Why families of color may feel uncomfortable communicating with teachers

ByAfrika Afeni Mills, MEd

Although life circumstances didn’t allow my parents to finish high school, they both earned GED certificates and created a rich learning environment for me and my siblings. I remember looking up at the bookshelves my dad put up in the living room of our apartment in Brooklyn, New York, and seeing books by W.E.B. DuBois, Lerone Bennett, Jr., Ntozake Shange, Eldridge Cleaver, and Alex Haley. 

Before kids ever set foot in a school, they have learned so much from their parents and families as their first teachers.

For example, my mom and dad were leaders of the tenants’ association for the building complex I grew up in, so I learned about community activism. They also taught me to love listening to stories and jazz, exploring our family history, learning about my own talents and interests, and so much more. 

In addition to providing a rich literary environment at home, my parents were actively involved in my education. They always commented on my report cards and participated in parent-teacher conferences. This strong example of informed advocacy made a significant impact on me as a student, informing my perspective as a parent and educator myself. 

I’m sure you already have and will continue to do the same for your children, though I know it’s not always easy. I want to highlight why some families of color (perhaps including yours) may feel uncomfortable when communicating with schools and teachers — and I want to encourage you as your child’s first teacher. 

1. Negative personal K–12 experiences

If you had bad experiences yourself as a K–12 student, it might be triggering to connect with your child’s teacher. If you or your family were judged, brushed off, or not taken seriously when you were a student, it’s understandable that you might be concerned about having the same experience as a parent. 

However, it’s important to know that there are educators who are aware of this history for some families. They are ready to support you as you work through the emotions that come with navigating your own school-related trauma, as well as the impact of institutional racism in schools and society. 

2. Negative messages about families

When I became a new teacher, and later on worked on teacher development, I unfortunately became aware of some negative attitudes that some educators have about students’ families. I often heard comments like: 

Parents are not educated enough to help their children with homework.

Parents are too busy to help their children with homework.

Parents don’t come to open houses and conferences, so they don’t care about their child’s education.

Some teachers certainly hold these beliefs. But there are many educators who fight against these negative messages, and who are excited to partner with you on your child’s learning journey. 

3. Concern about how teachers perceive families 

If you’re at the beginning of your journey as an advocate for your child and their learning differences, it can feel intimidating to talk with your child’s teacher.

There’s a lot of terminology to learn. There’s a lot to be aware of when it comes to ensuring that your child is benefiting from all of the learning opportunities they’re entitled to. It can be hard to avoid worrying that teachers may judge you for what you may not yet know about how to best advocate for your child. 

Yet I want you to know I have worked with many educators who are prepared to meet you where you are in your advocacy journey. They are here to support you as you build your awareness about your child’s learning needs, and bridge that knowledge with who you know your child to be. 

Like my parents, you have so much to offer as your child’s first teacher. Your voice is needed in the school, in the classroom, and as part of your school’s Parent Teacher Association and site council. No matter where you are on your journey, always remember that you are a vital partner in your child’s experience as a student. Your voice is powerful, and your experiences and perspectives matter. 

Explore strategies for parents and teachers to make sure families of color are heard by the school. And hear more from the author in this video on parent-teacher communication.

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    About the author

    About the author

    Afrika Afeni Mills, MEd helps educators develop and sustain student-centered learning experiences that are diverse, inclusive, and equitable.