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December 1, 2022
Vol. 80
No. 4
Leading Together

Powerful Partnerships

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Link with family support personnel to protect equity.

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Leadership
Leading Together: Powerful Partnerships - Header
Credit: PONOMARIOVA MARIA / iSTOCK
While it is often cited that home-based factors are, on average, the most significant influence on student achievement (Hanushek, 2016), research also confirms that high-quality teaching can supersede the adverse effects associated with lower parent education, less reading material in the home, and limited access to medical care, especially for students living with economic instability (Wenglinsky, 2002). We should allow nothing to get in the way of providing students with the high-quality teaching they need to succeed.
To be sure, teaching quality may vary within a school. But when teachers have time and support to collaborate on instructional topics—such as examining assessment data and student work or planning instruction with specific students in mind—they tend to make stronger instructional decisions and improve their practice faster (Ronfeldt, 2007). Further, effective collaboration among teachers makes it possible for each of their students to benefit from the expertise, experience, and diverse perspectives within the teaching team.

School leaders committed to equity must identify family support personnel and foster their partnerships with teachers so that students' nonacademic needs can be met.

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In schools that serve students living with economic instability, however, teachers' collaborative instructional planning time is too often hijacked by urgent problems related to students' basic needs. This ultimately does these students a disservice. Students living in poverty already experience enough forms of systemic inequity, as they are more likely to attend schools with inadequate per-pupil spending, outdated instructional resources, or a lack of highly qualified and experienced teachers. School leaders committed to equity must identify family support personnel and foster their partnerships with teachers so that students' nonacademic needs can be met without diverting teachers' attention from instruction.

Let Teachers Teach

High-quality teaching and learning begin with the relationships that teachers build with students. The information about students and their families that teachers strategically gather in informal and formal ways throughout the school year allows them to design instruction that makes learning relevant to students' lives and helps them get ready for rigor.
In the process of building their knowledge of students, however, teachers may learn about adverse conditions in their students' home lives—such as food insecurity, housing instability, and health concerns—that work against the students' readiness to learn. Kids can't learn when they are concerned about whether they have somewhere safe to sleep that night, and teachers can't teach while concerned about their students' well-being. It's excruciating to see these conditions and not address them. But when teachers take on challenging responsibilities that lie beyond their professional purview, they deplete the time and attention needed for the work that is uniquely theirs: Putting their specialized knowledge to work to help students become more powerful learners. This is where the inequity lies: Students who have the greatest need for teachers' attention to be focused on teaching and learning often have teachers who are taking on tasks beyond their sphere of primary professional influence.

Partnering with Family Support Personnel

As the pandemic has waxed and waned over the past few years, it has provided an up-close look at the conditions students must manage at home. Many schools have responded by hiring family liaisons, home-school coordinators, or social workers, or by assigning family support responsibilities to existing noninstructional personnel.

School leaders need to foster partnership routines that ensure the family concerns uncovered by teachers can be met...without diverting teachers' instructional attention.

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These individuals often do have the time, training, and information about community resources required to support families, but they do not always have the relevant information and family relationships that teachers have. School leaders need to foster partnership routines that ensure the family concerns uncovered by teachers can be met with support from these colleagues, without diverting teachers' instructional attention.
To make sure family support personnel form partnerships with teachers that keep instruction at the center, school leaders must address three common challenges.

1. Building Connections Around Trust

When teachers have been trusted with sensitive information about families' economic instability, they may feel reluctant to share this information. Family members, likewise, may feel hesitant, or even betrayed, if information they've shared in confidence reaches new ears.
However, if family support personnel can spend time in classrooms; join in team meetings where students and student work are discussed; or collaborate with teachers in planning for family-engagement activities like classroom open houses or family recipe swaps, this can help facilitate stronger school-family partnerships. It can help close any gaps families may feel between their primary point of contact—the teacher—and the support personnel prepared to offer resources that can help their home lives.

2. Time

Time is also a factor with facilitating partnerships. In the time it takes for teachers to track down the right person to adequately address a family's needs, it's often easier to do it themselves. Further, the needs of families living in poverty are often urgent, which creates increased pressure to secure a timely response. Going through a third person can feel like an inefficient game of telephone.
School and district leaders can help establish communication routines that support efficient connections with the right personnel and effective exchanges with timely feedback loops so teachers know someone is working on a solution and can check for status updates when necessary.

3. Lack of Confidence in Support Personnel

Teachers are in a service position. When they have a child who is suffering in front of them every day, the stakes feel high. If they do not have confidence that family support providers can meet their student's needs, they may feel a need to take the supporting role on themselves.
This tendency can be diminished when school leaders elevate the services and success stories of family support personnel. They might make time in staff meetings or space in newsletters for family support personnel to shine. Educating the faculty about the resources at their disposal or sharing success stories of families who are in a better place because of these supports will help build trust between teachers and these support staff.

An Eye on Instructional Equity

In schools where students arrive ready to learn each day, teachers can focus their time on the types of instructional activities that make them and their students smarter. Kids can't learn when their stomachs ache with hunger, and teachers can't teach when their hearts ache for their students. Schools need family support personnel to help with students' non-instructional needs. While many school leaders invested in this type of support during the pandemic, they should bolster that investment and safeguard instructional equity by supporting teachers and support personnel to play complementary roles, ensuring every student is healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged.
References

Hanushek, E. A. (2016). What matters for student achievement. Education Next16(2), 18–26.

Ronfeldt, M. (2017). Better collaboration, better teaching. In E. Quintero (Ed.), Teaching in context: The social side of education reform (pp. 71–94). Harvard Education Press.

Wenglinsky, H. (2002). How schools matter: The link between teacher classroom practices and student academic performance. Education Policy Analysis Archives10(12).

Jill Harrison Berg is a leadership coach, school improvement consultant, researcher, and writer committed to supporting education leaders to recognize and maximize the critical role of teacher leadership in ensuring instructional equity.

Berg is an educator of leaders at all levels. She began her career in the classroom, teaching students to be leaders who take ownership of their own learning and are a positive influence on others, then moved into supporting teachers and other education leaders to do the same. Berg earned her doctorate at Harvard’s GSE while working as a researcher with the Project on the Next Generation of Teachers. She was one of the first teachers in Massachusetts to become a National Board Certified Teacher.

 

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