Reimagining Education: Let’s find new ways to meet families where they are

Dr. VaShawn Smith is a middle school principal in Grandview, MO. This is part of our series on reimagining education. Follow him on Twitter at @drvsmith.

As school leaders, we know family engagement is always important – and it’s our role to provide the sense of stability and care our learners and their families need. But ever since last spring – when our students and their families began to face unprecedented learning barriers, health risks and economic insecurities – this aspect of our leadership has taken on a new, profound importance.

I’m a big believer in showing up, and I have always thought there was no better way to really let families know, “I’m here for your child, and I’m here for you,” than connecting face to face. But in the last six months, I haven’t been able to show up for them in the same ways I used to. My kids’ families have experienced so much disruption, and I know that some days they may feel discouraged by the shifts and adjustments. That’s why it’s so important for us to find new ways to show up for our students’ families. New ways to provide the guidance and reassurance they need. New ways to say, “I’m here for your child. I’m here for you. This path is new, but I’m going to smooth the way for all our kids.” As this pandemic has become a significant presence in the lives of our students and their families, we have to make significant shifts in our practice. We have to meet our kids’ families where they are.

Below, I’m sharing four ways I stay in close touch with the families in my school community:

  • Using a private Facebook group for my students’ families. Families depend on me for clear, complete information on their children’s learning. As teaching plans evolved in our district, I didn’t always have a complete picture – but that meant it was more important than ever for me to provide families with updates, answers and support. To aid our communication, my team and I started a private Facebook group for our kids’ families. Right away, I said, “You’re going to hear a lot of changing information as we go through this together, from the rumor mill to the grocery store. But when you want to hear something directly from me, you’ll find it here, on this Facebook page. And when you post a question here, I promise you that within 12 hours, you’re going to get a response from me. Not from my secretary, not from my assistant principal – as amazing as they are – but from Dr. Smith.”
  • Meeting families where they are – literally. When my team and I were ready to release our back-to-school plan, I knew our community would have a million questions. I also knew that in this disrupted time, some families might not have the time or emotional capacity to seek me out. And they shouldn’t have to: It’s my role to reach out to them. Many of those families live in four large, low-income apartment complexes that our school community serves, so I let them know, “I’m going to be at this apartment complex on this day, from this time to this time. I can’t come in to see you, but I’ll be in the parking lot, ready to tell you what the plan is and answer every question you have.”
  • Holding virtual town halls for families. As fall learning progresses, families need to feel up-to-date on their students’ experience. That’s why I hold virtual “town halls” twice a month on Zoom. I want to be supportive of families’ different work schedules, so I hold one in the morning around 11 a.m., and one in the evening around 5 p.m. About 50 or 60 students and their families usually attend. It’s pretty common for several students or families to have the same questions, so it’s great to be able to address those together and have the discussions we need to have. I also want to make sure that families who can’t make it to either one of my town halls can still feel included and have access to the same information, so I always post a recording to our Facebook group.
  • Using tutorials to empower families as partners in student learning. Our students’ families care so much about supporting their kids’ education, but distance learning is a new world for them, and it can be intimidating. It’s not enough for us to make sure our students have internet access and devices – we need to make sure they and their families feel comfortable navigating the virtual classroom together. When kids say, “My homework is in Canvas” or “My group is on Google Meet,” families need to understand what that means – so when a student hits a roadblock, their family can feel confident about sitting down to help. My team and I created tutorials and sample modules for families to explore, and we provide guidance and support with those tools.

If there’s one thing that’s been a constant for our students and their families this year, it’s the lack of constants, and they may not always feel ready for the unknowns ahead. By building these close connections, we can show them that we are ready – to support, encourage and figure it all out for their kids. We can show them that we are always here. As school leaders, we can be that constant in their lives.