Dan Safran

DAN SAFRAN

I’m Dan Safran.  Uh, I’m currently the Deputy Director of the Children’s Council of San Francisco, which is a non-profit organization focused on uh child care resource and referral.  I’m also the founder of the Center for the Study of Parent Involvement, which um is an organization that’s primarily designed to help get the results of research into the hands of uh teachers, and parents, and uh other educators.

For the – for most educators, uh most policy makers, and probably for most parents when people talk about parent involvement uh in the United States they tend to think about “Why” and “Why” usually gets answered to uh improve students success in the schools.  Um, I’ve um – as I like to say, I’m not against that uh, but I also see 3 other goals.  Um, one of those is um, um strengthening democratic participation, uh second is facilitating social integration, and the third is strengthening support for public education.

Well, the first one I think has been the – the most research and – done and the most interest and that is that over the last uh 25 years almost every study has shown that when families are involved in a comprehensive manner that children tend to do better in school.  Um, uh that has been uh looked at probably at every grade level, for every community, um and for the various kinds of involvement such as the types that Joyce Epstein has written about so well.  Um, less study but uh to me equally important is the fact that um when parents are involved in their children’s education, when they participate with other parents and with educators at their child’s school, uh they are living out uh basic principles of our democratic society.  They’re interested in a particular outcome, they may not have the right answer, but they get in there and move it around with other parents and teachers and they sometimes come up with a result that’s satisfying, sometimes they don’t, but that’s part of democracy.  Facilitating social integration is um one of those nice multi-syllabic phrases but what it means to me is that throughout most of our countries history with our public school system particularly, the public school has been the place where people have come together.  Uh, that coming together um in no – originally in the East Coast but now also very much in the West Coast has been a place where immigrants discover something about what America has to offer.  It – good and bad.  Uh, they meet each other.  Uh, they – they have that opportunity to learn something about how the society works.  But it’s not only an opportunity to integrate immigrants.  It’s also a place where our many cultures can get to know each other, where people from different religious backgrounds come together through our public education system.  Uh, but in addition to that it’s also a place where newcomers who come to a community for the first time, irrespective of their cultural background and economic status, get the chance to find out what’s going on over there.  Where do I find a babysitter?  Um, uh it’s also the place where the grapevine begins.  You kind of find out well who – who are the teachers over here and how do they really work and its uh an area that I hope someday educational researchers will look at more thoroughly because the parent grapevine is a very exciting place to uh – to hang out.  Uh, the fourth one uh seems to me a – a significantly important self-interest issue for educators.  Um, most research shows that when parents are involved in their children’s schools they tend to thing very highly of the schools.  They tend to tell other parents that this is a good place and there’s a tendency uh relevant to be more critical – to be less critical or at least less absolutely critical about the things that go wrong and I think education in our society has always been, because we are a democracy that’s subject of a lot of criticism.  Uh, I think we need to have healthy criticism.  We also need to have people who can stand up as parents and say, “This school is a great place.”

Well clearly uh the purpose of – of school is to educate.  I mean that – that seems to me perhaps too simple but that’s clearly what it is.  I think um the fact that our society uh committed itself to public education many, many years ago is a statement that um we collectively fine the education uh, uh so important that we don’t leave this to the church, we don’t leave this to the wealthy.  We make a commitment that all our citizens and our non-citizens be educated in – as thorough amount as possible.  So public education has – has been said many as the bedrock of democracy.  Um, I think in addition the schools do more then just provide an education for children who go in there every day and leave in the evening.  They provide a – a meeting a ground.  They provide a sense of pride in community.  Uh, while I may feel that my child is getting a good or maybe not so good education, I also have the opportunity, particular if it’s a good education, to feel that “This is a great community.  I’m really happy to be here and I’m happy to have my children meet other people, and it gives me a chance to meet other people.”  So education is the primary work of the school but there are byproducts that are equally important.

Well, there’s always a – a – a complexity in trying to balance uh individual needs with public good and – and I think I’d like to look at this not as an either/or or even as a continuum, but an issue of balance.  Um, there’s a uh – there’s a story, I remember once where a – a teacher was complaining about um, uh some of the parents in her classroom and her comment was they only think about their own children.  And my reaction as a parent was “Thank God.”  I mean one of the things that we want is for parents to take a deep interest about – in their own children.  But I think what the teacher was trying to say is that from her point of view she has a collective responsibility.  She needs to uh shape the activities that will benefit all the children in that classroom.  Um that difference in perspective is a terrific opportunity for dialog.  Uh teachers, I think, can be uh far better informed about the children in their classroom by listening to parents, uh to understanding family context, and to seeing each of those children as individuals, as difficult as that may be.  Parents, I think on the other hand, can be far better able to understand the educational enterprise if – if they’re able to understand from teachers what teachers do and how they do it and – I mean most parents know that the classroom is not about their own child.  I think the tendency for parents to be parochial and to be demanding comes far more from their feeling not having been heard then from their having the sense that this is all about them.

I like questions like that uh because um all of us have motivations and values that has something more to do with uh who we are and our backgrounds and with ideology in some pure form.  Um, my mother was a teacher.  Uh, I was the only person on the street I grew up – grew up in who had an American born grandfather – grandparent.  Uh, all my friends either their parents came from Europe or uh – or their grandparents came from Europe and yet my father was born in Europe.  So I was this combination of a first generation American uh whose father was born in another country and someone who’s mother was not only born here but who had an American born father.  Um, that contrast was quite interesting in shaping some of my views.  Uh, my mother was a – a wonderful critic of everything going on in this country because her ideals were so high that nobody could ever reach those ideals.  Uh, that may have had some impact on the family as well.  But what that meant is her perception of equal opportunity was something that needed to be sought and that our system always fell down in terms of being able to offer that opportunity.  My father, on the other hand, who came out of Europe uh, um – I should say fled Europe um with only a 6th grade education was so thrilled with everything that America had to offer that he offered uh to me not only the critic perspective that my mother had but also the appreciation of what our system is like and what it has to offer.  So those things really shape me tremendously.

Well I tend to contrast um the ways in which uh parent involvement is not only conceptualized but also the way in which it is sought to be actualized.  Um, in most cases um valiant efforts are made by school people to try to involve families.  I think that research has had an impact.  Um, the problem is it tends to be on the terms of the school and we’re talking about a – a relationship, a negotiation has to take place.  I mean there’s some classic examples of this and that is that um for the most part if parents have a problem they have to come to the school, it has to be during “school hours” um, um even though some schools have moved to having parent conf – parent conferences in the evenings, for the most part they’re during school hours which are not comfortable or convenient for most parents who – who work.  And that’s kind of a classic um disconnect.  I think the other disconnect is the tendency to think about um, uh parents without really understanding the community context.  Um, there’s a “Back to School Night.”  Uh sometimes these can be very festive and enjoyable events and sometimes they could be tedious beyond belief.  Um the – I’m going to have to redo this part.  (Interruption).  The um – the “Back to School Night” should not be the only event that is communal in spirit.  I mean there are things that go on in the community.  There are rhythms in the community.  There are times when there are festivals in the community.  To a great extent schools tend to operate in their own rhythms and don’t tend to see what’s taking place in a – in a community setting.

Well, a lot of times when schools seek to involve parents um it’s done in a very incremental basis.  There’s a parent conference, um there’s an effort by an individual teacher to pull people in.  Um and the reality of the parents and families life is – is a bit different.  I’d like to give you an example of that.  Um, I’ll start in the middle of the life cycle – the school life cycle.  When children are entering 4th or 5th grade in most schools in our country the – the – that’s the last couple of grades before the children move onto middle school or junior high school.  In the world of the parent there’s high anxiety about that.  Um, there’s uncertainty about what that will mean.  The children are just beginning to push at adolescents so there’s other kinds of changes taking place in the family dynamics.  Yet in most schools the focus is on that 4th or 5th grade.  An opportunity is being missed and that opportunity is to have some dialog about what the families expectations are for the future.  Now an elementary school teacher isn’t responsible for the future.  That’s unfortunate.  I’m not suggesting that a 4th or 5th grade teacher should be responsible for what happens to that family, but in the way in which that family is engaged, that teacher should have in mind what apprehensions, what hopes, uh what possibilities there may – because in fact that may offer some motivating information, an opportunity for that teacher to engage the parents more fully in that child’s development right there where that child is, but there’s a narrowness that I experience that seems to come out of the school sense of grades and what happens here doesn’t go over there, there’s not much articulation, and it’s a lost opportunity.

Let me give you an example of a way – a way in which uh what goes on in the community um could be a gold mine but is unrecognized.  Um, most people know from research and also anecdotally that parents tend to be more interested and willing to become involved when their children are younger and schools make some valiant efforts to reach out to parents and I appreciate that.  One of the ways in which that reaching out uh could be far more effective is if it were reaching down.  Reaching down not to parents but reaching down in terms of the educational level where uh – to the educational new year.  For example, we have thousands and thousands of families who have their children in child care.  Those child care centers, the family child care homes are places where relationships have been established, there’s a lot of trust established, parents get information about child development there, about how to handle the issues and problems that come from parenting preschool children.  But interestingly enough there’s very little information about what the public school experience is going to be like.  There are very few opportunities or occasions where school principals or kindergarten teachers would make arrangements to come and visit the preschool.  That would be an example of where something that is a significant part of the parent’s life, the family life, that significant resource in the community is just sitting there and waiting and in most cases would be quite eager to have some information available for uh the families participating who are in the following year – the year after their going to be moving on.

Well, let me start quite conservatively.  I’m not sure how teachers can find the time to do all the things I’d like them to do.  I’ll be right out there with them.  I think there are things that teachers can do um even with the most limited amount of time.  Um I have a daughter who’s a 4th grade teacher.  Uh she really takes care of herself well when it comes to her time.  She and her husband like to travel, like to hike.  She doesn’t want to spend a lot of time at the school and – and I have to respect that.  I would like her to be my model teacher which is the one who is always out there in the community, but that’s not who she is and I think she’s like most teachers.  But she makes her communications with parents’ high quality communications.  She knows their children.  She finds positive things to say about their children, um not in the way that would be deceptive or that parents could – could read through, but usually to tell a story, to describe something the child did.  Um, she also expresses a great interest in what the families have to say.  Um there are times when what they have to say hurts their feelings and she’s had to struggle with that, but um she’s used her time well and I’m – I – I like describing her situation because it – it – she is the example of the teacher who will only put in as much time as she has to but she makes the best use of it.  I think there are other ways that teachers can be involved.  Uh, if they happen to live in the community in which uh, uh school affairs take place uh there are all sorts of opportunities for them to engage with families outside of the school situation and – and do it in a friendly, civil way.

About 30 years ago I was beginning my doctorate work uh and um had been very interested in the um – the subject of parent involvement because of some prior experience.  Um two things occurred that shaped my experience.  One, I became involved very early on as a consultant of the Head Start program and I worked in the Deep South and had a sense of the incredible commitment that parents had to this educational opportunity for their children and the extent to which they would put every kind of effort into making sure that the effort succeeding, the program succeeding.  Um, at the same time I was uh having uh my first children and uh I became curious about what uh their schools were going to be like and in fact went to my first uh PTA meeting the year before my daughter was eligible for kindergarten, which caused a shock uh among the other parents there.  Um, my experience both in the Deep South with low income African-American communities and in my own community in Washington D.C. of what might be described as a multicultural middle class community was strangely similar and uh it was the similarities that struck me.  The similarities were the sense that uh parents felt uncomfortable and in some cases intimidated in dealing with uh school personnel.  I was fascinated by this – this joint between people who – from anybody looking in it looked like the same people irrespective of race, creed, color, and national origin with their – they were parents and teachers that as parents and teachers there was a disconnect.  When I uh went to the university uh among other things I decided I wanted to study what was going on between the communications uh – in the communications between parents and teachers and um as I began to take a look at other dissertations and other research projects I realized there was no central place where research was being done uh on the subject of parent involvement in schools.  Everyone was talking about parent involvement in schools and – and there were people doing research, but as a community organizer, as a parent activist, as someone interested in educational policy uh there wasn’t any way in which that research was getting to me, getting to teachers, getting to PTAs and other community groups.  And so in 1973 I established the Center for the Study of Parent Involvement in order to get that information into people’s hands.

I like looking at what practical things might be done by schools to uh make it a more hospitable environment for families.  I want to tell a story about an experience I had uh recently um that speaks not um only to the physical arrangement of the school but to the – to the attitudinal state of the people who work there.  Um, almost 40 years ago I was a substitute teacher in the Philadelphia schools and um I remember going to the teacher’s lunchroom and hearing some of the worst characterizations of uh children and families that I – I could imagine.  I did not uh think that teachers would speak in – in such terms ridiculing uh children and families there and – and I was quite shocked and disturbed about that.   Um about 3 weeks ago I uh was with an international visitor and I went to my – the school my daughter teaches in and while waiting for her in the teacher’s lounge I heard the same thing.  Now I’m sure that was just my bad luck but it says something to me about a tremendous challenge that needs to be addressed at the same time as we take a look at particular structural techniques and welcoming signs that schools um can do to make the place more hospitable.  Um despite all of the research that shows that parent involvement has a significant affect on student’s success, one still can find few schools of education preparing teachers to work effectively with parents.  And there’s been some progress in the last 10 years but it’s still insufficient.  There’s a way in which the process by which teachers get socialized into the profession seems to be based um a little bit too much on how smart they need to be at the expense of those people whose children come into the classroom.  Uh and I know from having talked with colleagues in the education world that these are fighting words.  That there’s a tendency uh either to not agree with that, which they have the right to do, or to feel offended by that, but many parents will talk about um the experience they had um being put down or feeling put down.  Uh many teachers might characterize that as being hypersensitive.  I think the fact is that parents are hypersensitive.  Uh I think there are many of us who were not trained as teachers who when we enter the school building, when we have some engagement with the teacher, um probably have some storehouse of repressed memories of our own childhood experiences.  When teachers go through a teacher preparation program they’re the same people that parents were when they were kids in school but they are now in the process of demystifying all of the stuff that goes on.  They kind of know what goes on in the teacher’s lunchroom.  They know something about the – the magic of the educational process, but many parents who are still in awe of that and that all can either lead to an inflated appreciation of teachers and expectations that go well beyond what teachers can handle or it can turn into something very much uh deflated and disappointing and um where parents then become excessively critical of teachers.  So I wanted to say something about this – sort of the psychology of parent/teacher communications before I responded to your question about um what the schools can do cosmetically and structurally.

Well, I’d like to describe a personal experience again.  When my uh youngest son and daughter were about to start school uh the summer before they began school they each received a postcard in the mail.  The postcard said to my son and respectively to my daughter, “Dear Adam, Dear Debbie, I’m looking forward to seeing you in school.  Um, you will like the classroom very much.  In addition to an aquarium, we have a great big rat named Elizabeth,” and it was signed the teacher, but the teacher signed her name.  Now as parents we receive that postcard and read them to our child.  That teacher has forever remained a fainted person in our family.  This was someone who took the time to reach out to the children knowing that the pathway for that communication would be to those children’s parents.  The result of that, and I – I emphasize that, was to – because we weren’t the only family to get those postcards, was to create a sense among at least 30 families in that school – those were big classes in those days – but – but this was a great place.  It was a relatively – it wasn’t a new school but it was a new program that was beginning.  So the um mental attitude that many of us came in with as a result of that teacher’s outreach was quite positive.  The other thing that was helpful was to have a – a – a place in every classroom uh where parents would feel comfortable.  Uh, I volunteered in my children’s schools mostly by being one of those activist types.  I was president of the PTA when my kids lived in Washington.  I became um, um the social action chair and then chair of a parent group in an Oakland public school where my children went, and one reason I did that – I was very comfortable in the more extraverted aspects of community life.  Uh if I was asked to spend um intense time working with one or more small children in a corner I wasn’t sure what to do, but I remember changing my attitude toward that was the teacher who explained to me the value of what it was she wanted me to do, and then told me that she would be by to visit with me in a few moments after I finished this little reading exercise.  Now that sounds like a very small thing but remember I’m the kind of parent who did not want to be sitting with – I was good at it, I had 3 terrific kids and I was a good parent, but to be sitting with 3 children I didn’t know wasn’t something I was comfortable with but we had a teacher who was able to um give me a rational for why I would be of value and to encourage me.  So that was – that was quite helpful for me.

The question about teacher comfort level is – is a pretty complicated one so I’ll do my best to – to respond to how teachers could be more comfortable working with other adults and – and engaging them in various school support and volunteer activities.  One of the – the challenges for uh teachers who are young is um, uh the discomfort they may feel working with um either uh parents who are older or who – or parents who uh seem to throw their weight around, uh or in some other way uh maybe experienced as um, uh as I’ve heard teachers refer to it as pushy parents.  Um and just by having described it that way uh, uh the implications are not that a whole lot could be done at that very moment.  There are some things that may have to be done to prepare for that.  I think its very important that um – that – that teachers uh as a group um get both pre-service and in-service training in working with adult volunteers, uh and I say that because uh without that kind of preparation its very, very difficult once on the job to um, uh take on those kinds of roles without uh some extensive support either from the principal or from the mentor teacher.  Uh many teachers I think go into the field of education because they want to work with young people.  Um it doesn’t mean that they’re hiding from other adults, but I think that’s their preferred way of operating.  Um, sometimes it’s difficult to make that shift without having some consciousness about the fact that it is a shift, that it requires a – a different way of speaking.  Um let me mention a second issue that comes up.  Um one of the things I became aware of – again, watching my daughter teach her class and she did an excellent job, was how much of a teacher’s time is spent exercising control.  Uh, I’m not saying that in any critical way.  In fact I was in awe and very appreciative of watching how my daughter controlled this incredible group of young people in the interest and in the spirit of um enhancing their learning.  There are times, however, where I think the same kind of teachers and control mentality carries over in the way in which teachers uh relate to the children’s parents and that unfortunately triggers a lot of old stuff that parents have from when they were in school and now that they’re not kids anymore, they are adults, uh the result often is that teachers are perceived as uh not really engaging with them effectively.  So I wanted to mention some of the negatives that come up.  Um – I’ll sort of take a little break on this thing.  Reframe.  Hang on here.  One of the great resources that every teacher has is at least the one or two parents with whom they have a good relationship.  Um I would consider that the key to um not only uh engaging other parents but if their relationship is good enough uh that one or two parents can be that teacher’s greatest uh allies when it comes to some reflection on how to proceed, what to do, who to talk to, how to talk to people.  Um it – it provides the teacher with a additional um set of lenses that will not only allow her or him to look out on what resources may be available in the community but also to look in on how he or she uh maybe perceived by some of the very parents um who represent the community.

Well, I’m going to have to answer that a little bit differently.  I think uh the question is “What does one say to teachers that will give them a greater sense of partnership with – with families.  I think one approach that is terribly useful and I’ve seen it done in early childhood preparation is getting student teachers to talk about their own families.  Um, I recently heard of a wonderful project where teachers were being asked in their pre-service training to identify a family that was very similar to the one in which they grew up and another that was very different from the one in which they grew up.  And the professor did not ask for a particular definition of what was similar or different just that they find that and that they interview that family, just find out everything they could about those families and then look from those experiences back into their own experience.  Um what kind of values were exhibited?  What kinds of roles were performed uh by uh the mother or the father if there were 2 parents in the family?  Um what were the aspirations in um that teacher’s own family?  It’s – I think more often having a clear sense of ones own values and beliefs that allows people to be more accepting of the fact that there are many kinds of values and beliefs out there which will then lead to um more acceptance I would hope or at least if there’s a sense on the part of a teacher that um they don’t like these other values that perhaps other people have – and we all have the rights not to like everything, at least it won’t come as a shock.  At least they’ll be aware that this is something different and they’ll just have to deal with it.

One of the wonderful things about American education as I mentioned earlier is that it has always been uh an inclusive, accepting entity even though nec – it hasn’t necessarily played itself out very successfully.  The intent has been to include.  There’s lots of arguing as to whether that inclusion has been designed to acculturate and to deny the uh cultural integrity of various groups and that argument will – will continue as long as there’s an America.  Um, I think if teachers can remember that the public schools are all about bringing together differences and appreciating uh both similarities and differences, uh then the work that an individual teacher is doing or that uh – that occurs in a particular school tends to be seen in that larger context.  Um often people feel besieged that they feel that what’s going on is all about them and not part of something bigger.  Um there is so much that we, teachers, parents, and children can learn from one another – I mean that sounds like a cliché but it’s always true – that I would hope that um rather then see the teaching of children and the work with families who come from cultures and language that are different as a “challenge” that it’s really seen as an opportunity for learning and for enrichment.

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