Understanding vs. Appreciating

I read a case study this week that ended up leading to some great discussion with a few colleagues. The study told the story of a 13 year old Vietnamese boy named Khoi who had lived with his mother in Seattle for the last 8 months. Khoi was suspended from school for 5 days for standing too close to a fight. He clearly didn’t understand the rule and the only communication that the school attempted with his mom was a note (written in English) that was sent home with Khoi when he was suspended.

The discussion that arose with my colleagues about the study was focused mainly on what the administrator could have done differently. While specifics of the school and the situation are different than any that I’ve experienced, the principles that we can draw from the study (specifically principles for engaging and supporting diverse families) are still helpful.

And now for a list. I know, you were hoping that I’d turn this into a list. Here are four things that a school should do to engage and support diverse families.

  1. Communicate in the native language – Khoi was given the student handbook explaining the rules and policies at the beginning of the year. It was in English. When Khoi was suspended, he came home with a note for his mother explaining why. The note was in English. Khoi’s mother, who speaks very little English, wasn’t sure what to do with the note. I can only imagine how confused and frustrated Khoi and his mom must feel. Some of this confusion and frustration could have been mitigated if the handbook and the note home would have been in Vietnamese. Communicating in the native language, while certainly not enough, is a good place to start.
  2. Consider cultural barriers, not just language barriers – The case study explains that Khoi’s mom, like many others from Vietnam, had an ingrained fear of authority figures. This fear would definitely impact her comfort level approaching the school administration. If people at the school were aware of this cultural barrier and trained in how best to handle it, they could have made a specific effort to reach out and make Khoi’s mom feel comfortable.
  3. Seek Understanding not just Appreciation – The case study explained that the principal of Khoi’s school tried various ways to celebrate diversity including class cultural discussions and cultural food fairs. When reflecting on principal’s role, one astute teacher in the group said it like this: “He needs to work on understanding, not just appreciating.” I love thinking of it this way. The principal was trying to create several cultural appreciation opportunities (which is great) but he hadn’t taken the time to reach out and truly understand the uniqueness of this particular family’s culture.
  4. Develop advocate relationships – The principal can make sure that communication happens in the native language, and that cultural barriers are considered. She or he can also reach out to each family in an attempt to truly understand their culture. But the largest potential for impact will come with the development of family advocates. In Khoi’s case, there were some relationships that were already in place with a local community based organization set up to serve Asian populations. The principal of the school simply needed to partner with this group so that he could better understand, serve, and support the families with whom the group was already connected. If that group weren’t already in place, the principal should work hard to find and develop advocate relationships. This might mean reaching out to bi-cultural parents and connecting them with others. It might mean developing a more formalized system of advocacy in which each family has a designated advocate support.

No family should feel alone or helpless when it comes to their child’s education. We as educators have to work hard to make sure that the supports, systems, and relationships are in place so that families can feel connected and empowered.

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