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Back-to-School Tips for MMSD Parents with Privilege

Public schools in Madison will be in session again soon and the many articles, social media posts, and other sources of advice for families heading back to school abound. But one area of needed advice often seems to be short in supply: How do parents with privilege – by race, class, language, heteronormativity, etc., and their intersections – prepare to be in public school without messing it up for everyone?

To help meet that gap, Families for Justice is offering parents these considerations:

1. Think about what you really want for your child from school, and be ready to remind yourself of this.

When asked, many parents highlight things like “to be a good friend,” “to enjoy learning,” and “to know and appreciate people of different backgrounds.” And parents with privilege say they want schools that work for everyone and nurture the well-being and brilliance of all students. But if you are a parent with privilege and are not reflective or are feeling stressed or uncertain, your actions sometimes suggest priorities that revolve entirely around your own child’s success and experience. This can look and feel like wanting your child to be the “best,” or hoarding opportunities that will advantage your child for later life. When parents with privilege give in to these perceived pressures and act as though public schools should be designed to benefit them and their children foremost, this diverts time, energy, and resources from our actual goals and sets up the school system to continue to underserve others.

2. Take stock of your privileges and what this means for your influence in the school setting.

If you are white, cisgender, heterosexual, college-educated, middle or upper-middle class, speak English fluently and without an accent, able-bodied, neurotypical, older than 30, Christian, are documented, and/or are connected to educators in your personal networks, you bring advantages in any school space you enter, whether you want to or not. Your concerns and ideas will likely be taken more seriously and responded to with less resistance, and this may make it harder for school staff to recognize, value, and act upon the demands of other parents, even when their priorities are more important. And, let’s be clear, these privileges interact and compound on each other, so the more privileged identities you hold, the more undue influence – and potentially harmful impact – you may have.

3. When you feel the desire to intervene, always ask yourself first, “Is this about my child or about all children?”

Despite our values, good intentions, and priorities for our children, parents with privilege will often disrupt what happens at school when they have a concern for their particular child. Maybe you feel your child is not being challenged academically or recognized for their strengths, or their favorite activities are not being offered by the school, or they were disciplined in a way that you thought was unfair. These can be valid concerns. But unless you can say with certainty that the core issue is one that affects other children too and in a way that has a negative impact, you are risking the diversion of school’s time, energy, and resources to your child and away from other children. (Note: If your child has special needs, answering this question may require more care. See #5 and find a trusted friend you can talk to more about this.)

4. Get real about what you can offer your school community and what you cannot.

We know that public schools have systematically underserved many who are not parents with privilege: Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC), lower-income families, English Language Learners, children with special education needs, LGBTQ families, and others. Knowing this, do you, as a parent with privilege, have the knowledge, ideas, and strategies for making schools work better for all? No, you don’t. But you have other things you can offer, especially if it is provided in response to and in support of the leadership of those who do have this lived experience. This may be money, time, particular skills, or talking with other parents with privilege. And when parents with privilege contribute in ways that support other parent leaders we all benefit. BIPOC parent and student leaders in Madison and beyond are calling for restorative responses to behavior (not punishment), more culturally-relevant teaching, more opportunity for multilingual language learning, a diverse and representative teaching force, improved and free school meals… things that will enrich everyone’s schooling experiences!

5. Recognize and tend to your relationships with other school parents.

Parents can make their schools better places when they are connected to each other and coordinating their efforts. How can your relationships to other parents at your school be improved? If you do not have relationships with BIPOC parents or other parents with backgrounds or experiences different than your own, there may be ways to build or strengthen relationships authentically. You may broaden who you talk to and listen to at school events (virtually or in-person) or at pick-up and drop-off. You may be able to support parent affinity groups from afar, like supplying snacks or lining up childcare, in ways that are responsive, valued, and build trust over time. Recognize and care for your relationships with other parents of privilege, both so you have trusted people you can turn to about whether and how to intervene with your school (#2) and so you can call in other privileged parents as needed.

6. Be humble, breathe, and accept the ups and downs of the school year.

Parents want their schools to be a place of thriving, both for their own children and all children. For parents with privilege, this often means stepping back to listen to BIPOC and other parent leaders, recognize how you can contribute, and take responsibility to follow through. This requires humility and, often, slowing down, and accepting that you will experience ups and downs as you try to decenter yourself and put your support behind those who should lead. And as you do so, you will likely mess up. Draw on your parent relationships (#5) to figure out how you can pick yourself back up, learn the lessons you need to learn, and move forward as a better contributor to the school community.

Header photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

Families for Justice is a multi-generational network of people in Dane County working to dismantle white supremacy through multi-generational community organizing and direct action. Read more about us on our main webpage.

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