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Imagine being a Black Teacher of the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing, and a family member of a student walks in distrustful of you – without cause. Immediately they demand to know if you know American Sign Language (ASL), request your credentials, and question your professional background. This was commonplace for me. Parents would ask, “You’re the teacher? Really? What made you get into this?” They would persist in questioning me – with great scrutiny and overly critical of my educational and professional expertise. What may have begun as a matter of miscommunication and misunderstanding quickly became one of contention, microaggression, indignity, and great toxicity. 

It is not often that you see a Black teacher leading a classroom. Research data indicates that Black teachers account for merely 6.7% of the 3.1 million teachers in the United States. Similarly, Black teachers comprise only 9.7% of the teachers of deaf or hard-of-hearing (D/HH) students. As one of three Black teachers for the Deaf or Hard-of-Hearing students in the fifth largest school district in the country, I was often challenged in my instructional leadership. On countless occasions, I would not be recognized or addressed by education professionals or families as the teacher because they assumed I was the paraprofessional for the classroom. I quickly learned that I needed to be intentional, proactive, and consistent in communicating with my students’ families.

As a Black educator, I know that effective engagement with families begins with building authentic relationships and establishing a foundation of trust. To help our students thrive and foster positive relationships, we must use what Dr. Marion Smith, Jr. calls an “equity LASIK.” When we assume a LASIK of cultural consideration, we no longer have the option to take the ‘lens’ off as we lead and engage with others. We use the LASIK vision to consistently engage in equitable, cultural, and linguistic responsive communication and engagement.  

As we commit to lead in excellence and equity, the following strategies are proactive ways that educators of color can prioritize and facilitate communication with diverse families – noting that educators of color’s voices, tones, and intents are often misunderstood – even in silence, resulting in unforeseen consequences, miscommunication, and microaggressions:

Ask about how to best communicate with students’ family members or caregivers

Each family may have a different preference for communication. I’ve had families who prefer telephone communication rather than email correspondence. While still, other families prefer to communicate within the platforms that schools and teachers utilize. I recall leaving messages on a communication platform for a student’s parent, only to learn later that the parent would have appreciated a telephone call or an email. Invite family members into the classroom environment or conduct an online circle with their children and ask both the students and the adults about communication preferences.

Taking the time to discuss communication preferences with custodial and non-custodial parents can create a collaborative and welcoming environment despite challenges and custodial orders. Allowing families to shape communication facilitates and fosters stronger family engagement. This supports and enhances student learning. It’s also key to mitigating barriers to communication because, as Black Woman Educators, our intentions are misconstrued as rude. Allowing family members and caregivers to share their communication preferences sets an intent that creates openness.

Begin initial communication with a positive interaction 

Ensure that initial communication includes your educational and professional background, expertise, and level of experience. On a weekly or monthly basis, communicate with students’ families to discuss their child’s positive character traits or brilliance. I recall calling a student’s mother, and instantly the mother assumed I was calling to communicate about a challenge I was having with her child. I realized then that this is the typical communication families receive from educators.

Early contact with families that highlight student strengths establishes a positive rapport that makes communication easier in the long run. Initiating positive communication and interactions early on can establish the ‘tone’ of all future communication and ensures that healthier teacher-family relationships are built. Therefore, educators can proactively address situations and unforeseen consequences as they may appear effectively. Often Black Educators’ communication styles are perceived as aggressive when in fact, it is passion and empathy that drips on our every word. Proactively engaging positively can counter the negative “aggressive” label that smears us before we enter a room or space.

Don’t delay communication

If you consistently see a child not handing in assignments or experiencing behavior changes, have a conversation with the child about how or what needs to be done to support them in completing assignments or addressing the changes to behavior and immediately engage the family in the conversation. Many students become overwhelmed or frustrated once they miss a deadline and prefer not to hand in assignments because they won’t be given credit. Some students aren’t certain why they are demonstrating specific behaviors and need adult support in navigating changes. Families prefer to know about challenges sooner than later, so they may address them immediately. Lean in and listen to learn more about the challenges and how you can support the student and family to navigate the challenges impacting the student’s learning. While in our silence, as Black woman educators, we can breathe, it is often perceived as us being sneaky and/or withholding information. It is essential that we don’t delay communication with families so that any misunderstandings and miscommunications can be pre-corrected. 

Consistent, proactive communication with students’ families is an essential component of positive family-teacher relationships, as well as student success and achievement. It provides perspective and insight and allows an opportunity to understand and empathize with families, especially during challenging times that persist for all of us. These are good practices for all educators and can help foster poster relationships with families. They may also particularly help educators of color make their lives easier and effectively address potential issues of miscommunication, microaggression, and diverse family engagement. However, it is imperative to note that we are never responsible nor held accountable for the distrust, bias, and negative narratives we deal with from families. Ultimately, we deserve the same dignity and respect as White educators. 

Felicia Rutledge serves as a Regional Multi-Tiered System of Supports Coordinator at University of Nevada, Reno, supporting educators with implementation of tiered supports. She is a Teach Plus Nevada Senior Policy Fellow and a Nevada Succeeds InspirEd Global Fellowship Critical Process Friend.

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Felicia Rutledge, Ph.D. serves as the Director of Nevada Special Education Technology Assistance Project...

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