time and effort into connecting by making positive phone calls home, selecting books that mirror their child’s identity and offering to communicate via text, email, or phone. I convey my genuine love for their child at every chance possible and communicate through actions and words that I will fight to do better.
3) Asset-based view of families
As a white teacher, I’ve been conditioned to hold unconscious biases about my students of color. Only in recent years have I started to see the impact that institutionalized racism, skin-color privilege, and language discrimination have on my students and families. If I, as a white educator, look at families of color as deficit-based, I reinforce stereotypes.
In the past, I’ll admit, I assumed that when black and brown families didn’t return phone calls, it was because they didn’t care. I’ve thought that when parents didn’t show up at a conference, it was because they were disinterested. These deficit-based biases are pervasive and harmful. These same families do care. In the past, I’ve neglected to see all of the possible barriers that might push a family of color away, making them feel as if they don’t belong.
Too often, teachers view parents and families as obstacles to teaching. We sometimes complain about parent (over) involvement in the classroom or the burden of answering parent emails. I’ve experienced this, too. But, while attending Harvard’s Family Engagement Institute last summer, I learned from Karen Mapp the importance of viewing families as integral contributors to student achievement and happiness. I now see families not as obstacles or factors that derail my work, but as essential sources of knowledge and experience who hold the capacity to influence their children’s success positively.
As a teacher, what fuels me is knowing that each day presents an opportunity to be better and do better. I’ve managed to make small changes that prioritize families. The more I embrace the complexity of race, equity, and inclusion, the more readily I see how important this is — and how much work I still need to do.
Katie Carr is a Grade 1 teacher at The Park School in Brookline, Massachusetts. She enjoys writing and learning about issues related to family engagement, teacher development, and literacy. Connect with her on Twitter.