I’m thinking of Sherry Turkle’s wise insights into the “inner history of devices” as I take a personal look at the meaning of ‘parents as partners’ in our schools. Turkle’s The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit (1984), Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet (1995) and Alone Together: Why We Expect More Of Technology and Less From Each Other (2011) form a trilogy in which the eminent researcher of technologies poses questions on the limitations of connectivity in a ‘computer culture’. For her, the computer screen is a mirror which we have devised within a hall of mirrors that reflects back to us, at times, a distorted view of our own humanity. On the other hand, she warns that being a ‘luddite’ is futile and, in any case, technology is the ‘symptom’ of our problems and not the cause.
Turkle’s concluding chapter in Alone Together is entitled ‘Necessary Conversations’ around which she shows why the current moment, which she calls the ‘Robotic Moment’, should concern us. She explains how for all the software and devices available to us, we are not finding ‘the solution’ in them as we continue to look for authentic and intimate forms of companionship. Remarkably, the field of ‘sociable robotics’ can now provide us with robots which respond emotionly to us. However, as Turkle argues, providing a technological solution to the difficult and challenging social problems of affordable care for children and the elderly only amounts to a ‘better than nothing’ answer.
Personal experiences of welcome and alienation…
“Together may we give our children the roots to grow and the wings to fly.”
– Quote on the card received from our granddaughter’s daycare staff last Christmas.
As the first-born child of migrants, I experienced my parents struggling to learn English throughout my primary school years. I didn’t put this fact together with why I never saw them attend a single school event or sports day until much later. It was just my life: the fact that my dad had a tough job, trying a decent living by working away from home on D9 Caterpillar bulldozers on WA farms and my very young mother looked after three spirited children, maintaining the garden and general house repairs. That’s not to say that I felt neglected or that I was particularly mindful that ‘Australian’ mothers attended concerts and annual sports carnivals. I just knew that whatever was going on at home for my parents being a ‘new Australian’ took up all their time. Besides, I received a lot of kudos, not to mention independence, in acting as their translator: one of my first writing jobs, when I was 7 or 8, was filling out my dad’s time sheets.
Jump forward 25 years: I’m a mother myself and through the separate efforts of my hardworking parents and mostly excellent teachers, who never met each other except on the day of my enrolment at the beginning of my secondary schooling, I have completed my university studies and I’m working as a secondary teacher. I have no language barrier in meeting up with my children’s teachers. I attend every concert, school assembly, sports day and parent-teacher event that I possible can. I help in the school canteen and volunteered my drama teaching expertise in my children’s classrooms. Ironically, what I discover is that, while I’m different from my parents in fronting up to the school, I carried their anxiety that I will not be understood. To my surprise, schools look radically different for me ‘as a parent’, on the receiving end of teacher judgements about my children.
Now jump forward again another generation: I’m walking with my daughter, taking her three-year-old to daycare. My daughter has been fortunate enough to find a place for our little one at a centre which is part of a University training facility for childcare workers. From the moment that she makes the first inquiry about a possible place, she is given every consideration. Emails are personable and clear. The interview process is even better. It’s not hard to see that even if she had not been successful securing a place for the child, the encounter with staff is positive and uplifting. I’m writing this blog a year and a term later, and we have lost count of how many times we have had a reason to praise how we have been welcomed as a whole family to celebrate our three-year old’s developmental milestones: my favourite moments have been seeing the little one persevere and get her ‘monkey-bar award’, given to children who practice and make it across the Kindergarten’s monkey-bars. It is also common practice at the centre that a child’s portfolio is kept updated with clear criteria shaped by learning outcomes. By December 2015, my granddaughter’s portfolio contains 136 photographs!!
WILLKOMMEN, BIENVENUE, WELCOME!
Having directed Cabaret, I can tell you of the power of the opening song WILLKOMMEN. The Emcee, with his painted face and crisped pronunciation, tells the audience how the Kit Kat Club is warm and welcoming, while the rest of the world is gripped by a winter of discontent.
Willkommen, bienvenue, welcome
Fremde, etranger, stranger
Gluklich zu sehen, je suis enchante,
Happy to see you, bleibe, reste, stay…
For all his words, however, his deeply cynical message is not lost on the audience: inauthentically welcoming someone is immediately understood, as one of those basic fight/ flight responses. Before there were elaborate institutions under the rule of law, our ancestors depended on ‘manners’ and hospitality, the personal policing of behaviour to ensure the safety and well-being of the visitor. Any over the top staging of emotion, like in the case of the Emcee, may be sophisticated but, in reality, it offers neither a sense of safety nor well-being for anyone: in fact, its purpose is to disconcert.
The song speaks to me about what I’ve come to understand about how schools cannot dress up their welcome to parents, either from the ‘front office’ or through the school newsletter. A welcome must come from the heart of the whole school organisation and it must be offered authentically in dozens of small ways, as well as on formal occasions.
Reward for the distance travelled
As an education consultant, I’ve passed through many front offices and signed my name in many visitor’s books. One visit to a country school in Western Australia, as part of an ‘assessment and reporting project’, occurred soon after my dad’s retirement in the late 1990s. It was a town he knew well, so I was telling him about my visit, planned for the next day.
Having been a hard worker all his life, he was not taking to retirement graciously and my mother suggested he might accompany me on the long drive.
When we arrived at the school, he informed me that he would take a good walk around and come and wait in the car until it was time to go home. To be frank, I hadn’t thought much about what he would do when I was working in the school. When I meet the principal I drew her attention to my father and his plans to come and go from the car in the visitor’s bay during the day.
The principal jumped up immediately, went outside and invited my father into the staffroom. He would be her guest for the day.
So there was my father, who had never visited a school with me when I was a child, sharing the staff room with me now. I could tell he was nervous. He had an overly polite way of listening when he struggled to understand the language. At the same time, I know that the inside of the school was a revelation to him: the talk on the way home was all about the happenings in the staff room.
Not long after, dad was diagnosed with an aggressive form of lung cancer and he passed away within the year: so, the trip to the country school became one of those precious memories I hold of him in his final year of life. On a bigger theme in our lives, him as a migrant and me as a first generation Australian, it was also a kind of compensation for those times in my childhood that he didn’t share in my ‘Australian’ education.
Such is the road to becoming educated from wherever you start off in life: the desire for ‘something better’, the preparedness to give something of yourself and the welcome your receive as you see, hear and feel more than ever before.
Visual Reference List
Edutopia’s Parent Partnership in Education: Resource Roundup makes very interesting reading, albeit from an American perspective. Resources by Topic are:
- Why Parent Involvement Is Essential
- Opening the Lines of Communication
- How Families Can Take Action
- Learning More About Educational Topics
- Ideas for Preventing Summer Slide
- How Schools Can Build Strong Family Partnerships
- Additional Resources on the Web
I was particularly inspired because of my background to the YouTube playlist that brings together case studies of inspirational practices. One video is from NBC Today reporting on a parent mentoring scheme which as been going in a neighbourhood of Chicago with predominantly Hispanic speakers entitled “Putting Parents to Work in the Classroom”. However, don’t stop there… the playlist involves a whole 5-Minute Film Festival on Parent-Teacher Partnerships