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The Harvard Family Research Project separated from the Harvard Graduate School of Education to become the Global Family Research Project as of January 1, 2017. It is no longer affiliated with Harvard University.

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Sherick Hughes, Assistant Professor in the College of Education at the University of Toledo, writes:

One of the most important skills we need to develop in Pre-K–16 teachers is their ability to build on the knowledge that students bring into classrooms, particularly that knowledge which is shaped by their family, community, and cultural histories. My ethnographic research pertaining to this topic spans over 5 years. By studying multiple generations of Black families in the Northeastern Albemarle region of North Carolina, I search for family knowledge that can transfer into teacher education. I explore historical and contemporary family struggles and hopes regarding school desegregation. My research has uncovered the nuanced ways that families support their children’s education at home and how families teach their children to balance struggle with hope. I refer to such home teaching strategies as “family pedagogy.” What might teachers learn from the Black family pedagogy used by families to survive and “succeed” within and outside of school?

Family pedagogy is shaped by both spiritual faith narratives of hope and stories of struggle. Families maintain faith in a higher power to help them understand and navigate the hidden rules and norms of survival and success driven and accepted by school authorities. Families uphold a spiritual faith that learning to read and write is directly relevant to leading a holistic spiritual life. Families also tell stories of struggle and share hope-filled stories of how even in the face of adversity, members of their family were able to survive and succeed within the educational system that was not initially created to benefit Black families.

Teachers must come to understand the real lived experience of the families and children they teach. In my classes, I try to encourage teachers to think about how to set up plausible situations to give families a legitimate voice in their curriculum and unit planning. If they have not already done so, I encourage teachers to take the spiritual lives of families seriously as a key point of connection. Family voices can advise teachers on how to balance high stakes accountability testing with skills we also know children need to survive and thrive at school.

I now turn to naming and supporting the teaching skills that breed high educational performance by bridging the gaps that separate school and home. I call these types of teaching skills diversity capital. We already talk about the notion of teacher capital, which is the knowledge, skills, and dispositions to be an “effective” teacher. However, all too often this type of effectiveness is measured in a limited way and only highlights the skills teachers possess to help flagship students (students not from traditionally underserved communities) meet or exceed standards on proficiency tests.

Teacher diversity capital is intended to name the type of teaching enhancement that embraces emotion and drives teachers to seek new opportunities and ideas for building positive relationships with students and families from culturally diverse backgrounds. Diversity capital can in turn afford teachers the knowledge, skills, and dispositions needed for a sustainable commitment to, validation of, and exchange with culturally diverse students and families. I argue that teachers need support, motivation, and experiences related to cultures other than their own in order to engage in effective cross-cultural teaching. The families of my study note that “good” teachers already implement diversity capital. Thus, the term diversity capital is essentially my attempt to name good praxis.

It is often difficult even for good teachers to go out into the community to do the home visits that can build rapport. I advocate three family-specific alternatives to connect teachers with the primary or secondary caregiver(s) of each student at least once during the school year in order to offer positive information regarding student progress.

  1. Call each child’s family with positive information.
  2. Email each student’s family during the school year with positive information.
  3. Through email attachment, post office mail, or student delivery, send a positive message via audio or audio/visual medium regarding each student.

Finally, I also conduct critical classroom simulation exercises with general and special education preservice teachers to help them connect with the emotional-behavioral lives of their students. First, my preservice teachers do three focused observations of a child with heritage that is perceived as different from their own. I also encourage them to ask the classroom teacher respectful questions about the child’s home life and family life. In class, we work in groups to develop lesson plans that would complement that child’s learning interests without compromising other students’ abilities to reach their highest potential. I then have teachers role-play and critique lessons from the child’s and teachers’ point of view. In all these ways, I work to find and transfer useful information from family pedagogy that can enhance teachers’ development of knowledge, skills, and dispositions to work with culturally diverse students and their families.

Sherick Hughes
Assistant Professor
Department of Foundations of Education, College of Education
University of Toledo
2801 W. Bancroft Street
Toledo, OH 43606



Bonnie Rockafellow, Education Consultant for the Michigan Department of Education, writes:

One way to prepare teachers to work with culturally diverse students and their families is by developing teachers' communication skills.

To better understand the communication patterns and styles that emerge during parent-teacher conversations, I videotaped seven elementary school parent–teacher conferences in two Midwest school districts. The teachers were all experienced with over 15 years in the teaching profession. Of the seven families represented, six were Caucasian and one was African American. I conducted interviews with both teachers and parents prior to the conference. After the conference, I replayed the video and asked parents and teachers to tell me what they were thinking at particular points.

My analysis of the conference yielded two interesting findings. First, developing shared meaning between teachers and families is a complex process and requires both parties to recognize similarities and differences in perspectives. The more aligned the families and teachers were in their life values and experiences the more likely they were to develop shared meanings. For example, in one conference the mother had known the teacher as a family friend. This mother was able to take the lead in sharing information with the teacher. An example of a lack of shared meanings was evident when a teacher explained how one student was learning to read. The teacher referenced the skill of reading sight words while the mother was certain her child was sounding out words when they read together at home.

Second, in each conference a ritual was played out. Most often the teacher presented the information she had prepared and at the end of the timeframe the teacher would ask if the parents have any questions, and then close the conference. The result of the conference was most often a reporting of the school's information rather than an opportunity for teachers to meaningfully engage with families and listen to their suggestions and comments. Moreover, the conference language is often academic, directed by the teacher, with little opportunity for extensions or explanation from the parents. One teacher explained that her conferences took this structure because it was a type of ritual passed down over time. She said, “Everybody has been through school and expects it to be like it was when they were there.”

Teacher preparation courses need to incorporate more interpersonal communication skill building into curricula so that teachers are better prepared to develop shared meaning with families. Instructors can show videotaped interactions between parents and teachers to preservice teachers and lead discussions about the communication styles of the participants. Watching a videotaped interaction without the audio provides the teacher candidates an opportunity to watch body language and begin to see when participants are engaged or distanced by what is being said. Moreover, analysis of the transcript can help teacher candidates recognize that the message sent is not always the message received.

To break the ritualistic cycle of the parent teacher conference, teacher preparation specialists can also provide teachers with new communication strategies. For example, clarification statements like, “Can you help me understand” or “What would you like me to know or do to address the issue?” provide an opportunity for the teacher to hear the parents' concerns and invite them into a more generative form of communication. Teacher candidates do not need to leave preparation programs with the idea that they must be in charge whenever they interact with parents.

Principals and school administrators can help practicing teachers by providing additional preparation time for conferences. In that time teachers can review student progress and complete family profiles. Family profiles can help teachers become more aware of the limitations of the knowledge they bring to the parent–teacher conference. Teachers write down what is known and what is assumed about students' parents or families, including parents' education level, parents' employment and work hours, siblings, family members in the home, language spoken in the home, and years in attendance at the current school. These profiles can serve as a tool for teachers during the parent–teacher conference. Administrators can also allot more time during conferences so that teachers have time to listen carefully to the information parents bring to the table.

Bonnie Rockafellow
Education Consultant
Michigan Department of Education
P.O. Box 30008
608 W. Allegan St.
Lansing, MI 48909

Related Reading
Harvard Family Research Project. (2003). Questions & answers. FINE Forum, 7. Cambridge, MA: Author.



Eileen Kugler, speaker and trainer on building community support for diverse schools, writes:

It is important for teachers to seriously examine their own attitudes toward people who think and look different than they do. In the classroom, it's comfortable to call on the students whose opinions, speech, and attitude match the teacher's. But it's often the quiet students—feeling uncomfortable with a new culture and a new language—who need personal attention from the teacher to empower them to participate more fully.

Teachers must encourage students to express their own ideas, even if they are challenging to the teacher's own perspective. When I interviewed students from strong diverse schools for my book, Debunking the Middle-Class Myth: Why Diverse Schools Are Good for All Kids, they repeatedly emphasized that they were encouraged by their teachers to speak their minds, listen to others, and think critically in their classrooms.

Teachers need to analyze how they react to parents who don't act “right” in their view, moving beyond the myth that the only parents who care about their children are those who fit the traditional visible mold. While many immigrant parents don't feel comfortable at school, at home they are actively supporting their children's education—making sure homework is done, checking up on their friends, keeping tabs on their time after school, and helping them plan for the future. When you investigate beyond the surface, you find that these parents face similar parenting issues as their American-born peers.

Teachers also need to identify nonthreatening opportunities to welcome parents with diverse backgrounds to the school. At the end of a unit of study, teachers can invite parents into the classroom so the students can share their achievements with them. As opposed to the stereotype of not caring, parents frequently feel left out, just waiting to be asked to be involved.

Teachers must ask themselves tough, challenging questions about their expectations and how they respond based on them. Are classroom discussions dominated by students from mainstream American families who appear more engaged and have views closer to the teacher's? Are white, middle-class students chosen for select programs because their parents know how to advocate for them? Are students of color and those from lower-income backgrounds placed in low reading groups because their parents don't connect well with the teacher? Teachers need to move beyond stereotypes that may be grounded in their own limited frame of reference or myths about “good families.”

Eileen Kugler
Kugler Communications
Washington, DC



Andrew Schneider-Muñoz from City Year writes:

Teachers need to learn about the families and communities of the students they teach so that they can do a better job in the classroom.

For a little over a decade, I have conducted an ongoing field project on child-rearing practices in rural communities in Hawaii. Because I am not Hawaiian, I have found it important to show the communities I work with how serious and committed I am to knowing their culture and handling their cultural knowledge respectfully.

I would encourage teachers working with culturally diverse families to use ethnographic methods. Attending community gatherings and traditional events is one way to do this. Teachers might follow the ethnographic strategy of participant observation. In this way they are part of the action, alternating between being in the center of things and observing interactions at the periphery. It's important to notice who talks to whom in the community and who has the leadership for different issues in the family.

For example, in Hawaiian culture, the elders play a very important role in transmitting the cultural rituals of the community. This knowledge has translated into culturally-specific practice in the Hawaiian schools whereby the community selects an elder to come to the school every day, go into the classrooms, and give lessons to the children.

Even if a teacher can't become fully immersed in the community, he or she can listen carefully to the vocabulary of the community and the ways parents talk about schooling and the classroom. There is also an inescapable value to having an “every day” presence in the community, like buying groceries or going to church there. It's important to make a connection with families and communities and that the community views the teacher as a willing participant.

Andrew Schneider-Muñoz
Vice President of Research and Development
City Year
Boston, Massachusetts



Ed Greene from Montclair State University writes:

Teacher preparation programs should institute lifelong learning principles that encourage students to examine their values, attitudes, standards of acceptable behavior, and the ways in which these things influence their beliefs about teaching and learning. Because we live in a dynamic climate of demographic change, there should also be time devoted to examining issues of language, race, class, gender, culture, values, and beliefs. Faculty should be (or become) knowledgeable about these issues and include assignments that help them facilitate dialogue that deconstruct stereotypes and myths about families. Without such opportunities, future classroom practitioners may perpetuate victim blaming and deficit model approaches in their classroom and program practices.

Equally important, we all need to identify and use the strengths of the children and families we serve. Parents and other family members can be resources whose perspectives, perceptions, and concerns may often help reveal strengths that, too often, are overlooked. Students in teacher preparation programs must also learn how to develop and use trust-building strategies, and, if possible, experience approaches respectful cross-cultural dialogue.

What is described here is not a one-semester class or a single lecture on culturally diverse families. The related content and learning processes require time, study, and planning. Ideally, the knowledge, skills, and experiences discussed here should be explicitly woven throughout the teacher preparation institution's program of study and field-based experiences. This is lifelong work that will, hopefully, increase the number of educators who are socially and culturally conscious, competent, and confident, as they serve children and families.

Ed Greene
Associate Professor
Department of Early Childhood and Elementary Education
School of Education and Human Services
Montclair State University
Upper Montclair, New Jersey



Carol S. Huntsinger from College of Lake County writes:

In my own research, I examine the parenting beliefs and practices of immigrant Chinese American families, as compared to European American families. In my classes we discuss cultural belief systems and view videotapes that compare different cultures. Often students haven't thought about what their beliefs are. When they talk about these issues they begin to define their own beliefs and practices, and to become aware of the perspectives of other class members. One assignment in my class involves an interview of a parent from another culture regarding child-rearing techniques. The students use an interview questionnaire I've developed and used in my research. I ask the students to conduct the interview, transcribe it, and then answer the questions themselves. It is interesting for them to compare their own beliefs with the beliefs of the parents interviewed. We reflect on and question our own practices and learn to appreciate those of others. This exercise enables us to be more culturally sensitive to parents and families.

Carol S. Huntsinger
Professor of Psychology and Education
College of Lake County
Grayslake, Illinois



Peter Bak-Fun Wong, Principal of the Josiah Quincy Upper School in Boston, Massachusetts, writes:

I look at schools as if they are leather wine skin. If the skin is old, it cracks. It is not that the wine is bad, but rather that the leather skin must be reworked. We created the leather skin. The new leather skin must be more global. Our schools are now diverse and must be flexible to allow for our differences.

In Chinatown, the opportunity for education is crucial. Families give up everything to come over here. There is a lot of stress on these families and social economic pressure to succeed. In the community there is uncertainty and a fear of failure. Looking at the issues facing today's youth and their present realities we must educate and encourage everyone to love and respect other people, their cultures, others' points of views, and themselves.

The four pavilions we follow in our school are critical to the Chinatown community because they are the essence of the combination of the Eastern and Western styles of education. The pavilions are for both students and families. The cultural pavilion concentrates on world cultures, race, and ethnicity, and acknowledges that school and family cannot exist without harmony in society. We have so many things in common. So, we talk about the commonalities first. Then, we talk about our diversity. A lot of people don't appreciate other cultures because they don't know or appreciate their own. We help to involve parents in the process by holding school meetings on Saturdays in different areas in the neighborhoods so that they can actually attend.

Peter Bak-Fun Wong
Josiah Quincy Upper School
Boston, Massachusetts



Diane Burts from Louisiana State University writes:

The trends initiated by NCATE or NAEYC demonstrate that we want students in preservice programs not only to know about families, but also to interact and work with families from diverse backgrounds. New state guidelines are discussing ways teachers can interface with families and work with less traditional ways of interaction. At LSU we teach classes specifically in family involvement in the graduate and undergraduate level and look at strategies for involving families from diverse backgrounds. Research shows community leaders are becoming more involved and teachers must be aware of how to link with other agencies and what resources are available that sometimes families are less likely to know about. Teachers need to work on more positive and open attitudes. Teachers need to have positive attitudes and beliefs that there are possibilities for collaboration. They must have the willingness to reach out. They must understand the possibilities and issues that exist. Students must learn the environment they teach in, especially if they are separated from it, to understand all the possibilities.

Diane Burts
Professor, School of Human Ecology
Louisiana State University
Baton Rouge, Louisiana



Martha Dever from Utah State University writes:

In recent decades, our national perspective on community and family involvement has evolved. Historically, family involvement was primarily mothers volunteering or accompanying classes on field trips, particularly in the early grades. Parents who did not participate were often considered parents who did not care. Now, we are acknowledging a broad variety of family value systems. For example, in some cultures, parents consider it to be intrusive to come to school and rude to challenge a homework assignment.

Family diversity must be a central component in teacher education programs. Teachers need to understand family structures, embrace diverse family values, demonstrate tolerance, and be prepared to reach families of all types. The objective of teacher educators should be to emphasize the importance of the many ways to include parents in the learning process and promote learning at home.

Martha Dever
Associate Professor of Early Childhood Education
Utah State University
Logan, Utah

© 2016 Presidents and Fellows of Harvard College
Published by Harvard Family Research Project