Break the Cycle: Approach Education as a Community

Education is Indian country’s civil rights issue of the generation. With the right tools parents can become empowered advocates for their children. If a plumber fails to fix our dishwasher we fire them. Yet, if a school fails to educate our children, we faithfully see them to the bus for 13 years. Our schools and teachers provide a service, but a school’s established power dynamic often makes it challenging for parents to engage as equal partners.

Our children are first enrolled in the school of life with parents as teachers and elders as professors of culture. Our knowledge of education is thousands of years old—a teacher’s is at most a few decades. Our children do not fail because of apathy or lack of ability. They fail because they resist the assimilation of the culturally biased education system. We all know students who can clearly explain how their curriculum is not engaging, relevant, and teaching styles are not feeding their curiosity.

Many elders mistrust schools because they remember boarding schools. Parents today have also been failed by school and bring a modern distrust of public education. It’s time we break this cycle. We encourage parents to communicate effectively and reaffirm their role as child advocates. Parents can commit to the idea that they can make a positive difference in their child’s education, have the confidence to ask questions, and explain their child’s learning style. Communication must be regular and clear from both sides.

Teachers desire support from their disengaged Native parents. Teachers usually call to express long-standing behavior and academic concerns often too late for students to close the gap. These calls are defeating, but parents can share the burden with the teacher. Parents should ask such questions as: “What are my child’s strengths? How well does my child develop relationships? How do you make the lessons engaging? What accommodations or support is provided?” Questions like these develop partnerships between teachers and parents.

Communication requires maintenance including providing teachers up-to-date contact information. People may miss a phone payment or move, but it is unacceptable to be unreachable. Tell teachers how, where, and when they can reach you and request the same from them.

It can be difficult to understand the language of education jargon spoken by schools. This language barrier often makes homework a frustrating task for parents. Frustration should inspire opportunities to contact teachers and ask for clear instructions, its relevance, rigor, and where to find support. Parents should also ask teachers to explain their grading system, online grade access, and classroom expectations they can support and model at home.

Advocacy starts at home and any parent can do it. It’s time we break the cycle of disengagement and establish our community approach to education in the mainstream. It’s time we challenge the power dynamic by defending our children’s civil right to rigorous and culturally relevant education. Schools provide a service much like other skilled workers. Parents who communicate with schools should expect to be an educated and informed partner.

Jerad Koepp and Jason Medina are certified teachers in Washington State. Medina is a career and technical education teacher and Koepp is a middle and high school social studies and history teacher. Both have committed their careers to Indian education.