Previously, I reviewed Engage Every Family by Steven M. Constantino. I discovered the book about three years ago and found it to be a powerful, realistic text about improving engagement between schools and families. Traditional family engagement programs seek to compel families to comply with the school’s wishes. However, Constantino flips the traditional model by encouraging schools to look inward.
He makes the case for a customer service orientation in schools, challenging readers to consider whether families would choose you – your classroom, your school, your district – if they had the choice. Of course, many families don’t realistically have a choice, but regardless, he believes we should treat them as customers who do.
After dispelling some long-held ideas about disengagement, the author spends the rest of the book describing five principles for effective family engagement. Over the next few weeks, I want to give you a brief overview of each principle, so you might be encouraged to read more!
Principle 1: A Culture That Engages Every Family
Culture can be defined as “the shared assumptions, values, and beliefs of a group of people that result in characteristic behaviors” (Storti, 1999, p. 5). This definition implies at least two dimensions of culture. There is the visible part that we can see in people’s behaviors. Most people understand that they are part of a culture, and they naturally assume people living in the United States may behave differently in some ways that those living in France or Vietnam. The focal differences are those we can see – eating with a fork or chopsticks; independent living quarters or sharing housing with extended family.
However, there is another dimension of culture that we cannot see. The invisible assumptions, values, and beliefs, which often are the causes of the visible behavior. (This is not always true because culture is not static and sometimes a situation influences our behavior, regardless of our underlying assumptions.) We cannot see a person’s assumptions, values, and beliefs. The only way to learn about them is to get to know the person more deeply. And, it’s important to understand the invisible dimension of culture better because otherwise we tend to judge another person’s behavior from our cultural point of view. We THINK we know why someone is behaving in a certain way, but until we understand their cultural background better, we may be very wrong.
What does this have to do with school/family engagement?
First, it’s important that school personnel find ways to learn about the cultural backgrounds of their students’ families. This is absolutely vital in a school with English Learners who may come from a wide variety of cultures, all of which may vary greatly from the stereotypical U.S. school culture.
Secondly, although geographic and ethnic cultures are important, there are also many subcultures within them. In terms of school/family engagement, it is the subculture of the local school or district that Constantino encourages us to examine. He describes the ideal school culture about family engagement this way:
“The collective beliefs, attitudes, norms, values, actions, and assumptions of the school organization explicitly embrace and are committed to the notion of families as a foundational core component to improvement and greater student learning and performance. The culture is reflected in actions of those in the organization, in the artifacts, and in the organizational practices” (p. 52).
The core beliefs of school personnel about family engagement will be evident in the artifacts they produce, the policies they develop and enforce, and their daily actions toward families. Do the administrators and staff truly believe that all families can be engaged and that their engagement is vital to student success? If not, then efforts to change these assumptions and beliefs are the starting point for improving family engagement. Where this foundational work is not pursued, school personnel “are doomed to implement endless strategies that have shortened life-spans and ultimately produce no long-lasting results” (p. 54).
No one embarks on a new family engagement plan hoping it will only last one or two years, yet that’s exactly what often happens. Constantino has correctly identified the cause of many of these failures. He contends that if we do not look below the surface to what is driving our behaviors regarding family engagement, we will never be able to make improvements. One reason we may not look deeply is that these necessary changes can be painful and slow; however, it is the only way to build a solid foundation for family engagement.
“Ideas, objectives, initiatives, and strategies that represent a fundamental antithesis toward the existing culture will always succumb to the existing culture unless significant work is done to augment, expand, and change the culture to embrace the desired change” (p. 55). In other words, “culture can eat change for lunch” (p. 55). The school culture cannot be ignored. The hard work of shifting the underlying cultural assumptions must be dealt with if we want lasting change to occur.
It may not be about you.
An additional point to keep in mind is that the current administration and staff may be on the right track for effective family engagement, but the generational culture of the school must also be considered. Sometimes families are disengaged, not because of anything a current teacher said or did, but because of what their fourth grade teacher in the same school did. Neighborhood schools often house generations of students, so while their child’s first grade teacher is wonderful, a parent cannot ignore the negative feelings that surface when they enter, or even look at, the school building where their teacher belittled them 20 years ago.
School personnel cannot change the past, but these cultural issues that are imbedded within the walls of the school must be addressed. They cannot be ignored or swept under the rug. It may mean that even more significant work is needed to engage families who are on the other side of these barriers.
That’s Principle 1 in a nutshell. Constantino has more details to share, including questions to consider as you analyze your school’s culture regarding family engagement. Maybe it’s time to find a copy of the book for further reading.
Next week, I’ll share insights into Principle 2: Communicate Effectively and Build Relationships.
Take a Deeper Look
Constantino, S. M. (2016). Engage every family: Five simple principles. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
Storti, C. (1999). Figuring foreigners out: A practical guide. Boston, MA: Intercultural Press.