When Beaverton School District switched to remote learning during the pandemic, the IT department fielded numerous calls from Spanish-speaking families who needed help with technology. But only two of the 35 tech support staff could speak to them in their native language.
The district turned to Fabian Gomez, who had been driving buses for the Oregon district for more than a decade. Gomez, who had moved to Oregon from Argentina, was a trained engineer. Using his technical and language skills, Gomez helped Spanish-speaking families navigate their new online school environment.
"When they told me to do the Spanish help desk, I liked it because I know how difficult it could be for families and students when there is a language barrier,” Gomez told The Oregonian.
The pandemic shed light on barriers that many families face when engaging with schools. According to a February 2021 Learning Heroes and National PTA poll, two-thirds of surveyed parents were more involved in their child's education during the pandemic than ever before. That engagement came from unexpected demographics, too. Rutgers University found that 56 percent of families with incomes below the federal poverty line feel more confident helping their kids with schoolwork than they did before the pandemic.
Tech has a greater role in schools than ever
Thanks to those hours logged helping their children, parents are more connected to school than ever. Unfortunately, that connection is not positive for everyone. The hurried transition to remote learning provided fodder for skeptical parents.
"Parents now realize technology is going to be a part of education," says Jason Trinh, assistant curriculum numeracy and secondary science teacher in his Toronto district. "It's always been a team between parents and teachers, although we had lost sight of that. Now, we need to foster those relationships and empower parents and guardians to engage in learning in a different way. There is an opportunity to be brought closer together while being further apart."
If you feel like your partnership with parents needs a reboot, here are some ways to make it more positive.
1. Build trust
Relationships are built on trust, saysJane Cofie, a curriculum and instructional designer for Center for Responsive Schools and the author of the book Strengthening the Parent-Teacher Partnership. Trust comes from being open and honest with parents about the challenges we are all facing. Acknowledge there’s a lot of ground to make up and communicate clearly about what they can expect.
Whether kids are in person or attending school online, technology is an essential part of the education experience. That fact makes some parents uncomfortable. Be clear about how your district, school or classroom plans to keep kids safe online.
Ann Vega, McAllen Independent School District's director of instructional technology, keeps parents up to date on how the Texas district uses and monitors technology. Vega makes informational videos and posts them on Facebook, Instagram and TikTok. Every August, the district holds a professional development seminar for teachers called Technovate that focuses on using popular edtech tools. Parents are always invited and many attend.
"As we've gotten better at managing those devices, parents have become more confident in
allowing kids to bring the devices home," Vega says.
2. Speak their language
Like Beaverton School District, many schools took the extra step of translating all their directions and materials into every language that any student in the district speaks. This is a huge step in engaging families who are often marginalized in the school-home partnership.
Continuing to engage these communities in their native languages is essential. Still, even parents who speak English as a first language have difficulty understanding what educators are talking about. Get everyone on the same page by speaking about technology and pedagogy in a way that makes sense to parents.
"It's important to realize that families are on a spectrum of digital fluency," Trinh, of Toronto, says. "We have a wide spectrum of knowledge, devices and competency.”
To simplify technology, Trinh’s district focuses on using tools that are versatile in every platform. “Google Classroom works on every device, so there are no barriers,” he says. “We also have a lot of rural areas with intermittent access, so we ensure the tech we use has off-line capability."
Trinh produces single-page instructions on how to use technology like Google Meet and other common tools. The district holds webinars for families and educators about digital platforms, offers a direct tech support line to families, and hosts regular office hours for teachers assisting families with tech issues.
3. Reintroduce edtech
Distance learning has made many families more comfortable with technology, but that doesn’t mean they understand the many benefits that technology can have for students. It may be time for a reintroduction, with a focus on good pedagogy (without using the word pedagogy).
Cathy Yenca (aka MathyCathy), a math teacher at Hill Country Middle School in Austin, Texas, says remote learning has increased her appreciation of edtech. Teachers at her school had eight years of experience using technologys, and students were already comfortable using devices before the quick transition. So they were more fortunate than others who had to scramble to catch up.
"Share what tech can do! The pedagogy, the good strategies we use and good teaching should stand alone without tech,” she says. “The beauty of having tech is the ability to monitor students’thinking in the moment and have that inform my next instructional move, as well as help students become more metacognitive in their own thinking.”
And back it up with research, if at all possible. Carl Hooker, author of the ISTE book Mobile Learning Mindset: The Parent’s Guide to Supporting Digital Age Learners, says parents will get on board if they see best teaching practices are still happening through the screen. This means asynchronous, project-based assignments where students can deeply explore a topic or create something using mixed media.
Craig Kemp, an educator and edtech consultant who lives in Singapore, says hearing about tech from a kid's perspective can make a big difference. As a classroom teacher, Kemp organized a social media session where kids answered parent questions about social media usage. The only rule was that they couldn't be at the same table as their child.
The session feedback was extremely positive, and the demand was high for follow-up sessions. While the first session was dedicated to social media, the discussions naturally moved into technology as a tool. The sessions now involve all aspects of technology that students feel are relevant. Students lead the development of the sessions, which happen every other month.
“Parent education sessions are critical,” says Kemp. “If you don't have their buy-in, they won't be able to support you on this journey. You won't get them all, but the ones you will get will share their voices across your community and build over time. Start with what they want to hear and know.”
4. Open the school
When possible, bring families into the school physically. Even when parents can't attend in person due to safety concerns, Zoom parent-teacher conferences and back-to-school nights have seen a significant bump in engagement.
Digital conferences and information sessions are easier for many parents to attend. And if they can’t attend in real-time, recordings let parents get caught up at their convenience.
The top concern for 59% of the parents responding to the Learning Heroes study was their child's lack of in-person connections during virtual learning. Once parents see the effort put into positive relationships between the educator and their child, trust will grow.
"The thing we have to remember is that relationships are the key thing," Trinh says. "Students may not remember your lesson on triangles, but they remember their interactions with you. Parents look to teachers to build that positive relationship."
Jennifer Snelling (@jdsnelljennifer) is a blogger from Eugene, Oregon, who writes about educators using technology to empower students and change the way we learn.