As I write this blog post on parent engagement, I find myself thinking about my own parents and their continued engagement in my life and learning. I chatted with my mom and dad on the phone last Sunday about whether my family would be making the ten-hour drive to be ‘home’ with them for Thanksgiving. Although we often spend almost as much time on a long weekend driving to their place and back as we actually get to spend with them, the trip is always worth it. My mom is an avid and knowledgeable gardener, and she inevitably teaches us something new – what to do to prevent our tomatoes from developing black bottoms or how to keep the aphids off our grape vines. My dad is a skilled and intuitive horseman. When we were trying to teach our large black Labrador dog to enter a kennel, so that we could take her on an airplane with us, Dad showed us how to do it by backing her instead, keeping her head close to ours, continuing to speak to her reassuringly and to soothe her fears of the enclosed space. As I watch my mom share her garden vegetables with friends and family, and even strangers, and as I watch my dad help neighbours with branding or moving cattle, I continue to be taught a myriad of lessons about what it means to be a kind and generous person – one who makes a difference in this world. My parents started my education a very long time ago. Their work as my educators continues, to this day.
In the field of “education,” we often talk and write about “education” and “schooling” as if they are one and the same thing, using the words interchangeably as if they are synonyms. In fact, the two terms represent very different – albeit integrally intertwined – concepts. I believe that the moment children are born their education begins. The parents talk and perhaps read and sing to their children, take them places, introduce them to the world around them. This education continues to unfold as their children grow and as the parents engage them in a range of experiences – cultural, religious, social, physical, intellectual, and so on. Over time parents may teach their children how to play a card game and how to negotiate a mortgage, how to ride a bike and how to change the oil in a car, how to tie their own shoes and how to care for a friend in need. Parents begin their child’s education at birth and they continue with that education forever.
“Schooling,” differently from “education,” is the formalized, mandated segment of children’s education. It typically occurs in a systematized and institutionalized way, in schools and classrooms, with teachers and other school personnel, following policies, procedures and curriculum established by school divisions/First Nations band councils and a Ministry of Education or Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada. It is important for those of us who are agents of schooling, in whatever form, to remember that schooling is only one small part of children’s lifelong care and education. When we differentiate between the notions of “education” and “schooling,” we are able to see that parents have the huge task – the lifelong task – of education. Teachers have the privilege of supporting parents in their lifelong work of educating their children, walking alongside them for a year or so as they provide formal schooling for the children, contributing to the parents’ efforts to realize their hopes and dreams for their children’s growth and development.
The work of school personnel, then, in creating strong, vibrant, supportive and expansive school communities is to learn from parents about the education in which the children have been engaged and in which they continue to engage outside of school hours. Through such learning, teachers and school personnel can build on children’s education as they structure their schooling experiences, create culturally responsive programming, and honour parents as knowers in and knowing about their children’s teaching and learning. What a difference it can make in schools when we see the provision of schooling as being a side-by-side process, complementary to the education children receive in their out of school places.
A couple of weekends ago, I attended a Sweatlodge ceremony on a First Nation near my home in Saskatoon, SK. Two young boys, perhaps one about 10 years of age and one in his early teens, led the drumming and singing in two of the four rounds of the Sweatlodge. I wondered if their teachers knew that they engaged in such traditional cultural practices. I wondered if they knew of the leadership role these boys took on within their family and community. How might such knowing change the teachers’ understanding of these boys in their classrooms, how might it influence the literature they chose to read to their students, the resources they drew upon to infuse First Nations, Métis, Inuit (FNMI) teachings into their curriculum, the responsibilities they allotted the boys? How might it afford the teacher the opportunity to be positioned as learners alongside the boys and their family members? The community surrounding the school exists – all of those places of beyond school learning and relationships – and it is there for teachers to enter, to come to know, and to learn from and with.
There are a number of promising practices that are beginning to occur more frequently on school landscapes that are positioning teachers as learners alongside children and families. Examples include:
- Home Visits – done by teachers of all ages and grade levels – where the teacher goes to the homes to build an authentic relationship and to learn about and from the families.
- Hopes and Dreams Sessions – where teachers invite parents in to share their hopes and dreams for their children so the teachers can see how their work can support the education the parents are providing their children.
- Meet the Family Nights – where teachers place families at the centre rather than themselves (i.e. Meet the Teacher Night), giving families time to share who they are and to engage with one another as they create a community network of support for their children.
- Home Learning Portfolios – where teachers invite parents to keep a folder of learning in which their child is engaged at home or out of school places as a way to begin discussions of children’s learning and growth at conference times.
- Letters to the Teacher – where teachers invite parents to write to them at the beginning of the year or when a child joins their classroom, to share information the parents may want the teacher to know about their child: their interests and hobbies, their skills and abilities, their family structure, their idiosyncrasies, the parents’ worries or dreams, and so on.
- Community Walks – where teachers go out into the community in which they teach as a learner and a guest, led by parents or community members, in order to be introduced to the community’s strengths and resources through the eyes of its residents.
My work with teachers is demonstrating that when school personnel walk alongside parents, intersecting children’s schooling with their education, everyone benefits: children, parents, and teachers. Schools become both richer and safer places for children as the children benefit from the combined efforts of all the adults in their lives working together toward the enhancement of their learning and care. Parents are offered a meaningful place and voice in their children’s teaching and learning, and teachers have access to and the support of a community of currently mostly untapped resources. The opportunities await us! It is about how we, as stakeholders in schools, define our work as teachers alongside children and parents – about how we re/imagine who we are, what we do, and why we do it.
 I use this term inclusive of any significant individuals, biologically or non-biologically related, who are engaged in the care and learning of a child.
 The ritual ceremony of the Sweatlodge is one of healing and cleansing and involves traditional prayers and songs being sent to the Creator.