White Teacher, Here’s How You Can Successfully Partner With Black Families

Aug 23, 2019 12:00:00 AM

by Sharif El-Mekki

The show was going really well. We were in Pittsburgh, taping a live 8 Black Hands podcast episode at the State of Black Learning Conference, and we were just wrapping up the Q&A.

Then, a White woman stood up and explained that she worked really hard and was often blamed for the shortcomings of her students and families. She finished by asking a question that I had heard many times before: “How do we make families accountable to us?!”

Her frustration was real. But so was mine from hearing it. The crowd was mixed—some of her colleagues appeared aghast, while others vigorously nodded affirmation. My co-host Charles Cole went in and gave her a piece of his mind. My other co-host Chris Stewart was more restrained, and reframed the question. [pullquote]I just kept thinking of how many ways this woman’s damaging mindset must be manifesting itself in her life and in her work with children.[/pullquote]

Later, we would be told it wasn’t her question—she was asking for a neighbor—and another colleague acknowledged that she shared these negative mindsets about her students of color. And it’s something I’ve seen countless times in schools that serve Black and Brown kids: classrooms led by educators with talent in some aspects of teaching, but who harbor negative mindsets about the very children they are there to serve.

To her credit, she was there, at a conference focused on centering the educational experiences and outcomes of Black students—as Chris Stewart pointed out. But, showing up, in itself, is not enough. There is work that has to be constantly done to interrogate how race, class and privilege impacts how we think about students and their families. 

Showing up is not enough. 

Many educators think that if they are willing to work at a predominantly Black school, they have done all the mindset work they need to do. That’s extremely problematic. If you think you don’t need to constantly consider how privilege impacts your worldview and how biases creep into your decision-making, you may be doing more harm than good in your classroom.

Just showing up isn’t enough. 

I would never assume that just because a police officer showed up to patrol in a Black or Latinx community that they harbored a deep love for Black and Latinx people. Nor do I automatically assume that an educator is automatically anti-racist simply because they showed up at a school full of kids of color. No, much more work needs to be done.

As I have written before, I don’t believe in educators holding parents accountable, but I do believe in working together to meet the needs of students. [pullquote position="right"]I believe in building trust and relationships with families.[/pullquote] I believe it is a sacred honor to work with other people’s children.

I also acknowledge wholeheartedly that while the work is deeply rewarding, it is also extremely difficult and exhausting—and that’s just in the first week, let alone across 180 days. 

For folks who want to “make” parents accountable, I’ll answer your question in a moment. For those educators who want a few ways to establish trust and relationships, here are a few things to think about and, perhaps, implement. 

1. Think About Your Privilege.
Think constantly about how race, class and privilege show up in your classroom, in your lesson plans and in your teaching. Reflect on it. Why did you discipline that child? Reflect deeply when a child calls you unfair. Are you consistent? Are you fair?

As a principal of a public school in West Philadelphia spanning grades 7-12, our teachers received student feedback via surveys (and directly) and looked for trends. They would often find that unhelpful mindsets and unconscious biases manifested themselves in the classroom. Some of our teachers needed to work to intentionally overcome these. Because if they tried to hide it—instead of work on it—they came across as insecure and insincere to our students.

2. Build Trust With Parents.
Please don’t make your first outreach to a parent a phone call to criticize a child. It isn’t difficult to understand why some educators, after making a bunch of negative calls, find their phone numbers blocked. Your first conversations with families are a chance to share how you see the child’s humanity, understand the caregiver’s perspective about their child and hear how they want to be partnered with. 

Relationship-building isn’t just with your students, it is a community affair. As a parent, it is much easier for me to have a strong, positive relationship with an educator who truly sees my child and challenges them in supportive and nurturing ways. If it’s hard for you to see the good in my child, I won’t see the good in you at all. 

3. Scheduling Matters.
Consider centering families’ schedules instead of the school’s. We always had great attendance at Back to School Night (I’m talking hundreds of people each year), but there were always families who could not attend. When a parent pointed this out, we scheduled our Back to School “night” at 8:00 a.m., noon and 6:00 p.m. We went up to nearly 100% attendance over the course of the day. 

Also, ask families when they prefer to be contacted. This can be done during that initial phone call. We found that most families had a time and method preference. Some preferred emails or texts over phone calls. 

4. Listen.
Really listen. Don’t get defensive. Don’t wait to jump in. Actually consider the feedback you receive from families—and their children. Act on what you learn, act on the themes that impact your students or your relationships with families. Sometimes your colleagues can even pinpoint habits or idiosyncrasies that may be off-putting to families. Humility can be a tremendous help here.

5. Stop Telling, Start Asking.
Schools spend an inordinate amount of time and paper telling families what the school’s expectations are. Instead of telling them so vehemently about what you and your school need from them, bring that same energy to asking families what expectations they have for you. What are their hopes for this school year? What are their goals for their children? What can you, as an educator and partner, start doing (or stop doing) to support their aspirations? 

This information will feed your classroom expectations and can be used to create investment with students. After all, now your expectations are aligned with their own families’ expectations.  

Finally, to answer the teacher’s original question about how to hold families accountable, you don’t. You hold yourself accountable for the promises being made to families. Over my 26-year career, I learned that if we bring that same energy to build trust, relationship and partnerships, a collective accountability will be created. Trust. 

Photo by Cathy Yeulet, Canva-licensed.

Sharif El-Mekki

Sharif El-Mekki is the Founder and CEO of the Center for Black Educator Development. The Center exists to ensure there will be equity in the recruiting, training, hiring, and retention of quality educators that reflect the cultural backgrounds and share common socio-political interests of the students they serve. The Center is developing a nationally relevant model to measurably increase teacher diversity and support Black educators through four pillars: Professional learning, Pipeline, Policies and Pedagogy. So far, the Center has developed ongoing and direct professional learning and coaching opportunities for Black teachers and other educators serving students of color. The Center also carries forth the freedom or liberation school legacy by hosting a Freedom School that incorporates research-based curricula and exposes high school and college students to the teaching profession to help fuel a pipeline of Black educators. Prior to founding the Center, El-Mekki served as a nationally recognized principal and U.S. Department of Education Principal Ambassador Fellow. El-Mekki’s school, Mastery Charter Shoemaker, was recognized by President Obama and Oprah Winfrey, and was awarded the prestigious EPIC award for three consecutive years as being amongst the top three schools in the country for accelerating students’ achievement levels. The Shoemaker Campus was also recognized as one of the top ten middle school and top ten high schools in the state of Pennsylvania for accelerating the achievement levels of African-American students. Over the years, El-Mekki has served as a part of the U.S. delegation to multiple international conferences on education. He is also the founder of the Fellowship: Black Male Educators for Social Justice, an organization dedicated to recruiting, retaining, and developing Black male teachers. El-Mekki blogs on Philly's 7th Ward, is a member of the 8 Black Hands podcast, and serves on several boards and committees focused on educational and racial justice.

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