Beyond Our Walls: Community Connections to Support Families

by Carly Spina

Our students and families must know that we, us educators are connected to our communities and that we can serve as a bridge to support them in getting connected, too! 

Even families who have been in the same town for years may not know what services are available to support them. In fact, most social service agencies will share that one of their biggest challenges is getting in front of the people who need them the most. 

Many services are dependent upon federal or local grants, or are created after a surprise jolt in funding or a large donation. If you don’t have a direct audience with the families who are in need, it can be difficult to share this type of information. Because of this, it is even more important for us as educators to be in-the-know. 

Oftentimes, it only takes one connection to an agency to be linked in to other resources. For example, families who are current clients of your local food pantry are able to benefit from several other partnerships and services, including clothing closets, school supply drives, and other events. It’s important to have our families accessing local resources like this because it opens doors to a lot of other great events and opportunities that can support them and their children. Each food pantry banks on networking and forging partnerships with other local agencies, so it is critical that our families know how easy it is to access them. 

I’ve had families who were fearful of showing up to places and filling out paperwork. I even hate going places and filling out paperwork, especially if I don’t know what to expect or it’s a new situation. Why not offer to meet them there for their first initial visit? It’s helpful for families to have a familiar face to greet them as they enter a new place. It provides some comfort and some help in navigating something new. 

It has been very beneficial for me to be involved in these different community organizations. When I see families at a community event, it provides a sense of connection and comfort to have familiar faces around. It also shows the families that their school cares about them. I love being able to use my bilingual language skills to translate at events, or to give high fives to kids when they’re picking out their new backpack at a school supply distribution event. 

How do I get involved?

You may be asking, “How am I even supposed to know what’s out there? I just started teaching in my community!” Try these four very simple things: 

  1. Start researching 
  2. Utilize your social media networks
  3. Get on the phone
  4. Volunteer!
  1. Start Researching

Begin with a simple internet search of resources available in your community. Start small. Find a youth-centered organization. Find out what their mission is, what their goals are, and ask to set up a meeting. Most agencies are happy to share their stories. See if you can volunteer at an event so you can meet more of their team. Then, report back to your school district. Now you know what they’re about and how they can support the local youth in a new context! Next time a need arises at a parent-teacher conference, you will have a direct line of contact in which to connect your families. 

  1. Utilize Your Social Media Networks

After your internet search is over, find those organizations on their social media feeds.  It is much easier for organizations to post a quick update rather than update their entire websites. You’ll get the most up-to-date information about events going on, or upcoming workshops that they host that your families may be able to join. You’ll also have a direct line of communication, so go ahead and introduce yourself in the direct message links, and ask if there are any pieces of information that you can share with families in the community! 

  1. Get on the Phone

Sometimes, there’s no better connecter than having an actual voice-to-voice conversation. People love to talk about their passions, and the energy you will get on the phone will give you a glimpse into the organization. Plus, you’ll be able to gauge how your family will be received if they ever call them. Be prepared with a list of brief questions (like, What does your organization do? How can your group help families? What fees are associated with your services? What if a family on free/reduced lunch needs help from you?). Keep a notepad handy to write down your findings, and then go back and share with your colleagues and families!

  1. Volunteer 

While you are doing your local searches, find an organization that speaks to your interest. Are you an animal lover? Find a local rescue to support in your community. Start volunteering with them by being their social media coordinator and post cute pictures and brief bios of animals in need of homes, or be a dog handler at an adoption event on a Saturday. Chances are, you will start to meet like-minded folks and you’ll start building up a network of folks who love to help their communities. Chances are, when you are in need of socks for your students but you yourself are low on funds (hello, teacher salary!), you will have a few friends who may be able to support the need by either purchasing it themselves, or they will share with their networks.  

You must be able to network and find a community of supporters to help you. It is very humbling to admit your limitations when you want to change the world and have a positive impact. The fact of the matter is, no one can do it all, but everyone can do a little. Allow yourself the opportunity to build your community of supporters, and practice sincere gratitude. 

Opening up yourself to this support will allow you to have an even bigger impact than ever. It will also serve as a constant flow of inspiration for you, which you need, too. When you see the ways in which communities come together to support a class of students, a small group of students, or even just one student or family, you will be moved beyond words!

Local Heroes

Sometimes, and for various reasons (especially in today’s political climate), students are taught to fear people in uniform. Upon seeing a uniform or a badge, it may evoke bad memories or even a traumatic experience for students and parents. While we may not fully understand this (maybe we have not had similar experiences), we must be as compassionate as we can. 

There is an ongoing need in this country to build relationships with our police departments. We can see examples on the news of things gone wrong. This impacts entire communities and it leaves broken trust that lasts for generations. 

Building relationships is a two-way street. Our police departments need to understand our families. Our families need to understand our police departments. 

By having open and honest conversation with our students, we can begin to understand their fears. By being open and supportive with our families, we can begin to open lines of communication. 

My own students and I have done this in a few ways. 

  • We have made multilingual holiday cards and sent them to our police departments. 
  • We have tweeted them to ask them questions about their jobs.
  • We have invited them to our school to play soccer with us.
  • We invited them to attend our career fair and teach us about their jobs.
  • We have asked them how helpful it would be to be bilingual in their profession.

My students have received a special visit from the daytime commander of the police department, who spoke to the students honestly about how much she valued their bilingualism and was jealous of their linguistic skills and abilities. I want to pause for a moment and repeat that again--A police commander shared that she was jealous of my bilingual third graders. WOAH. I wish you all could have been in the room to see what an impact that had on my 8 and 9-year-olds. Jaws were dropped open, big eyes looked around, and huge smiles took over shocked faces. 

Our police department just recently posted a holiday video on their social media outlets saying “Happy Holidays.” Sounds nice, right? The kicker was: the officers and dispatchers did it while representing all the languages of the department. Upon showing this to kids and families, they felt understood and connected in ways they never had before.  

While building positive interactions cannot change history or traumatic events, creating some simple moments can help in the beginning stages of partnerships.  

Youth Organizations

If you’re lucky enough to serve in a community like mine, there is a lot of support available to kids in the community. Check out if your town (or even a neighboring town) offers a youth organization where kids can play in a safe space, receive tutoring/mentoring/counseling, take fun youth group trips, or participate in local service learning opportunities. 

Local Faith Communities

No matter what denomination or religion, congregations are full of people who are ready to love their neighbors. Student-made greeting cards to all faith-based communities can go a long way in beginning relationships or just simply spreading joy and kindness! It can also be a great way to teach children to be a loving neighbor and respect others’ differences. 

Many faith leaders are service-oriented and want to support local communities. Find out about what their congregation supports currently. Ask for a tour of their space. Ask questions about ways they support their members and neighbors. 

Local businesses

Whether your town is full of mom-and-pop shops and family-owned restaurants, or big box stores and corporations, you have a whole community of potential partners that you may want in your corner. 

At some point in a student’s educational journey, they are asked what they want to be when they grow up. Kids may dream of being a professional soccer player, dancer, lawyer, or construction worker. They may aspire to be a housekeeper or work at the local grocery store. Kids may dream of aspirations outside of their immediate family’s careers, but they may not know about all the avenues and pathways out there. Our job as educators is to develop their skills and talents, let them dream, and show them their potential while also respecting and valuing all the contributions that each pathway make! 

I know how frustrating it is to be an undervalued teacher. Yes, I have had lots of those little moments. Like the time where I attended a fancy event where everyone had an MBA from a prestigious university, and they told me “how cute” it was that I was a third grade teacher. I didn’t tell them that my master’s degree was just as “cute” as theirs, but I digress. 

I share this little nugget only as a reminder that we all know what it’s like to feel undervalued or disrespected because of our career path. I also share this because I want all of us to be mindful of how we have conversations about careers with our students. Do we discourage students from pursuing careers that don’t make “enough” money? Do we sway kids into thinking that being a doctor or lawyer is more dignified than being a writer, poet, mechanic, chef? Are we influencing kids into thinking that one career is more important than another? 

Exposing kids to different careers and talents can be the moment that inspires a child and it’s a lot of fun, too. By inviting local experts into the classroom (either in person or virtually through Skype or a phone call), we can have our kids peer into the world of another. We can hear the first-hand experience of struggles, hardships, success stories, and perseverance. We can hear that adults have likes and dislikes in their jobs. We can hear how adults prepared for their current roles and what their future dreams are as well. Having honest conversations like this with adults can be very empowering for kids! 

I  try to sneak in a few extra questions that empower my linguistically diverse students. One of my favorites to ask is, “Would speaking another language help you in your current job? How?” The more my students can hear the message that languages open doors, the better, especially if I’m not the only one saying it! 

By creating a friendship with a local expert, our students can learn diverse perspectives, develop empathy, and observe lifelong learning in action. Later on, when we’re learning about angles in math class, we can call our friend the hairstylist and talk about shear angles or our friend the civil engineer who can talk about the amount of acute angles in his parking lot design. 

Public Library Connections

Many schools have positive relationships with their local libraries. It would be great to continue nurturing these partnerships and encourage our library specialists to talk to parents about how easy it is to get a library card. If you have linguistic assets other than English, can you offer to lead a story time in a language other than English? Does the library boast collections in multiple languages? Do parents know about fun events happening at the library? 

Dream Aloud

As you make new friends and get to know your neighbors, don’t be afraid to dream aloud. Sometimes the best initiatives, programs, or success stories start with an idea shared among friends. Dream and laugh over coffee. Exchange ideas and swap stories over lunch. Spend a few extra minutes of fellowship after a meeting. Dream big for kids. 

Practicing Gratitude

When someone you’ve networked with has shown you kindness, compassion, or support, you must acknowledge them. Celebrate them by writing a heartfelt, handwritten note, and mail it to them. Post it on social media and tag them--show your network (and theirs) the impact they’ve made! Send a letter to the organization or business. Show a picture of the items that were donated in your classroom. Highlight the box of socks that kids now have access to in your classroom. Show those toothbrushes that were sent in by a friend. Print out a picture and attach it to your thank you card before mailing it to the business. This way, the person who took it upon themselves to show support can hang it up in their office, and smile each time they think about how one small gesture made a huge impact. 

Final Thoughts

Some people may argue that this “isn’t our job.” This is better left to parents, social workers, or the social service agencies themselves. I strongly disagree. It is everyone’s job to serve children and support families. It does not matter what our titles are--it is our job to advocate, lead, and connect! Just in the same way that all learners are our learners, all families are our families. 

We can’t be child-centered if we don’t support families. 

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