Pushor underscores importance of establishing meaningful family engagement

Column: 
June 13, 2018

Keynote presenter Debbie Pushor made an impassioned plea for educators to become part of what she referred to as a “gentle revolution.” The presentation was part of the three-day Walk Alongside forum held at the University of Saskatchewan.

When you hear a professor in the Department of Curriculum Studies speak of a revolution, it might cause people to raise an eyebrow.

Yet, that was at the heart of Debbie Pushor’s impassioned keynote presentation at the Walk Alongside: A Parent Engagement Forum conference. Well OK, just to be clear, she alluded to her goal as a “gentle revolution” since it is after all, an empathetic educator we’re talking about.

Make no mistake, Pushor and other like-minded colleagues who attended the three-day event at the University of Saskatchewan are unified in their conviction that greater, authentic parental engagement is seen as critical for the future of public education, and thereby student success.

“We need that voice at the table, and it’s important to understand that expertise is a critical piece. We need to do a better job of talking with parents rather than for them or at them. That’s what I’m hoping we can achieve,” Pushor said in an interview prior to her keynote, which culminated with a standing ovation.

As a mother of three adult sons, as well as one who has been involved in the PreK-12 education sector from teacher to principal, Pushor has been able to see this through both lenses, and it has become an integral part of her focus at the university level.

Recalling her own experiences the first time she went to school with her then young son (she had been an educator prior to that), Pushor said it struck her how schools were not necessarily inviting places for parents, and thereby did not encourage their participation.

“We need to move from school centric to family centric. Teachers need to remember it is not your classroom; it is a public building. Most parents place their trust in the teacher and they aren’t looking to push the boundaries that exist, but we need to make some fundamental changes and unpack the story. Teachers claim the space at school and then we tell families how it is going to work. By having authentic family involvement, we can have the best of both worlds. As teachers, we don’t have to give one up to get the other,” Pushor insisted.

In her presentation, Pushor, with the aid of visuals, confirmed how little schools, and by extension education, have changed in the past 50 years when compared to how telephones have evolved beyond recognition.

“We just keep doing the same thing and we don’t see that as problematic, but our world has changed and in education we’re not changing at the same pace,” she said in calling for the aforementioned gentle revolution.

Although Pushor suggested that currently there are random examples of where this is happening, it needs to be system-wide across the province in order to be effective. “That’s my goal and hope.”

In both the interview and subsequent keynote, Pushor emphasized the importance of building genuine relationships and a sense of trust between teachers and their students’ families.

Two important building blocks, as she sees it, involve doing a better job of preparing teachers when in university and then later incorporating home visits.

“This comes right back to what we do in this building [College of Education]. We are sending teachers out there without the required background in terms of this type of engagement.

“I’m a big proponent of home visits because too often in the current model, we–teachers and family members–sit around and are scared of each other. We need to build trust, and we need to do this in a different, more meaningful way.”

Armed with research showing the effectiveness of home visits when they were introduced at a Sacramento high school in the United States, Pushor indicated that over the course of a school year it is manageable to arrange such visits. Her contention is this would be far more beneficial than the perfunctory, five-minute teacher-parent interview.

Aware that this is akin to “outside the box” thinking, Pushor’s assertion is that “the box is broken, and we need a different box.

“I know that some teachers aren’t as receptive to this as others, and some might be frightened by it or feel infringed upon, but from my experience their attitude changes when they understand it more fully.

“A child’s education begins at birth and lasts forever. So it starts at home and it’s important for us to honour that. Schooling is an important part, but our role can be alongside the child and the family. Sometimes that can be a struggle, but the parents need to have an authentic and meaningful place that is not contrived. Parent engagement can happen at school and away from school. When parents are involved in the on-school landscape, we learn from each other and it’s important work. We all want the best for the student.”

According to Pushor, the current less-than-stellar graduation and achievement rates among First Nations and Métis students in particular is a stark example of why improvement needs to occur.

“Involvement is a different concept than engagement. We often stop there and think we’ve arrived, but we have not had the impact we’re looking for in terms of student achievement. If we are committed to engagement, it’s about making a moral commitment to having a different relationship, and that’s when we will start to see results happening.”

Pushor said, “we have to ask the hard questions of one another and challenge the current way of doing things–to break the rules in a good way. Let’s take on these challenges and I think we’re on the verge of great things. But we’re not going to get the change we want if we keep doing the same things. We need to get to that place together,” she maintained.