Reflections on Parenting and Teaching in the City

One of the most prevalent myths surrounding poor communities the world over, when viewed from the outside, is that parents do not care as much about their children as parents do in middle- and upper-class communities. Reporting of crime, especially violent crime, higher levels of reported abuse, general issues of poverty and lower standards of achieved education are all factors that contribute to the perpetuation of this myth.

It is difficult for most people to understand different cultures than their own without spending significant time in that culture. We are generally taught that our own norms are the preferable way of doing things, and as such we measure others based on our own norms, or frameworks, that our culture has created. This is in part contributing to the challenge of education in poorer communities, where good intentioned people end up perpetuating failing systems through no malice on their part.

I began teaching in a small community-based school in Southwest Philadelphia right out of college. I had spent the previous few years working in that community with children, mostly tutoring. Like most first-year teachers, I came in excited to show how great I would be at educating these children. I deeply cared for the children in my classroom, would go well beyond my assigned duties, prepared well, and like most first-year teachers, failed far more than I succeeded in my goals. It was a disaster. After a few more years teaching at that school and then in a school in the Dominican Republic, I returned to Philadelphia to run a children’s ministry at a church. My work expanded into a far more family-oriented structure than before, but it wasn’t until a major life change that I began to understand my previous mistakes, and I think the mistakes that most outsiders make.

I was 27 and single when I was asked to care for a nine-year-old girl, which I reluctantly agreed to. I prized my personal space and time, and had no desire to be a parent. A few months later her four-year-old brother joined us, and I began to feel the effects of being a single parent to two school-aged children. I had an amazing support structure, but the glaring difference from being a teacher to being a parent hit home quite quickly–you can’t send your children home to someone else at the end of the day. They were yours. No matter how hard the day was, there was very little respite.

These “inner city” parents loved their children and cared far more deeply for them than I had ever imagined when I was viewing their families from the perspective of a school teacher.

This life change forced me to seek help from other mothers on the block. I realized how clueless I was about what it takes to raise a child in the environment in which I had been living for the past four years. As is common in poorer communities, the families embraced me in my ignorance, showed grace beyond measure, and were patient and long-suffering as they became not just my teachers but also my mentors, friends and protectors. There is no way I could have lasted as a parent in this community without their help. Their manner of teaching and practice was different, and certainly had unhealthy elements to it, but it was consistent in demonstrating their long-suffering love. These parents loved their children and cared far more deeply for their children than I had ever imagined when I was viewing their families from the perspective of a school teacher.

Twenty-five years have passed, I have raised “my own” four children in the same general community, and I am again an elementary school teacher. Many of those same friends have remained present in our family’s lives, taking on the role of Aunties and Uncles (Titis and Tios) to our children, and we to theirs. It is from this perspective that the thoughts in this article come.

Poverty is not neglect, nor lack of intelligence or desire.

One of our close family friends is a leading expert in understanding child welfare data. He often reminds us that poverty is not neglect. Poverty is a circumstance in which many families find themselves; it is not a choice. To be poor does not mean that you are abusing your children, nor does it mean that you have neglected your parental duties in any way. There are often interrupted issues around poverty, some of which can lead to certain types of neglect, but this is not the norm. The vast majority of parents in poor communities deeply love their children. What is more commonly taking place is that parents may lack certain resources or skill sets to provide the best types of care for their children.

I need to emphasize this point again. Parents deeply love and care for their children. I have often had to remind new people coming into communities like ours to teach, “Remember at the end of the day, the child goes home. As much as you might think you love that child, you aren’t paying their bills, providing their food or paying their rent.” Of course, some teachers may end up doing these things, and that is an issue that needs to be addressed. But for the high majority of children, their families are providing for them.

I think an early mistake that is made is we confuse lack of education and skills with lack of intelligence and desire. Most parents in poorer communities do not have a college education. It would be naive to think that they have the same educational skill sets as a college-educated school teacher, but that’s why they send their children to school! However, the effects of their own educational deficiencies become pronounced when their children return from school with homework. Schools rarely do a good job of helping parents learn how to help their children with their homework.

Our children went to a bilingual immersion school, and I remember what it was like when they would ask for help with their Spanish class work. I would be on the phone with friends (yes, the same friends who helped with other parenting challenges) having them translate and help figure out how to conjugate verbs, and realizing that it took four adults a few hours to complete my five-year-old’s homework. This is the same issue many parents face on a daily basis. They are not trained or equipped to help their children at home with school work. (This is yet another reason to rethink the very concept of school homework, but others have written great pieces on that already).

I think of all the education classes I took at college, the practicums, the supervision, and the many books I read and lectures I attended. I am a professional teacher, and I should be expected to teach. What I don’t recall is a class on how to train parents in their role as home educators or a class on how to include parents in the learning process. Nor do I recall sitting in a class and having parents come in and teach about the realities of their lives. Like so many things in our education system, we have set up the single-expert model–the teacher is the one who knows everything and everyone else takes a lesser place. As we can see by the results of urban education, the system has shown its failures.

I don’t recall a class on how to train parents in their role as home educators or a class on how to include parents in the learning process. Nor do I recall sitting in a class and having parents come in and teach about the realities of their lives.

Parents are the primary caregivers for their children. I have seen many outside people, all loving and good intentioned, coming into our community and running “programs” for children, and I have played my part in helping this damaging system be perpetuated. So often I have heard comments such as “Where are the parents?” and “I wish I could take these children back with me.” One striking example was hearing some college students comment on how children in a barrio in Guatemala City hadn’t been really cared for until the group arrived. I mean “we were the first to ever throw a real birthday party for Jose.” My husband has often responded to those comments with, “Well, how about instead of having fun with the children all day, you take the parent’s role? You could go and spend the day picking through garbage at the local dump to find enough to recycle so you can get food for the family. If you truly want to make a difference, do something to give the parents some time off.”

There can be numerous factors beyond just education that become barriers for parents to work with teachers. Parents can feel embarrassed about their own lack of knowledge. They can feel embarrassed and ashamed because of their poverty (which we sadly often reinforce when we act as though poverty is a choice). I hesitate to make much mention of education issues related to COVID-19 as it could quickly date this article, but one response from a teacher recently highlighted an issue for children being on camera for classes. He found that many children didn’t want others in class to see the conditions they were living in, so they turned their cameras off making it even more difficult for the student to interact. The teacher’s response was to create custom backgrounds for children to use when online for classes, and he has seen great success.

Parents across all levels may have to deal with trauma, but this can be especially true for parents in poorer communities. Their own trauma will undoubtedly affect their ability to parent, including their interactions with educators.

Parents can feel overwhelmed, even when all the needed resources are present. But when dealing with housing and food insecurities, this can become far more pronounced. The level of importance given to homework can be insignificant if you are worried about where to live. We often look at that from the child’s point of view, and explicitly or implicitly blame the parent. This will invariably lead to us thinking parents don’t want to be involved or don’t care. Once again, we need to stress that parents love their children! If you get hung up on this idea, perhaps it is because you have had instances when there was a parent who truly did not love his or her child. Yes, this can be the case, but it is certainly not reserved nor even more prevalent in poor communities.

Parental involvement leads to better education. Children thrive when there are multiple levels of care in their lives. It is why we have surrounded our own children with such a broad range of influencers in their lives. Even when our children are angry at us as parents, they have never doubted they were loved by someone. They know that if anything ever happened to us, they would never truly be orphans. All children need that team-based structure, and it is essential as educators for us to work hard to make it happen. This is not simply having a parent-teacher conference each semester. It means the weekly hard work of meeting parents where they are at, entering into their world, and finding ways to partner. We share the same goals as the parents–caring for their child. We just need to work at it together.

Our family is blessed to have a Christian health center in our community, and one of their programs can serve as a great model for educators. In many parts of Central America, it has been difficult to find trained medical providers, so the communities worked to develop their own health care. Lay people are trained in basic health care (not unlike lay ministers), and they provide for others in their community. In the U.S., there are far more governmental controls on who can dispense what types of care, so our local clinic adapted the idea and created Health Promoters. There are now hundreds of local residents trained by the Clinic who are active in the community, promoting good health. They are not doctors or nurses; they are people who care about their families and friends. They take their neighbor’s blood pressure, check in to make sure they are taking medications, and encourage them to seek the proper professional help when needed. They do exactly what their title says, promote good health.

So, what would it be like if we created the same dynamic around education promotors? Set up classes where parents could learn how to help their children with homework? How to manage the complexities of their children’s schooling? Some places have been doing these things, and doing them well, but sadly the majority of educators in poorer communities continue to act as though they are the children’s only hope.

I have no doubt that our inability to work collaboratively in education leads to many of the issues we currently have around a failing urban education system. It is not simply that we need more resources; it is also that we need to better use the resources we have. Perhaps the greatest single untapped resource in urban education is the parents of the children in our classrooms. Engaging, empowering and equipping those parents could lead to far more educational transformation than the many hours we spend in our brilliant lesson planning.

Sadly the majority of educators in poorer communities continue to act as though they are the children’s only hope.

Poor communities are rarely transformed through children. They are transformed through family units, no matter how dysfunctional those family units may appear. Families are not obstacles to our educating children; they are our most vital strategic partners. When I got married, I learned the strengths of having two parents in the house–I could take a break, I could catch my breath, and I had an ally. As a wise man once wrote, two are better than one, because they have a good return for their work. If one falls down, the other can help her up.

I will briefly now date this article with how I think the online challenges associated with COVID-19 are also creating new learning opportunities. For the vast majority of teachers out there, we love being with children. We were not trained to teach remotely, and most of us do not like to be separated physically from the children (unless it is one of THOSE days). We are struggling to learn how to do hybrid education and few models have been widely produced to help. It is a difficult time for teachers as it is also a difficult time for children and their parents. But one positive we are finding is that many parents have had to take a more active role in their children’s schooling. Especially for younger children (I have kindergarten and first grade children online), it is critical for the parents to be involved. But just like us, no one has taught them how to do this. What an opportunity for us to create a new learning model, together.

Most of the time when a parent calls or texts me to complain about some aspect of the day’s lesson, my first response is defensive: “Well, you try and teach online with a bunch of five year olds!” But I derive a few great things from that phone call. First, they called, which reminds me that they care deeply. Second, I have had some success because they know they can call. And third, it causes me to reflect on what life must be like for them on the other end of the screen. I never want a parent as an enemy, only as a strategic ally. COVID-19 reminds me that I don’t have twenty-two first grade children running around my house. They are at home, with the person who loves them, who cares for them, who provides for them, and who truly wants the best for them.

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