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As schools debate reopening, parents are called to be partners

Dane Tomlin, Josiah, Xavier
Dane Tomlin and sons Josiah, 8, and Xavier, 13 working at their dining room table last spring.

Parents were thrown into helping more with their children’s educations in the spring, but they will need to be partners to teachers going forward.

Previously, we looked the impact of education under quarantine from the teacher perspective. In this article, we look at virtual education from the parents’ side of the screen.

Iris Pinkney and her husband Dane Tomlin live in Newark, New Jersey, and like many professionals during the pandemic, have been working from home: she for Blue Cross Blue Shield and he for Home Depot. They have two children, Josiah, 8, and Xavier, 13, who finished out their school year, also at home. Tomlin and the boys sat together around the dining room table for big chunks of each day, while Pinkney worked in a temporary bedroom office.

During the pandemic, parents have been called upon to partner with educators in an unprecedented way, navigating not only reinforcement of their students’ learning objectives and instructions from teachers, but the technology as well. This relationship, formed out of necessity in the spring, could well continue into the start of the new school year in the fall and beyond, given schools grapple with how to ensure continuity with education while the health crisis continues.

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As a new school year approaches, there’s plenty of room for debate about reopening during the coronavirus pandemic.

Sherman Whites, a director in Education at the Kauffman Foundation, is already looking ahead to the start of school in the fall with the expectation that parents will need to take the role of “quasi-instructor” for the foreseeable future. “It is now more important than ever that parents establish bonds with their child’s teacher, to help navigate the process of learning and to tend to the student’s social and emotional needs, which will certainly be exacerbated by not being in a physical classroom,” Whites says.

Pandemic aside, many parents are interested in this increased partnership with teachers and want to pursue heightened involvement in their children’s educations moving forward. Even with that desire, there are challenges in parents taking a more active role if they are fortunate enough to have work that accommodates that, but even more so if their work is less flexible.

Last spring, Pinkey and Tomlin were among parents fortunate to be able to take time to work with their boys. During the school year, they set aside Friday afternoons to do something off-line, like cook together in the spirit of science or old-school home economics. They admit the idea of acting as teacher was more appealing when the teaching was on their terms.

We [parents] have to be involved a lot more, which is kind of weird for us because we’re parent advocates anyway, so for us to be involved more, it’s like, really? But I come to find out that we actually do need to be involved more.

— Dane Tomlin

Pinkney says, “Just finding a day to do something that is still educational but fun, so that when we look back we can be like, ‘Yeah, we taught you that.'” Yellow rice is one of Xavier’s favorites, so one Friday Pinkney showed him how to make it.

“We have to be involved a lot more, which is kind of weird for us because we’re parent advocates anyway, so for us to be involved more, it’s like, really?” Tomlin says. “But I come to find out that we actually do need to be involved more.”

Former teacher Laura Gilchrist knows the family through her ParentCamp meetings she now hosts online once a week. Gilchrist is the vice president of the Kentucky-based nonprofit which is a partner of the U.S. Department of Education. ParentCamp unites parents, teachers, and the community through discussions of education-related topics in an open forum. All meetings are free to the public and announced through social media.

“Parents are leaders in their kids’ education. They’re the first and main teachers of their kids, and they want to partner with teachers,” Gilchrist says. “And teachers and schools want to partner with families, but they don’t have a good way to do that right now.” She sees a path toward that goal, however.


Tomlin and Pinkney found several positive takeaways during the spring shutdown, and one of those was increased awareness of what educators handle on a regular basis, which has made space for a different kind of empathy. While acting as surrogate teacher, Tomlin started to see his children through different eyes – the teacher’s. His younger son has an attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD diagnosis, and in the past, teachers mentioned that he fidgets, wants to talk to his friends, and has trouble focusing.

“Before it was like, nah, my kid’s probably not doing that, that’s not happening. Maybe the teacher is singling out the wrong kid. Now it’s like, okay, I get it. I understand,” Tomlin says.

He says that seeing those behaviors will position him to better partner with their children’s teachers moving forward, because he better understands what teachers deal with every day.

Gilchrist says that in her 23 years as a teacher, as well as in her work with ParentCamp, her experience is that the longstanding school model is one based on compliance. That is, teachers tell parents what’s happening at school, and the parents do their best to comply and help their children comply. She says she sees it in parent-teacher meetings, in which teachers present information, while parents sit in rows staring straight ahead, without engaging in a dialogue.

Tomlin and Pinkney says that they are pushing against the compliance system right now concerning the planning of the next school year.

He says his family and others want to be included in that planning and not just comply with what a room full of board members decides on, because they know what they and their children need.

“Educators don’t know they’re in this system of compliance that is setting them up to fail from the beginning,” Gilchrist says, which impacts teachers’ ability to partner with parents. “You’ve got to change the game. You’ve got to have times when you can come together and everybody has choice and voice and autonomy and the ability to have purpose, and it’s magical.”

In order to change what education looks like – virtually or in person – the information-sharing needs to go two ways, Gilchrist says. She says the core of that is about connection and interaction and building relationships, all of which are missing pieces in the classroom but exacerbated by the current virtual learning situation.

The thing that is needed before you can lean into any restructuring, or anything, is connection. To have connection, you have to come together in dialogue. We have to get people together. It can be physically, it can be virtually, but [parent and educators] have to come together in the conditions for connection.

— Laura Gilchrist
Former teacher, ParentCamp

“The thing that is needed before you can lean into any restructuring, or anything, is connection. To have connection, you have to come together in dialogue. We have to get people together. It can be physically, it can be virtually, but they have to come together in the conditions for connection.”

Pinkney says her insistence on inclusion paid off. For the first several weeks after their school closed, her children had been watching videos of teachers – not their own teachers, but people they hadn’t met. No interaction happened between students and their schools. She pushed for a personal touch, and the school responded. By the end of the school year, her younger child had Zoom meetings with teachers twice a week to go over concepts from the videos.

One on one

Jacob Schwartz’s son Campbell is 7 years old and attends Crossroads Academy Central Street in Kansas City, a public charter school. Like Tomlin and Pinkney, Schwartz now works full time from home and had been very involved at his child’s school before the pandemic.

In the absence of a qualified educator, Schwartz spent the spring coaching Campbell through learning to read, write, and count – challenging for someone who’s not a teacher, but a software engineering manager.

“Maybe it’s that age, maybe it’s my kid, but it does require an adult to sit there with him while he’s doing it the entire time,” Schwartz says.

And that got him brainstorming a solution.

“How many tens of millions of people are unemployed that aren’t usually unemployed? And people can get trained to be a paraprofessional in a matter of two or three weeks,” he says.

For a couple of years, Schwartz had been volunteering as a reader at his son’s school during his lunch hour and observed the value of giving children one-on-one time; working with his own child during the shutdown has only highlighted the importance of that attention, and he wonders how many children aren’t getting it from anyone. What if some of those unemployed people, or working professionals willing to volunteer could virtually meet with students to give them one-on-one time?

To realize that vision, Schwartz is working with several local organizations to build a program for volunteer tutors.

“Campbell’s getting that from me, but I’m his dad, so it’s not quite the same. I think if we had something like that with all of these kids, even virtually, I think that would be immensely helpful,” Schwartz says.

It takes a team

One of the unexpected positives that might emerge from parent involvement may be the values parents are demonstrating to their children.

Gilchrist says that goal of bringing together teachers and parents and ending one-way communication is making space for the invested adults to truly trust each other. The effect of that, she says, is that “everywhere kids turn, they’re surrounded by people that are connected and caring. And when that happens, what flows through all those connections is love, support, and opportunities.”