Real Talk About Parent Advocacy

It’s been said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Sometimes I feel like parent advocacy in education is the world’s longest case study in the history of insanity.

If you’re one of those folks who think parent advocacy is a cute little add on to your education policy discussion — trust me, I’m about to get real adorable.

I get calls all the time — from superintendents, heads of schools, social justice organizations — you name it — often with the same question: “Why won’t parents engage with us? Why won’t they get involved?”

The answer is usually pretty simple. They don’t like you. They assume negative intent. They still carry the memories of all the ways education failed them in their own experience and those ghosts remain in the classroom. They remember what it feels like to barely survive their educational experience — forget succeeding or thriving. The relationship with you is broken, and frankly, they’re not interested in what you — even with all your good intentions — have to say.

Just because people are poor, doesn’t mean they are stupid. It means they lack money and resources. They don’t engage with teachers, principals and school systems of all types because the relationships are fundamentally broken.

You don’t respect us. You think you know better than we do about what’s best for our kids. You don’t like us, patronize and talk down to us. So in return, we don’t like or respect you too much either. That’s how relationships work.

If you expect us to embrace your ideas, you need to build a relationship with us first. You need to give us a reason to trust you. A reason to buy what you’re selling.

Those of us working on education transformation and equity need to get real about parent advocacy. Parent advocates and organizations are not a “nice to have.” And we’re not props. We’re a critical part of the discussion and should be recognized as respected peers in education policy discussions. Period.

I can’t tell you how many education conferences I’ve gone to where I’ve been forced to sit through people telling me that teachers are the most important part of education. I get it. Teachers are important. Principals are important. Administrators are important.

But let’s be clear: the most important people in education are our children. That’s the reason why we do this work.

Losing sight of this fact is at the core of how we lost our way in the traditional district school system. Instead of building a system based on what’s best for children and produces the best outcomes for them, we spend all of our time negotiating contracts that make life as easy as possible for the adults running the system bankrupting our schools in the process so they don’t work for our kids. Teachers should be paid well. Respected. Given the resources they need to be successful. But repeating this mantra that ADULTS are the most critical part of our education system is incredibly problematic.

And if we’re being completely real — the fact that adults are given more consideration in education than children is the reason why parents won’t engage.

So what exactly is parent advocacy?

Parent advocacy is the radical notion that I get to have a say over what happens to my own child. That public policy directly impacting me and my children should include my perspective.

I know. Crazy, right?

Parent advocacy is not using me as a prop at your fancy press conference or a fancy rally with fancy jumbo-trons run by fancy white dudes with no children.

Now if the school tells me to go, I may show up at your event because I’m afraid you’ll be mean to my kid if I don’t do what I’m asked — but I won’t stand up and fight for you or build a movement with you. And frankly — these groups seem to just be recreating the same experience we have already experienced in schools. We know you’re not really that into us and you don’t really care what we think — so we’re not really that into you either.

I know, I know. But YOU’RE different.

Do you know how many times we’ve heard that before? And why do you think parents even know the difference between YOU and the last group of folks who came through with a GREAT NEW IDEA. Half of these folks don’t even bother to consider making contact with parents to get them on board before already trying to change the classrooms and policies that impact our children for the majority of their waking hours. Seems pretty disrespectful to us.

Here’s the deep dark secret: none of these amazing things we’re trying to do in education are going to work unless you have parents on board.

So let’s get to the core reason why parents won’t engage. Why they won’t participate.

Often people will say to me, “Wow! Massachusetts Parents United is taking on a lot! How can you talk about building safer neighborhoods, affordable housing, food stability AND equitable access to education all at once?”

Those are the people who clearly don’t get it.

This is what parents have to take on EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. Parents don’t get to choose whether they have the capacity to be worried about whether their child is going to catch a stray bullet walking down the street or whether they’re going to be able to afford the rent this month.

We have to worry about BOTH. ALL OF IT. All the time.

You want me to talk about my child’s reading proficiency scores — but I’m consumed by the fact that my SNAP benefits are about to run out and I’m not sure whether I have enough milk to last through the next week. You want me to focus on what YOU think is important without understanding the context of what is important to me.

All of these wonderful strategies you are attempting to implement in the classroom will fall flat if the child you are attempting to teach is hungry and worried about whether the landlord is going to come by and scream at their mother for not making the rent again. It’s just not happening.

And then we judge parents for “not caring” enough about how our children are doing in school. “They just don’t care.”

Is it parents who don’t care? Or is it you?

People are literally just out here trying to do the best they can. Having just “survived” their own school experience and are now trying to piece together a better experience for their sons and daughters.  

If you want me to focus on engaging in advocating for my child’s education — take some of these other issues off my plate. Give me the space, the time, the capacity to be able to have a conversation about what is happening in the classroom. Show me you have my back and I’ll have yours — and I’ll be willing to use my power as a parent and a constituent to fight for change.

My children are exactly that — mine. I have the right and the obligation to have a say over every damn thing that happens to them — in my own home and while at school.

So please stop patting us on the head and applauding us for “getting involved.” We are involved. These are OUR children.

And here’s another secret: We are going to make you uncomfortable. We’re going to introduce you to concepts, ideas, struggles that are unfamiliar to you and make you nervous.

And one other thing:

We won’t be coming with trackers, powerpoint decks or be speaking in paragraphs filled with eduspeak and policy jargon. But make no mistake — you will continue to bang your head against the wall wondering why this work will never come to life in a meaningful way until we start getting serious about bringing parents to the table in real and authentic ways.

Sure, you can spend $100,000 to buy full page ads in newspapers tomorrow morning. But I guarantee you that I’ll have a greater impact on an elected official by rolling up with 25 members of MPU and our babies to talk about what we’d like to see them fight for.

And until we start understanding this as a movement, we’ll keep getting the same results.

What do you think?

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