by Elizabeth Kleinrock
A few years ago, I planned a unit on gender stereotypes for my third-grade class. We examined toy marketing ads and picture books through the lens of gender. I was extremely proud of the progression of the lessons, and even more pleased that the kids noticed gender biases in their own media consumption. One day, I received an email about a book I read to my class about a young boy who wants to wear a dress and his search for acceptance and support from his peers. In the email, the parents asked that their child be allowed to sit out during any future lessons about gay or transgender people.
Their email caught me off guard, but I responded politely, thanked them for expressing their concerns, and assured them that their child would be given an alternate activity during future conversations on this topic. When I think back to my response, I imagine alternative scenarios — I could have asked for more information, invited the family in to be part of the discussion, or defended my decision to teach about gender inclusivity. So, what prevented me from taking a different course of action? Fear of rocking the boat and inciting anger from this family.
For most teachers (and for me) this fear is real. We worry about our job security, we worry that families will undermine our work, we worry about losing our standing in the school community. The fear can be so crippling that we either don’t address equity work in our classrooms or we do so in ways that avoid detection.
Rather than becoming paralyzed by the fear of family push back, we can take steps to engage families as partners in our social justice work. Family engagement is a crucial piece of student success. Ideally, schools, teachers, and families work in perfect harmony to support students. So where do we start? Before you begin any social justice unit or work, there are three things every teacher can do to engage families.
1. Try to understand family concerns
When we engage with families we can try to understand and address some of their concerns. I recently asked several families to share their experiences, thoughts, and concerns on social justice topics being covered in the classroom. Here’s what two families shared with me:
“It’s difficult as a parent to know when your child is developmentally ready to process tragic injustice in the world. I worry my child does not have the communication tools or comfort level to reach out for additional support.”
“As a parent of color, one of the biggest concerns I have is how much work the teacher has done BEFORE ever bringing up race and justice in the classroom. Have they worked with professionals in confronting their own biases and blind spots? Do they notice if they ‘favor’ white children in language and classroom management?”
Not only are these two families’ concerns were valid, but I can now plan ways to acknowledge and address their concerns. There are many ways to hear from families. You can ask a few families for feedback or you can send home a survey for all family members. I find a beginning of the year survey for all families particularly helpful. It establishes an open line of communication and gives me insight into their experiences and hopes for their child.
2. Give families a heads-up, and follow up with support
Families do not like being blindsided, especially when it comes to their children. Before starting a unit that could be considered “divisive,” I alert families to upcoming lessons or conversations and then follow up to let them know how things went. (This is not the same as asking for permission, which implies that discussing inclusivity and difference is wrong.) For example, before the student walkout following the Parkland School shooting, I sent the following note so families knew the plan for the day and what their kids could expect when they arrived in the morning:
Dear parents and families,
Our students are 9 and 10 years old, so a big concern for me has been whether they can articulate WHY they’re participating in the walkout (rather than viewing it as an extended recess or time to hang out with their friends). During writing, I asked the kids to explain why they are walking out if they choose to do so. I was impressed with their reflections, and the passion they conveyed in their writing. We emphasized that this is 100% optional, and our teaching assistant will be remaining inside if students do not want to participate. During the walkout, students will participate in restorative justice circles to reflect on safety in our community. Afterward, we’ll spend time studying different protest movements and activists. Please don’t hesitate to reach out if you have any questions or concerns.
After the walkout, I sent families a follow-up note. I included photos from the lesson on protests and activism, as well as a list of articles and resources that parents could use to follow up at home.
3. Give families the tools to continue school conversations at home.
Every year, I create a private Facebook group for families in my classroom (you may have a class blog or school website). In this group, I repost school communications, photos of anchor charts, student work, parts of lessons and answer any questions that come up. I try to post at least once a day, so family members have conversation starters at home. For families who don’t use social media, I send a separate email or letter with a few sentences letting them know what we discussed and how their child contributed. In our weekly newsletter, I also offer resources to support conversations at home.
At the end of the day, families are our partners. We should work to have open lines of communication and engage with families in ways that support student learning and growth. Fear of parent pushback should not prevent us from engaging in conversations around social justice issues.
Elizabeth Kleinrock is an elementary school teacher and diversity coordinator in Los Angeles, California. Elizabeth is dedicated to teaching with a social justice lens and has created lessons and units of study surrounding issues such as race, equity and diversity for elementary-aged students. She is passionate about mentoring teachers who are developing culturally responsive and social justice pedagogy, and has presented her work at multiple national education conferences and workshops. Elizabeth is also the recipient of Teaching Tolerance’s 2018 Award for Excellence in Teaching, and has written on topics such as trauma informed practices, privilege, and consent in the classroom.