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Classroom Q&A

With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Families & the Community Opinion

Lessons Teachers Have Learned From Students’ Families

By Larry Ferlazzo — April 04, 2022 11 min read
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(This is the first post in a two-part series.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What are the most important lessons you have learned from the families of your students?

I previously published a series in which teachers shared lessons they had learned from their students.

This week will focus on the lessons educators have learned from the families of their students.

Today, Sarah Cooper, Rocio del Castillo, and Don Vu share their experiences.

Personally, I have learned to recognize that parents/guardians are experts in knowing their children, and that tapping into this knowledge can be an immense help to my teaching. So, whether it’s through face-to-face conversations, online surveys, or talks on the phone, I try to learn from them when their child has seemed to liked school the most and why; how best to support their child when they seem to be having a hard time; and anything else they think would be important for me to know.

We all like to have our knowledge and experience acknowledged, and one also never knows when the goodwill built up by that recognition can come in handy in the future.

‘Every Kid Is Different’

Sarah Cooper teaches 8th grade U.S. history and is the dean of studies at Flintridge Preparatory School in La Canada, Calif. She is the author of two books, Creating Citizens (Routledge, 2018) and Making History Mine (Stenhouse, 2009). Sarah speaks at conferences and writes for MiddleWeb’s Future of History blog:

When I started teaching 7th graders 23 years ago, I was in my early 20s and had no children of my own. I hadn’t babysat as a kid and didn’t have any siblings. Somehow I imagined these students as blank slates, just waiting for my class to imprint upon them.

I know, it’s ludicrous. It’s a wonder I went into the profession at all, and even more so that I ended up adoring middle schoolers—so much so that I’ve never not taught them.

Two-plus decades later, I find myself more interested in my students’ families every year and I now have a middle and high schooler of my own. What do these families teach me?

  • No matter how many siblings in a family, every kid is different. Perhaps my favorite element of teaching at the same school for a long time is that I’ll get two, three, even four kids from the same family coming through my 8th grade civics class. It’s a delight to see the qualities they share and what makes them totally unique.
  • Parents love to be asked about their kid. Each year, I still ask parents to complete an optional, wonderful “million words or fewer” assignment that I discovered early on.
  • They don’t have all the answers, either. As a young teacher, in addition to thinking that students appeared in my class waiting for me to fill them with wisdom, I also somehow thought that parents of older kids (say, 7th graders and above) had it all figured out. Now, I realize we’re all muddling as we go, kid by kid, year by year.
  • They are immensely grateful for teachers who “get” and challenge their kid. As a parent myself, I keep in mind the pantheon of teachers who have done this, warm demanders who inspired and cajoled my kids to the next stage of their development.
  • It helps to ask the right questions. The best advice I’ve ever gotten about partnership with parents comes from the short book Understanding Independent School Parents: The Teacher’s Guide to Successful Family-School Relationships by Michael Thompson and Alison Fox Mazzola. The authors suggest three strategies to build a relationship:

    Ask parents about their hopes and fears for their children.

    Say something that claims a child.

    Run a professional meeting (parent-teacher conference).

When we do school right, when all our systems light up, we don’t just focus on the kid. We also search for the context that helps us know who these kids are, inside and outside of our classroom. It’s a goal, anyway, one I fall short of every year but keep trying to achieve.


Cultural Responsiveness

Rocio del Castillo began her career as a school psychologist in Peru and has dedicated her professional career to being an advocate for educational equity and social justice. Rocio currently serves as assistant superintendent for special services in Huntley Community School District 158 (Illinois) and as an adjunct professor:

Culturally-responsive-sustaining (CRS) family engagement is a fundamental tool for schools to promote learning, equity, and inclusion. Culturally-responsive-sustaining engagement strategies not only help to create a context within which parents and families feel welcome and part of the school community, but they also acknowledge and affirm the diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds of families as a source of strength rather than as a barrier to student success (Ann Ishimaru, 2020).

These are the most important lessons I have learned from the families of my students;

1. Building parent-teacher relationships based on trust and respect is fundamental. Fostering strong relationships based on respect, equity, compassion, and personal integrity is necessary to support our students. Educators must see parents and caretakers as partners of equal power and experts on their children and their communities.

2. Families deserve a strength-based approach. We must acknowledge, honor, and leverage the funds of knowledge that all families bring to our classroom. Families from different cultures may see how they support the education of their children with their involvement at home as more important than their involvement at school. For some families, the idea of education focuses more on a child’s personal and moral development than on academics. In some cultures, parents simply “trust the school” and find it disrespectful to question the decisions of teachers and administrators. The term “parental involvement” as used by schools implicitly defines parents as deficient when they do not meet the schools’ expectations and creates an “ideal type” of parent, which is linked to race, class, and culture. This doesn’t acknowledge barriers that hinder families’ participation in their children’s education and the cultural differences that mold particular informal styles of involvement in the home.

3. Recognizing what families already do to promote learning and developing school transferable skills is essential to connect with them. Once educators recognize families’ funds of knowledge, they will be able to value and incorporate these resources in a meaningful way in the school curriculum.

4. Don’t underestimate the power of creating a welcoming environment. Support and promote the culture of students through dance, music, sports, and language programs and activities. Conduct an initial welcoming and meeting session with students and the families to understand their challenges and needs. Organize an “ambassador” program to befriend new parents, display signs in multiple languages and art of your students’ native countries, build a multicultural and inclusive school library, and support and incorporate multicultural activities and celebration into lessons. Everybody wants to belong!

In their book, Beyond the Bake Sale, Henderson, Mapp, Johnson, and Davies (2007) share that school staff must believe the following about families:

• All parents have dreams for their children and want the best for them.

• All parents have the capacity to support their children’s learning.

• Parents and school staff should be equal partners.

• The responsibility for building partnerships between school and home rests primarily with school staff, especially school leaders.

Family engagement is not a universal concept; different cultures have different expectations and approaches to collaboration between schools and families. Throughout my career, I have learned that all parents and families want the same for their children. My biggest lesson is a simple but powerful one: That regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, native language, or socioeconomic status, families want their children to succeed in school and they possess high hopes for their futures. However, not every family has the resources, access, or opportunities to be involved in their children’s education.

We must meet families where they are, rather than waiting and expecting families to meet us where we are. What can you start doing tomorrow? Embrace families and their cultures as assets that are central to learning and foster equal partnership with them.


‘Never Rush to Judgment’

Don Vu is an award-winning elementary school principal and teacher with 24 years of experience. He understands the challenges children face when learning a new language and culture, having fled Vietnam with his family in 1975. He also knows that reading can be transformative and life-changing. Vu is the author of Life, Literacy, and the Pursuit of Happiness: Supporting Our Immigrant and Refugee Children Through the Power of Reading, published by Scholastic:

The single most important lesson that I’ve learned from the families of my students is that every interaction I have with them is an opportunity for me to show and model respect. It can be a small conversation with a parent or child during drop-off or dismissal. Or it can be in a contentious IEP meeting with attorneys involved. Whatever the case, these interactions can make a lasting impression on families and students. And, if I’m going to make an impact on families and students, I want it to be a positive one.

In my work empowering immigrants and refugees through literacy, I recently received a message from a former student from my first year as principal. She said, “As a child of immigrant parents, I just want to thank you for what you’re doing to support us. When I was a child, my mother who just came from Vietnam, wanted to put me in preschool but didn’t know how or where. She walked to your school and asked for a Vietnamese-speaking person to help her. You were a very busy principal but still made the time and effort to make sure my mother had everything she needed for me. You made her feel valued. She never forgot that, and I want to thank you for speaking up and advocating for immigrant families like mine.” I’m grateful that I was in a position that day to be able to make a positive impact on my student and her family.

The lesson here is that, as educators, we are all in a position to make a lasting impact on our students and families every time we interact with them. Whether positive or negative, the consequences are real. I’ve always made an effort to show and model respect in my daily interactions with others, and here are some reminders that help keep me focused in this work:

  • Never rush to judgment. Always try to understand and empathize first, even if you think you know the issue. Not only will you be better prepared to make the best decisions when you fully understand all perspectives, you’ll show respect to others when you give them a chance to be heard. Sometimes, people just need to feel visible and tell you their side of the story.
  • Sometimes, you need to make the first move. As a principal or teacher, realize that you are in the position of power, and sometimes, this can be intimidating for parents, especially those who have struggled as children in school or parents who are new to this country. So, I always try to reach out first, ask if I can help, or even give that first smile.
  • Always have time. Even if I don’t have time at that moment, I can quickly check in and explain to them that they are important enough for me to schedule another time to talk. Time is a valuable resource, but your families and students are more valuable.

Sometimes, our words and actions can make a lasting impression on families and children. We may not even realize this potential in the moment. But when we are thoughtful about how we approach every interaction, we can put ourselves in the position to make a positive difference every day.


Thanks to Sarah, Rocio, and Don for contributing their thoughts.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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