Kyle Miller is an Assistant Professor of Child Development in the School of Teaching and Learning. She has worked in a number of educational settings, as a teacher and student support coordinator. Her research focuses on lower-income families and strengthening the relationships between families and schools.
As an educator in Boston Public Schools, I spent a lot of time trying to better understand the home context of students and how to form stronger connections with families. As a teacher, I spent a lot of time talking to parents, but very little time listening. A few years in, I became a student support coordinator, and family outreach was a large component of my new role. It gave me the time and opportunity to stop talking so much and allow family members to guide conversations. It is truly amazing the information and insight parents will share when given the opportunity.
One topic that continuously emerged in conversations was memories of school. Parents would tell me stories of failing math, and explain why it now gives them so much anxiety when assisting their child with homework. Parents would talk about teachers informing them they would ‘not amount to anything’, and why their child’s school is now such a threatening place. Some parents would talk about how much they excelled in a specific grade, and how much they desire that same confidence boost for their child. I was surprised by how powerful and alive these memories were for parents, even after so many years. The stories were so pervasive, that it convinced me to study parental memories of school during my graduate training. My research reinforced what I learned in the field. Memories of school are often reactivated for parents when their children become students, and those memories guide their actions with children and create a world view of schooling and education.
Recently, a friend told me:
My husband was such a nerd in high school, and he can’t seem to get over it. He already told me that our daughter isn’t allowed to play an instrument or join the band.
Their daughter just turned three, and we both laughed about her husband’s position on their daughter’s future identity in school. While amusing, it is one more example of how our educational histories can guide our thoughts and actions with children.
This is not just a parental phenomenon. Teachers also bring their own educational histories to the classroom and the work they do with children. It is important for teachers to think about how their recollections of schooling may influence their perspectives on education and decisions they make. Recently, I brought this topic up with some of my current students at ISU. I asked them to write about a school memory. I just wanted to see what emerged as a memorable or meaningful moment. Stories ranged from leaving their mother on the first day of kindergarten, insulting remarks from a teacher, drama with their friends, embarrassing moments, struggling with certain subject, to receiving a special nomination or award. One story really stands out for me – I will try capture it in her words:
I moved to the U.S. when I was in fourth grade. I had very little English and just kept quiet most of the time. Every afternoon, the ESL teacher would come get me from class to help me work on my English. One day, as I was leaving class, one boy yelled, “Why is she leaving? Is it because she is stupid?” I was so embarrassed and I remember turning red. And, the teacher didn’t say anything! Then there was some bullying that started happening after that, because now I was pointed out as “different”. I guess it makes sense why I want to be a bilingual teacher. I want my students to be respected, not treated like that. I will never let other students treat my students like that.
I thought her memory was a beautiful example of how educational events can make such a lasting impact on our lives, and even motivate us to pursue a career or define the teacher we will become. There were many other stories similar to this student’s, and my pre-service teachers were able to recognize the links between their past and present.
School memories are carried with us throughout our lives, and they matter. We spend approximately 15,000 hours in school from kindergarten through high school. And, if you are crazy enough to become an academic, the hours are endless. Inviting parents to talk about their schooling, and recognizing our own educational baggage as teachers, is critical to the work we do with schools and teachers. These personal histories are an excellent starting point to create meaningful bonds with families. Schools have traditionally approached family outreach as a unilateral relationship, where information flows from the school to home, instead of a bidirectional process where both parties come together to support the success of the child. I hope we can encourage our future teachers to rethink the traditional model and help facilitate true partnerships with parents – including learning about educational histories.
Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot referenced parental memories in the first chapter of her book, The Essential Conversation. Her first chapter is called Ghosts in the Classroom, and provides some examples of how our pasts can resurface in parent-teacher conferences. I highly encourage you to take a look, and start thinking about your ghosts in the classroom.