“We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.”
– Epictetus, Greek philosopher
By Justin Jones
At Flamboyan, we see family engagement as a lever for equity. All of our programmatic choices are grounded in a racial equity lens, which means that everything we do is with and for communities impacted by inequity. The primary way we work in these communities is by listening, learning, and being nimble.
Living through the pandemic has only reinforced the need to ground our work in racial equity. People who have historically borne the brunt of poverty and inequity have seen those disparities exacerbated, including access to food, housing, education, and health care. Our work is more in demand now than ever before.
Experience tells us that those closest to a challenge know the most appropriate and effective solutions. In this moment, we at Flamboyan have prioritized listening to families and educators, who shed light on key insights that districts, school leaders, and other educators and families need to build authentic relationships based on trust. Over the past 10 months since the onset of COVID-19 in the United States, we’ve done a lot of listening to our communities, and I’d like to elevate what we’ve heard.
What We’ve Heard
Families initially shared that they wanted someone to check on them and help their family meet basic needs, which is when we created our Wellness Check Guide to help teachers and school staff do just that. A few months later, they grew tired of repeatedly being asked what they need and instead wanted those needs met while also figuring out how to support their child at home. They also voiced wanting a strong relationship with their child’s teacher(s). Teachers are often a family’s first line of contact at a school, and especially during distance learning, ongoing communication with families is key.
Teachers shared several things they need from their leaders:
- to be listened to and encouraged;
- collaborative communication between leaders, teachers, and families;
- a plan and support for infrequently reached families;
- leaders to set school-wide expectations and provide support for families; and
- the social and emotional wellbeing of students, families, and teachers prioritized.
These learnings reiterate for us the importance of ongoing listening – both during the pandemic and beyond – to those most affected by the challenges facing every school community: students, families, and educators. And once we truly listened, we evolved our thinking and our organizational direction to reflect the solutions from those closest to the challenge.
We Must Listen Ongoingly
No matter what role you may play in education, we encourage you to listen ongoingly and listen to those who matter most. If you’re a teacher, are you listening to families? If you’re a school leader, are you listening to teachers and families? If you’re a system leader, are you listening to school leaders, teachers, and families? And – how are you incorporating what you hear? Our work is only as impactful as those we’re listening to, which is why the L in REAL Family Engagement – leadership – is so important.
Listening is not a one-time thing. People’s needs shift and change, especially during times like what we’re living in now. It’s not an item in a checklist – listening must be part of your ethos.
Family Engagement Work Is Equity Work
Family engagement work is equity work, and you will have the greatest impact by designing at the margins. When system leaders reach out to hear from families across a city or district or state, for example, traditional methods like surveys are not always the most effective way of reaching families most affected by inequity. We need to meet families where they are, which requires extra time and effort, but in the long run, it makes a big impact If you’re designing for those most impacted by inequity, you’ll help EVERYONE be successful.
Even in a pandemic, we’ve heard and we know that it’s never too late to prioritize family engagement. Building relationships now will benefit students and families both during and beyond COVID-19. Those relationships will support students’ academic and social-emotional success and create a sense of belonging for every family in your school community. In the same way, we must continuously fight systemic racism and COVID-19, so too must we continuously listen to and engage those who matter most in our schools. Our children’s future depends on it.
Justin Jones is the former Senior Managing Director, Effective Family Engagement at the Flamboyan Foundation.