School Interrupted

From Schoolcentric to Familycentric: A Gentle Revolution

October 24, 2022 Debbie Pushor Engagement Group.
School Interrupted
From Schoolcentric to Familycentric: A Gentle Revolution
Show Notes Transcript

Debbie is a mother and educator with parent engagement as her driving focus. Having experienced schooling as a student from Grade 1 through doctorate, as a public school teacher, consultant, principal, senior administrator, and now as a researcher and teacher educator, Debbie is working to create a place and voice for parents in their children’s schooling. 

In this, the first episode of the School Interrupted podcast, Debbie will introduce herself, her body of work, and what’s to come in the rest of the series. Together, Debbie and a group of her incredible graduate students have put together an inspiring, informative, challenging series that we know you’ll love. Ready to join the gentle revolution? 

This podcast is brought to you by Debbie Pushor Engagement Group Inc. 


Pushor, D. (2017, Winter). Familycentric schools: Creating a place for all parents. Education Canada, 27(4).

Pushor, D. (2012). Tracing my research on parent engagement: Working to interrupt the story of school as protectorate. Action in Teacher Education, 34:5-6, 464-479.

Pushor, D., Ruitenberg, C., with co-researchers from Princess Alexandra Community School. (2005, November). Parent engagement and leadership. Research report, project #134, Dr. Stirling McDowell Foundation for Research into Teaching, Saskatoon, SK, 79 pp.

Click here to visit Debbie’s website where you’ll find more information about her, her students, and the incredible work she is doing.

*Intro Music* Welcome to School Interrupted. Join us in rewriting narratives surrounding parent engagement in schooling and education. Let's talk about making a shift to familycentric schools.

Debbie: Hi, I'm Debbie Pushor and this is the first podcast in our series: School Interrupted. I think I'll begin by telling you a little bit about myself both personally and professionally. I am the mother of three sons, all adults now. And it was really becoming a mom that caused me also to go back and do my doctoral work and to become a researcher and a teacher educator in the area of parent engagement. I'd been teaching for 12 years before Cohen was born, and 17 years before he entered the formal school system. During that time, I had worked as a teacher, I'd worked as a consultant, a school principal, I'd worked in senior administration in Edmonton Public Schools in Alberta. And I even taught for a couple of years overseas with the Department of National Defense. Because of all of these experiences, I felt like I knew quite a bit about schools. But as I've told this story many, many times, taking coal into school, as his mom on that first day was unlike any other experience of school I'd had, he was very warmly welcomed into his kindergarten and into a school. But I felt like I had no place that I was just in the way with my double wide stroller with my two twin boys in it, and that my presence there was an important and wasn't even particularly welcomed. And I have to say that that was really an awakening moment for me, one that really caused me to think about the place and voice of all parents on the landscape of schools, and what that experience was for them, particularly if they weren't educators, or from the dominant culture or the dominant language group. And so as I said, decided to make this then something I wanted to learn more about, and ultimately, now, something that's become my life's work. In all of those years, from having children to taking them to kindergarten to walking alongside them during their years in elementary school in high school.

There's certainly been things that have changed about school. But I actually feel that a lot has stayed the same as well. In my early work, during Cohen's early years of school, I wrote about school as a protectorate structure. That's how it felt like to me then, and I have to say, it's how it often feels to me still today. The term protectorate describes that notion of educators coming into a neighbourhood into a community, claiming the ground that we call school, establishing the policies, the practices, the curriculum, programming, and so on, and then telling parents and families and kids what was going to happen. It's about a privileging of expert knowledge. Albert Memmi wrote about that badge of difference that educators wear that badge, that is their education degree, maybe their master's degree, that sets them apart from the other people in the lives of children who also educate them, but without expert knowledge. I think often of a mom in a First Nations community saying to me one day when I was doing some presenting there, with tears in her eyes, I can't be engaged in my kids school. I don't have the right clothes, and I don't have the right words. And I remember the feeling in the pit of my stomach when I heard her say that. And I felt so often as a mom, even though I had the right words, and I had the right clothes, that I too was standing on the outside. 

And so that's really been it A push, I guess for this work for looking at schools for looking at how they're structured for examining who's marginalized and who has a place in voice, and how we begin to change that. I think a part of that work comes in regard to rethinking what it means to be a professional. I remember as a first year teacher, very young, very insecure, feeling like I did not know enough yet to be a teacher, how I went out and bought a new suit, a new teacher suit for my first meet the teacher night. And I was really hoping that my suit would give parents a sense that I knew what I was doing, and that I had the expertise to teach their children. What I didn't realize at the time was that suit was a barrier, it was a divider, it was a push away between them and me. And what I learned over the many years of making friendships with families coming to know parents, that Respect is earned. It doesn't come from my suit, or the clothes I wear, it doesn't come from my degree or my title or my position in the hierarchy. It comes from my authentic and genuine care and concern for them, for their children, for their families, for the community in which I work. So you're here in various ways, I think, throughout the podcast series, an examination by many of the podcasters about what professionalism actually means and how is professionalism more about building relationships than building walls. I know there's often a concern by teachers that they don't feel they're as respected as they should be in society. And that our profession isn't always valued. And I often think about a doctor that I had at one point in my life, her name was Vicki. And she called herself Vicki, she invited me to call her Vicki, she wore her street clothes, just like I did no white jacket, we sat at a round table in her office, looking at one another, sitting side by side, not across a desk. She spoke to me with care and concern, she looked in my eyes, she heard my story, she gave me time to talk about why I was there and what I wanted to explore with her.

And just in that notion, I think about all of us as professionals, doctors, dentists, teachers, to be a professional is to be relational. And so that's what this podcast series is about, at least a part of what it's about. So when we're looking at parent and family engagement in this podcast series, you might be saying, why does this work matter why this out of all the things we could be spending time on or thinking about why parent engagement. And to me, parent engagement is an issue of rights. It's a human rights issue, parents have a rightful place in their children's schooling and education. All parents, regardless of the color of their skin, the country they were born in, whether their English is accented, whether they live in lower high socio economic conditions, all kids parents have a rightful place on the school landscape. I think parent engagement is also an issue of student outcomes. We know as school systems that we can do better. We know particularly that we can do better for some groups of children. We're meeting the needs of some of them better than we are others, with our protector at structure with our Eurocentric ways of being and knowing with our hierarchy. We are failing some of our kids. And that's something that we just can't do any longer. I think a third reason for me why this work matters is because what the research tells us. Again, if you've ever heard me speak or been in one of my classes, you'll know that I say continually citing Karen Map from Harvard Graduate School of Education, that there were 50 years of research evidence that prove the impact of parent engagement. Parent Engagement is one of the key factors in influencing student's success in school and in life. So it's one of those things that we do need time for that we do need to embed in the work that we do and the way that we do it. It isn't an add on or an extra. It's the very core of the work that we do. So given what I've shared, and what I've given you a glimpse into in regard to my beliefs about the place and voice of parents in schools and in education generally, let me tell you a little bit about the work I do as a researcher, as a teacher, educator, and as an advocate for parent and family engagement in teaching and learning. 

Way back in about 2009, I had a sabbatical and it gave me some time to develop courses on parent and family engagement. I began teaching those courses in 2010. And I've been teaching them once every two years, until the present, I just finished teaching them a couple of weeks ago again this summer. One of the courses is called RE presenting families in schools. And it's a course where we really explore notions of family, where we look at the discourse about families, where we look at hegemonic notions of families whose families count whose families are valued, the difference between real families and ideal families and the standards that we all hold ourselves up against. We look at topics in this course, such as stories of families, versus the stories families tell of themselves. We've look at family structures as all being valid and valued. We look at how we come to know our families, how we live and work with them in order to know them rather than staying on the school landscape. We look at coming to know families different from ourselves in whatever way that might be.

In the second course, engaging parents in teaching and learning, we look at parent engagement as a philosophy. And as a pedagogy. We look at it not just as a practice, or an activity, or as an event, something that occurs once or twice in a year. But we look at as a belief system, and a way of enacting those beliefs in practice. And I guess when I talk about parent engagement, I really want to take a moment and pause and say why do I use the word, parent? I know that in the field many, many people have used the word family and I are now seeing family engagement. And I understand why. I guess what I'm really feeling is important is that rather than dropping the word parent, we redefine it, we expand our notions of it. Parent is both a noun and a verb, it's an act, an act of caregiving. And we know that many, many people in a child's life or use life parent. So when I use the word parent in my work when we use it in these podcasts, we're using it to mean any person who has a primary caregiving role in the life of a child. And we know that might be an auntie or an uncle or coco Hora mushroom or grandma grandpa. It might mean someone who works in a group home, or who Foster's or who has adopted that child. We know that children come into families in many, many diverse ways. And we want to honor that and when we say parent, we include everyone in that definition. Why don't we drop the word and use family? Think about this. When we talk about schools, we also talk about teachers. We also talk about principals. We also talk about custodians and office assistants and teacher assistants. We know that within a school there are a number of roles. Each one is distinct, important and different from the others. In a family the same is true. There are a multitude of roles. Some are more caregiving, and some are more care receiving. But when we wash away the term parent, we wash away that very special very particular view. very sacred role in a family. So you'll hear me say parent engagement. And I mean, any one who engages in the act of parenting, regardless of their relationship with the child or how that relationship was formed. Sometimes I'll talk about family engagement. And that's what we want. Everybody engaged all members of that family, whatever form that family has. So thanks for giving me a minute, just to explain that I know, I know it's important.

So often, when I offer these courses, I offer them as an intense summer format, I offer them in a two week block full days, evening Saturdays, where we stay with the topics of families and parent engagement without leaving them. And so what's integral to those courses? What's integral to that structure? First of all, we build a safe community, we work really hard at building a community building connections, making our classroom community a place that's safe, to risk, to be honest, to be open to be vulnerable to know one another deeply, to share food to share time to share experiences. That's critical to this kind of learning when we look deeply inside ourselves and ask questions about who we are in the world and who we want to be. The next part of the courses that I think is also integral is the introduction of concepts that perhaps educators haven't thought about prior to that time. Like I said earlier, hegemonic notions of family, or family stories versus stories of families, or the difference between parent involvement and parent engagement. So we introduce those concepts through some really strong, thoughtful academic readings, articles, book chapters, books, novels, that enable us to really explore those concepts in depth. Alongside that work, we place community and family experiences. It's so important that we learn with and from families, rather than learning about families from a distance or in the safety of a university classroom. What that means is that we engage in cooking for cohesion experiences, where we're eating lunch and hearing the stories of newcomer families. We're walking in the core community, learning about the strengths and the gifts of that community, were visiting community organizations, were working shifts in community clinics, or soup kitchens, were attending and taking part in a First Nation sweat lodge, I could go on and on with those experiences. We're stretching ourselves, we're going off of the campus, into the community into homes. And we're going in places that ask us to take a risk to be vulnerable to do something we haven't done before. And then I think the fourth part of this whole experience is that we do a lot of unpacking debriefing, we come back together, knowing each other feeling safe, able to take a risk, we talk about the readings, what they meant to us what they evoked or provoked in us, what our hearts are telling us what our heads are telling us, we lay those alongside the experiences. And we try to bring new meaning to those experiences by laying them alongside the concepts. So that package of four, there's an intensity to it. I guess what we're really trying to do is engage Mind, Body Spirit and emotion. 

This work isn't just about knowing parent engagement. And what the research says if it was, we'd already have enacted it years ago. It's about so much more than that. It's about changing our hearts. It's about engaging our spirit, our sense of social justice, our care for those who might be marginalized. It's about feeling the work in our hearts and bodies as well as in our minds. After those two summer courses, students then take a third course with me if they choose to do that, and it's a practicum in parent and family engagement. We usually leave a little bit of time between the intensity of the summer courses, giving educators a chance to go back into their schools to try some of the things that we've talked about to have the class concepts play out for them, to see what's working to see what might be challenging, what obstacles they might be facing that they didn't anticipate. And then we come back together. And we ask ourselves big questions. So what, and now what we share with each other what our experiences have been. We talk about our obstacles, the new questions we have. We brainstorm and problem solve, we support one another. We visit each other schools and classrooms in order to provide mentorship and support. And we look at what are we going to do with our learning? We look at it individually in the context in which each of us is working. And then we look at it collectively and say, What difference can we make with this work? That started the very first year, I taught the practicum and parent and family engagement. It's kind of a funny story, I think. I had asked the students in that course the graduate students to write what I called narratives of practice, write me a narrative that tells me what you've done, what's worked, what hasn't what you're thinking about now, how your understanding is shifting and changing. And when that work, began to come in, to me, it was good. I thought, wow, this is amazing. And so I propose to the group that we put all those narratives together into a book, and that we publish our work for others to reflect on to read to learn from and so on. And they were hesitant at first, no one believing they could actually write a book are that we were actually already in the midst of writing a book. So we had some fun with those conversations, reading different children's books to motivate us to take on the challenge. And that's what happened. It happened organically, the group wrote, portals of promise, transform, transforming beliefs and practices through a curriculum of parents. And it was published by sense publishers in 2013. Two years later, the cycle continued. Another cohort of students came into the practicum, and parent and family engagement. And this wonderful teacher named Ryan bounced into the class and said to me, Hey, Deb, this is of course, we write the book in write. And while it was organic, the first time I didn't really expect it to happen again. But with all that enthusiasm, we wrote a second book with our second cohort. And that book is called Living as map makers charting a course with children guided by parent knowledge. It also was published by sens publishers now brill, in 2015, our third cohort decided to hold a parent engagement forum walk alongside a wonderful, wonderful conference here in the province of Saskatchewan. The fourth cohort did a video series care as a bridge between us, which is available on my website for free if you happen to be interested in that. The fifth cohort is also writing a book on systematic parent engagement. The work that you're engaging in now with these podcasts is the work of cohort six, where we're really looking at making a move from school centric thinking to family centric thinking in schools. And we just had summer courses, as I mentioned again, and so watch for us in the future. We have a new conference coming in late May, early June of 2023, tentative title at this point, but it may be called walk alongside international apparent engagement Think Tank. So that gives you a pretty good sense of who I am of what I believe in of what I do, of why this podcast series. I've been working in the field of parent engagement for more than 25 years now. And really trying to continue to develop concepts to extend them to enrich them, and so on over all of those years. Thus, the focus on family centric thinking in this podcast series.

I've had the privilege of walking alongside 10 amazing educators as we've worked on this podcast series. Their work is situated right from the early years through adult education. Some of them I've known a really really long time I taught them as undergraduate students, and then again as master's students. others I met as I worked with them in their master's program. So it's such a pleasure to produce this podcast series with them, to learn with them to learn from them to extend my own thinking because of their practices and their new ideas and their work in the schools and contexts in which they're located. So let's talk about what those terms mean school centric, family centric. That's what we're talking about. When we talk about school interrupted, we're interrupting the school centric historic nature of schools. That's what we're hoping to do, trying to do. So Michael Lawson, in 2003, wrote about this notion of a school centric way of thinking. And really, I think what that means is that it talks about where power lies, and what the hierarchy of schools is, who decides for children and families and whose knowledge counts. So a school centric structure is one in which what the school wants for children, what they determine is important is that the center of everything that happens, they set the agenda. They decide when, where and how they decide when parents can come and go from schools and what the role of the parents is going to be. A school centric structure typically involves parents, by asking them to do things like sign their child's agenda book, to help with their child's homework, to come to meet the teacher night or attend parent teacher conferences. The parents are really recipients of knowledge or assistance to the school in achieving the goals and outcomes they've set for themselves. I talk about parent involvement is warm body activity. It doesn't take a parent to do all of those kinds of things. It just takes a capable adult. What school centric thinking does is it privileges that expert knowing I talked about earlier. And it denies the fact that parents too, are holders of knowledge about children, and about teaching and learning. This is a historic structure. And I'm not blaming teachers, I'm not shaming educators for this, it's just the way it is. It's the historic structure that's developed over time that we've inherited because of industrialization, and so on. But now that we're conscious of it, we no longer have to stay with it. Either, we can change it. So we're wanting to interrupt the school centric nature of schools to put something new in place of it. And that something new that we're proposing is a family centric structure instead. So what does that mean? What does family centric mean? If we're being family centric, we're coming to know our families. Well, deeply. We're dwelling in with them, a term that I often use drawn from the work of Michael Polanyi. We're spending time in their homes, in cultural spaces in the community, to know who they are, what they believe, how they live, what their hopes and dreams for their children are, what their hopes and dreams for themselves are, what knowledge they hold, and so on. So our work when we're family centric, is to be the listener, to be the learner, sometimes to be the follower. 

And to walk alongside parents, that's something I've written about quite a bit as well to walk alongside parents, as they educate their children, as they realize their hopes and dreams for them. So think about it. When children are born, their education begins instantly. As the people in their lives, talk to them, sing to them, hold them cuddled them, as they nurture them through the days, weeks, months, years, as they teach them to walk to ride a bike, to sing, to play, to cook. So the education of a child begins at birth and lasts forever. When kids come to us in schools, they've already been educated for 3456 years. You And after they leave us at the end of their grade 12 year at the end of their high school experience or whenever they exit the system, they're going to be educated for parents for a lot lot longer. My boys are adults, I told you, and as they left home and applied for university or got their first car insurance or signed their first rental agreement, Laurie, my partner and I were the ones who were continuing to educate to help them with those processes that were new to them. So when we talk about walking alongside parents, we're talking about turning the hierarchy upside down, in a sense, saying that your job isn't to serve me as your child's teacher. My job is to support you, as you realize your hopes and dreams for your kids. My piece, the small piece I have in the 910 months year, maybe two years that I have with you, is in support of the big work that you're doing. So being family centric means honoring parents knowledge, the knowledge they hold of their child of how their child learns, knowing that child's history, knowing that child's present, who are the people in their lives, where did the books, they've read the songs, they know what languages they speak, what's their medical history, what makes them laugh or cry, what sues them when they're upset, or all of those things or parent knowledge, parents know rhythms, they know just like a teacher does, how long you can go before you need to give that child a break a snack, a body movement, when they're tired when they're hungry. Parents have broader funds of knowledge to funds of knowledge that come from their cultural context, the work they do their own lived experiences, the places they've been, the books, they've read, the movies they've seen, they have all of that to bring to their children's teaching and learning as well. So when we're being family centric, we're consciously honoring the learning that's happening in home community and spaces outside of school. And we're laying that alongside the learning that's happening in school. 

In the classroom, we're seeing that is continuous, as connected as one enriching the other, not one more important than, but both contributing to that child's growth and development. So when we honor parents, as educators, as the people who teach their children values, ways of being understandings of the world life skills, when we make that visible to parents, when we show them that we see all the work that we're doing, we're enhancing their sense of efficacy of being able to make a difference in the life and education and learning of their child. We're helping them to see the big job, they do the lifelong job, and we help them to see what the research tells us how much of a difference that makes to kids outcomes in school and in life. The other thing that being family centric means is that we bring that knowledge that people, parents hold alongside teacher knowledge to change what happens in schools. We use their knowledge to help us select representative literature. We use that knowledge to help us plan units of instruction on family or on celebrations. We ask them how math lives in their home in their culture. And we bring that math into our classroom math or curricular math. We use what they know, to shape policies to shape our programs, what we offer, to shift our practices to make space and place them voice for them in our classrooms and on our school landscapes. That's what being family centric means. It's a big shift.

I think the key with it is that it's a win win win. We know from the research that kids benefit when their parents are engaged in their learning. We also know that parents gain that greater sense of efficacy of feeling like they're making a difference of having the confidence to ask questions to be advocates for their Children to step in when they feel that there's more that needs to be done or when they have questions that are unanswered, they become more able to support their children, and more confident to do so. We also know it's good for teachers. The research is showing us that teachers who have these strong relationships with parents like their jobs more, they feel less stress and tension. And they stay in the field longer. So when it's a win, win win, we think it's a worthy investment. So maybe now you're asking, how do we do this? How do we interrupt the school centric way of being that currently exists to become more family centric in our approach? So in the next podcast, the one that follows mine, Michael Crow, shares a framework for family engagement that he learned from the global Family Research Project. And he speaks to three key elements of that framework, changing mindsets, building relationships, and transforming organizations, three really key elements. 

So for each and every podcast that follows Mike's, I invite you to ask yourself how and why the educators and parents are changing their mindsets about the place and voice of parents and schooling and education, how and why they're building relationships with one another and across what can be perceived in many instances as barriers. How are they transforming organizations to bring the walls of the protector down, even if it's in small ways. So after Mike's podcast in the series, Stacy Crowe, with her guest is going to bring a parent perspective, to talk about how her practice shifted when she became a mom, and how she's working to bring home and school learning closer together in the way that she thinks and in the things that she does as a teacher and a mom. In the next podcast, Randi Bender, and Andrea Neufeld-Rodda, two teachers who work together at a core community with a high indigenous population, do a really vulnerable look, have a very vulnerable conversation about their positioning in that school, as they challenged their own beliefs about kids and families, their own assumptions. And as they dismantled what they saw as a stances, maybe being white saviors in that school environment. Lindsay Monroe then talks about engaging with parents and curriculum and teaching and learning and that is such an important topic. We know that involvement doesn't affect student results or influence student outcomes in positive ways that we need more than involvement. We need parents engagement in the core work of the school that teaching and learning to make a difference. And that's what Lindsey focuses on with her guests. Katelyn Hopkins takes this engagement and looks at it particularly with newcomer families, and really emphasizes the importance of culture, identity and language of our families and in our schools. Tom Claxton then does the same thing as Katelyn, but puts his focus on our indigenous children and families, again, emphasizing cultural identity and language, but with a different membership within our schools. Rebecca Fisher's podcast comes next, and she talks about what happens with engaging parents through the use of technology. COVID was tough on all of us, but it brought us some gifts as well. And Rebecca shares some of the things she learned about engagement with technology using different online ways of connecting with parents and providing them with a view of their children's classroom and their children's teaching and learning. Haylee Olver stretches us too, as she talks about engaging parents in outdoor learning. Another outcome that was enhanced by COVID I think the fact that we were wanting kids to be safe and so we began taking them outside a lot more than we had before. And she really looks at that outdoor learning and daily outdoor learning she does with her children and how that learning those teaching opportunities teaching spaces can be co constructed with parents. Our last podcast by Jess wall is really a beautifully summative podcast. I think in lots of ways it brings together so many of the notions that each of the other podcasters has brought up talked about schooling and education looking inward versus looking outward, really summarizing that understanding of school centric versus family centric thinking. So she brings our podcast series, full circle. I think what I love about this podcast series about each and every podcast within this series, is the openness and vulnerability of the podcasters themselves and the guests that they invited to join them. This work is hard work, let's not pretend it isn't. It takes a change, not just in our practice, but in us. And each of the guests, each of the podcasts talks about that. I love the way that within the podcast, the stories that each individual shares is up their journey, where they're at today, with no journey being like any other. 

So what I think that does over the course of the podcast series is it offers us possibilities. It offers us ways of thinking new ways of thinking. It doesn't provide us answers, it doesn't try to continues to pose questions, great questions that are going to keep the podcasters the guests keep all of us learning and growing. In my work I've talked about how all of this has the potential to bring what I'm calling a gentle revolution. Right the words gentle revolution on a piece of paper, highlight the words "evol" in another color. And what's the word you see? Love. The core of this work is to make change to interrupt to put something new in place of what we currently have. But our intention and all of this is to do it gently to do it with love with care with respect for children, parents, families, and educators. Together, we can change the school landscape. We can interrupt school centric thinking and we can create family centric education. Please enjoy our podcast series. This is School Interrupted.