There is no doubt that our schools are in crisis. The trauma of the COVID-19 pandemic, ongoing culture wars and disappointing academic performance results have made education discourse particularly fraught. As many families have rightfully become more involved, they are often pitted against teachers, resulting in each side antagonizing the other.
Across the country, we’ve seen conversations about education become charged. Books are getting banned from classrooms and libraries. Curriculum is being stripped and censored. School board meetings are devolving into hostility.
As a public school kindergarten teacher in Oakland, California, I have seen these challenges widen the gap between teachers and families, especially over the past three years. My district was one of the last in the country to resume in-person learning and there was intense disagreement over how to reopen our schools safely followed by a seven-day teacher strike where campaigns to resume learning ran alongside campaigns to shut it down. We’ve also had heated debates over how to address the reality of declining enrollment. But as much as these conflicts have threatened to divide us, I have also seen my community and others collaborate and come closer together, which we need now more than ever.
The pandemic revealed and intensified many of the crises facing students today, especially those holding marginalized identities. Too many students are reading below grade level, test scores continue to demonstrate limited mathematical proficiency nationwide, and children and teens are struggling with emotional regulation and mental health stress.
I’ve seen this in my own classroom. Since the pandemic began, the 4- and 5-year olds I teach often lack the fine motor skills necessary to hold a pencil or use a pair of scissors. I have had more students head to first grade unable to spell their name or count to 10 than ever before. And my students often scream and cry during activities and transitions. The lack of early social and academic experiences wrought by the pandemic is still impacting many of our kids today.
Instead of viewing these social, emotional and academic learning issues as falling exclusively under the domain of parenting or education, we can support students by collaborating with families, developing a culture of respectful listening and showing an authentic united front. What has helped my students progress most is when their parents and I intentionally co-create a support system centered around them.
I’ve worked intentionally to foster collaboration with the families in my class to help move my kindergarteners forward and it has made a difference. I use a text messaging app to communicate with parents in real time when issues arise and to share successes with them, big and small. I invite as many chaperones as possible to field trips and leverage these events as an opportunity to gauge and get on the same page about how to address certain behaviors that we were seeing in real time. I spend more time talking formally during extra-long family conferences and informally with quick chats during pick-up and drop-off.
What I’ve found is that inviting families in as collaborators has not only strengthened my students’ performance in school, but it has strengthened the bonds I have with their families, which is important, especially when those relationships are put under pressure in times of conflict. And conflict does inevitably come.
The problems facing schools are complex ones without easy answers, so we will disagree. But parents and families need to work with each other, not against each other, in order to jointly create the best schools for all of our kids.
Our school has a schoolsite council made up of teachers, parents and community members that exists to identify schoolwide needs, propose and approve funding and guide other decisions for the school community. At our monthly meetings, we’ve disagreed on everything from whether to create an art room or a computer lab, to which positions need to be created or consolidated at our school. Yet, we come back together each time, ready to work together, committed to our kids, and as a result, our school has demonstrated greater academic performance, expanded the resources available for students, and increased enrollment.
While collaborating with families is necessary for ensuring student success, it is easier said than done. We all carry our own beliefs and bring our own biases. I have spoken to parents who have confessed disliking school when they were younger and all the ways they felt belittled or unseen by teachers. I have heard from teachers who feel their professional autonomy is denied by parents who want to dictate what lessons are taught and how.
Too often, it feels like schools are unilaterally dictated by the desires of teachers and administrators or parents and families, but the best schools consider all voices. By finding common ground — undoubtedly the hopes and dreams we have for the children seated in our classrooms — we move closer to building the schools we envision.
Collaboration between teachers and families is not only good for education, but it is good for democracy. When we encourage individual participation in service of improving the collective educational experience, our schools become a reflection of the democratic values we profess in our society.
Living and working in Oakland, I see parents and teachers organize through parent teacher associations, union groups and other means to make change. In 2022, for example, members of the Oakland Unified school board presented a proposal to close and consolidate up to 15 schools across the district. My school was on that list. The plan was met with immediate pushback against the seven-member board. Teachers, families and students came together for rallies, sit-ins and strikes, and we raised our voices to make sure that we were heard and counted. By the time school board elections came around months later, two members chose not to seek re-election and another resigned. New members who had emerged with community support and endorsement were sworn in. One year after the plan was proposed, it was rescinded.
Now more than ever, teachers and families must work together to ensure that all voices, especially those on the margins, are heard. We must collaborate to reshape schools as spaces where families and teachers model respectful listening and showcase democracy in action in the interest of those who matter the most — our kids. When teachers and families find themselves in hostile environments, pitted against each other, students are the ones who lose the most. Our kids desperately need us to unite.