Recently I read a viewpoint about parent engagement stating that it is critical for parents to speak the language of education if their children are to succeed and, thus, it is a responsibility of educators to build parents’ capacity in this regard. When I read this comment, I was immediately drawn backward in time to a poignant moment I experienced with an Indigenous parent. An attendee at a workshop I was facilitating on parent engagement, this mom approached me during the nutrition break and said to me, “I want to be engaged but I can’t go to my kids’ school. I don’t have the right clothes and I don’t have the right words.” Looking into the mom’s face and hearing the painful emotion in her words, it was heartbreakingly apparent that the place for change did not rest with the mom, but instead with the structures and practices being lived out on the school landscape.
The statement about parents troubles me for two foundational reasons. First, it reflects a “schoolcentric” way of thinking, one in which the current structure of school is accepted as is and left unquestioned. The focus of conversation, then, centres on how parents can serve and support that taken-for-granted school structure, rather than on the changes that are needed in the school structure in order to realize the strengths, needs, and desires of parents. Second, when educators assume the need to build the capacity of parents, they are placing themselves in a hierarchical position above parents, as both more knowing and more capable. In both instances, parents such as the mom I mentioned are left to feel lesser and excluded by the school. As I share practices that I feel are familycentric rather than schoolcentric, I make central my belief that embracing a philosophy and pedagogy of “walking alongside” is at the heart of working with all families.
To walk alongside parents means to be with them – whoever they are, whatever the context in which they live. It means to recognize them as individuals who began their children’s education at birth and who are continuing to educate their children throughout their lives, as they strive to realize their hopes and dreams for their children. It means to see them as individuals with capacity, with parent knowledge of their children, and of teaching and learning. It means, as a teacher, to see oneself in relationship, as someone who accompanies parents on this journey, supporting them by providing schooling for their children. It means, as a teacher, to “care for” and to “care about” parents, to be concerned with creating a rightful place and voice for all parents in their children’s learning – whether or not they have the “right” words and clothes. It means acknowledging that the teacher cannot achieve alone what it is possible to achieve when parent knowledge and teacher knowledge of children are used together.
Go into the community
So, how might one walk alongside? A new school year often begins with a “Meet the Teacher Night,” a historical and deeply ingrained schoolcentric practice that places the focus on the teacher and the curriculum to be covered in each grade level or course that year. How do we interrupt such a practice for parents with a residential school history and a resulting distrust of schools? For newcomer parents who do not yet speak the dominant language or understand the school system in Canada? For parents who do not have the right words or the right clothes? For parents who do not have childcare, transportation, or a work schedule that enables their attendance? We can discard this practice and replace it with a familycentric approach in which teachers go to homes and communities to meet families and to learn with and from them. This creates an opportunity to build trust and relationships early, for teachers to learn of parents’ hopes and dreams for their children, and to become awake to the capacity parents possess.
Whether going into the community takes the form of a community walk or canvas to say hello and make introductions, brief purposeful drop-by visits, or scheduled home visits, it lets parents know, “You matter to us. You have something to offer your children’s schooling. We have much to learn from you.” Heidi Hale, an educator working in a core neighbourhood in Saskatoon, made home visits to meet the parents of her Kindergarten students. At the end of one visit, an Indigenous grandmother, with tears in her eyes, said to Heidi, “No teacher has ever come to our home before.” Katelynn Moldenhauer, a Pre-Kindergarten teacher working in a culturally diverse neighbourhood, jokes that she has to be careful not to schedule too many home visits in one day, as she is not able to eat and drink all of the beautiful cultural food and beverages that are specially made for her visit. In a community canvas to share information about Howard Coad School’s summer programming for children, parents, and families, four of us visited approximately 30 homes. The very next afternoon, 65 children and parents took part in programming, an increase of about 40 individuals over typical attendance to that point. When teachers visit in homes and in community, a one-way relationship becomes two-way and reciprocal. Teachers shift from solely expecting parents to learn from them and the school to being open, also, to learn from parents and from their rich knowledge and experiences.
Extend a warm and genuine greeting
Once parents are comfortable to enter the school landscape, how do school personnel welcome them in order to ensure they feel “good” or “right” enough about being there and to keep them coming back? I believe we can learn some lessons from Princess Alexandra Community School in Saskatoon. School staff recognized that when they required children to go to the office for a late slip, they were defeating their own desire to increase children’s instructional time and their sense of inclusion in the school community. Upon reflection, they dropped this practice and, instead, welcomed children warmly into the classroom, at whatever time they arrived, saying something like, “We are so glad you are here. Have you eaten?” Caring for and caring about the children, the staff enacted a strength-based approach in which they expressed appreciation for the children’s presence and ensured the children were well positioned to learn.
Seeing the results of this change, the staff extended their welcoming practice to parents as well. Upon entering the school, parents too were greeted, perhaps offered a cup of coffee or asked if they had had breakfast, perhaps asked how they were doing, whether they needed assistance, or perhaps offered a place to sit, a computer to use, or a newspaper to read. Initially, the school’s elder, known as Kokum Ina, often did the greeting as did Ted Amendt, a Métis man who served as the community school coordinator. Both individuals were well known in the community and presented a “mirror” to parents, reflecting back to them their own Indigenous identity. Soon school leadership realized that if greeting was important, it had to become the work of the entire school community and not be left to one or two individuals. At school assemblies, all staff and students were taught and were given time to practice extending a warm greeting to parents, family members, and visitors entering the school. As the wave of greetings became the daily norm at the school, the landscape shifted. Instead of harbouring reservations such as, “I can’t go to my kids’ school. I don’t have the right clothes and I don’t have the right words,” the parents at Princess Alexandra felt a part of the school.
Golden Greeters are retirees who visit Archbishop M.C. O’Neill High School in Regina on a regular weekly basis, greeting students as they enter the school. The mission statement of the Golden Greeters reflects their belief that “no child should go to school without their name called in love.” I believe that neither should parents enter a school without their name called in love. A warm and genuine greeting, which reflects both caring for and caring about, creates a feeling of safety and belonging for parents and honours who they are and what they bring to the school landscape.
Work in culturally responsive ways
Once parents are present on the school landscape, how are school structures created or adapted to give them an authentic and meaningful voice? I frequently hear parents say such things as, “Oh, I didn’t know I could attend the School Community Council meeting” or “I thought that notice was for other parents but not for me.” Further, the governance structures and practices of parent bodies – official and prescribed roles, voting processes, formalized meeting procedures such as Robert’s Rules – are often threatening or intimidating to those who are unaccustomed to them and serve to marginalize or silence many parents, or to keep them away all together.
Schoolcentric practices, typically reflective of a Eurocentric worldview, are often at odds with the communal and collective approach characteristic of Indigenous ways of thinking, being, and doing. When Vernon Linklater was “chair” of the School Community Council at his sons’ elementary school in Saskatoon, a school with a student population which was about 95 percent Indigenous at the time, he chose to organize their meetings in a circle, with school leadership, staff, and parents intermingled, all visible and present to one another. As Vernon explained, a circle, in First Nations culture, has always held significance and deep meaning because it is a prominent symbol in nature. With no beginning and no end and all members positioned equitably, Vernon found that a talking circle was a richer and more inclusive way to give everyone voice, to make decisions, to discuss issues, or to solve problems. When schools and school bodies work in culturally responsive ways, parents do not have to have the words of the school or of unfamiliar governance structures to participate. They are able to join the circle, to speak from their own knowing, to share their own wisdom and insights, and to positively influence outcomes for their children and their families.
As a core neighbourhood principal in Saskatoon, Yves Bousquet put a great deal of time and thought into issues such as attendance, retention, and transiency. His belief was, “We can teach students successfully when they are here. Our challenge is to get them to school and keep them engaged with us over time.” This is true for parents as well. I believe strongly that all parents want to be engaged in their children’s teaching and learning and to do whatever they can to support and facilitate their children’s success. To get them to school, we need to first extend ourselves to them, get to know who they are, see their capacity, and learn from them about their children, their families, their cultures, and their hopes and dreams. It is then, when we are walking alongside, connected through trust and relationship and equitably positioned on the school landscape, that we can share with them the language of education, of why and how it is used and what it means, of how it can become part of their repertoire too. We can support them in realizing their capacity so that when it is important for them to know and use the language of education, they have the right words and are confident to use them.
 M. A. Lawson, “School-family Relations in Context: Parent and teacher perceptions of parent involvement,” Urban Education 38, no. 1 (2003): 77-133; D. Pushor, “Bringing into Being a Curriculum of Parents,” in D. Pushor and the Parent Engagement Collaborative, Portals of Promise: Transforming beliefs and practices through a curriculum of parents (Rotterdam, NL: Sense Publishers, 2013), pp. 5-19.
 D. Pushor, “Walking Alongside: A pedagogy of working with parents and families in Canada,” in L. Orland-Barak and C. Craig (eds.), International Teacher Education: Promising pedagogies (part B) (Bingley, UK: Emerald Group Publishing Ltd., 2015), pp. 233-251.
 D. Pushor, “Conceptualizing Parent Knowledge,” in D. Pushor and the Parent Engagement Collaborative II, Living as Mapmakers: Charting a course with children guided by parent knowledge (Bingley, UK: Emerald Group Publishing Ltd., 2015), pp. 7-20.
 M. Green and C. Christian, Accompanying Young People on their Spiritual Quest (London,
UK: National Society/Church House Publishing, 1998).
 N. Noddings, Starting at Home: Caring and social policy (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2001).
 Dr. Jerry Goebel, Communities of Trust, personal communication.