It Opened My Eyes: Perspectives from Teaching a Leadership Course on Family and Community Partnerships
Jenny Tuten from Hunter College School of Education describes what she has learned from teaching a new leadership course on family-school- and community relationships.
“Community Reads: Using Picture Books to Build Authentic Partnerships between Students, Families, Teachers, and School Leaders”
These are some of the titles of the research-informed action plans developed by students in Enhancing Achievement through Family and Community Relationships, a new doctoral course at Hunter College School of Education-The City University of New York. For many of our students—comprising experienced urban school coaches, program or curriculum directors, assistant principals, and principals—this was the first course they had attended that explicitly addressed the critical interconnections between community, family, and schools.
What did we do?
My colleague Gess LeBlanc and I developed this course as part of a new Ed.D. program in instructional leadership at Hunter College. The goal of this program is to prepare urban educational practitioner leaders who can translate research into effective, impactful practice. Because our program endeavors to support the professional growth of educators who can tackle critical problems of practice and effect change for equity and social justice, it was imperative that we elevate the role of family engagement through the status of a course (syllabus below).
The goal of the course was to expose our students to a range of perspectives on family engagement. To do this, we:
- Selected readings that we believed would resonate with our students’ educational experiences and serve as catalysts for critically examining their perspectives and practices about family engagement.
- Invited guests to work with our students (see Text Box 1), including scholars, representatives from local community-based organizations and our school district, and, most powerfully, a panel of family members. Guests expanded the number of voices in the discussions.
- Required that students complete a final project in which they developed a proposed action plan to address a specific problem of practice located in each student’s context. Focused our students on using the work of the course to make an impact in their own schools or programs. You can access the themes and titles explored in the papers, here.
What did we learn?
Our course taught us that experienced educators benefited from an opportunity to read, discuss, and focus on the issues of family/school engagement. We found that experienced educators especially needed to revisit and reexamine their preconceptions and taken-for-granted views and practices around the role of family engagement. The readings, discussions, and guest speakers provided new insights for our students. As the course progressed, students dug deeper into their assumptions and biases about families. Course readings and discussions surfaced and challenged deficit views.
Our course evaluations also showed that the course was invaluable to the students’ growth as educators. While the students initially expressed skepticism about the need for such a course, by the end of the summer it was clear by both the projects developed and feedback from students that the course had made a difference. Some commented:
"The course challenged my preconceptions of family engagement. It provided the theoretical background about leadership in the context of family engagement and it opened my eyes to community partnerships as critical in the educational process."
"The course was powerful in shifting the way I think about parental involvement in a systematic way. I liked how the readings provided a variety of accounts of how to do “engagement” and that we discussed how that was applicable to our different contexts."
It is our hope that others who teach family-school-community courses start a conversation about what we are all learning and that we have opportunities to share and grow our work.
Text Box 1: Using the Case Method to Shift Mindsets
Two members of the Global Family Research Project team—Margaret Caspe and Rachel Hanebutt—came to the class as guest lecturers. The GFRP team facilitated the case Staying on the Path Toward College: One Boy at the Crossroads, which is about an intelligent sixth-grade boy who has recently become disengaged from schoolwork and is hanging out with peers whom his teachers and parents fear are a bad influence.
The case discussion and activity raised a number of reflections about the complexity of connections in children’s and families’ lives, how some ways of engaging families are more pronounced than others, and ways to apply what the students have learned to their own practice. Overall, three main learning themes emerged.
- The need to expand and reimagine educators’ ideas of where family engagement takes place. Through the case discussion, the course participants began to see the value of moving away from school-centric family engagement processes to creating opportunities for families to have multiple opportunities to practice family engagement—in schools and in community spaces like libraries and afterschool programs.
- More work needs to be done to reach out to families. The group agreed that connecting with families—especially those that are the most underserved and sometimes the hardest to reach—is an important way to create equity within our schools.
- Family engagement is everyone’s business and requires a systems approach. Educators recognized that family engagement is about relationships and is often complex. They agreed that there are a lot of people—from school support staff, to teachers, to school leaders—who need to be involved in building relationships with families.
Final papers from the class covered a variety of areas critical to family-school-community partnerships.
Jenny Tuten is associate professor of literacy education at Hunter College School of Education. Her scholarship is focused on the assessment and instruction of struggling readers and writers, the preparation of effective literacy teachers and coaches, and the development of responsive professional development models to improve literacy instruction in urban schools. She is the co-author of the recent book, Crossing Literacy Bridges: Strategies to Collaborate with Families of Struggling Readers.