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Growing Stronger Families and Stronger Communities
Kim Jacobs

As an educator working with children and parents, have you ever wished you could chat with those who came before you and ask questions about their careers and teaching practices that would help make a difference in your own career? Have you ever wondered how they begin and end their days? How they keep their motivation high, year after year?

Although we can’t pick the brains of every experienced educator, the National Center for Families Learning (NCFL) discussed these kinds of topics with the top family-learning educators in the nation. For the past 20 years, the National Center for Families Learning Jean Ciborowski Fahey, the 2016 Toyota Family Teacher of the Year, talking with families of young children about reading and brain development. has held a national search for outstanding family educators who excel in engaging families and children together in a variety of learning settings—from schools and early childhood programs, to libraries and hospitals. From thousands of nominations, each year one family educator is given the Toyota Family Teacher of the Year Award. This year marks the 20th anniversary of bestowing the award, and to honor this landmark, we highlighted lessons learned from interviews with these top-20 family educators.1 Here is what they said:

  1. Focus on Families—Put families in the forefront of everything you do.

  2. Passion and Energy—Be passionate, enthusiastic, and positive. Love what you do, get out of your comfort zone, and enjoy the experience.

  3. Build Trust—Make sure students know they are valued, and that their contributions are welcome. Building trust grows out of knowing that teachers are sincere.

  4. Build Community—We all benefit from a community of support. We are stronger together than separate.

  5. Make Personal Connections and Build Relationships—Nothing is more important than the human connection. Make that connection every day.

  6. Teamwork—It’s not a one-person show. It takes a village.

  7. Be a Learner—Learn in order to teach. Learn from your experiences and from your students.

  8. Be a Reader—Read, and share the love of books and reading with others.

  9. Begin Every Day—Be prepared. Students deserve your best every day.

  10. End Every Day—Reflect. What will you do differently tomorrow?

The first Toyota Family Teacher of the Year—Karen Klima-Thomas of the Family Tree Project in Mesa, Arizona—summed up a family educator’s role nicely. She said, “Family literacy is about planting seeds. You never really know if the seeds will take root and grow. Years later, you may experience unexpected, heartwarming encounters that give evidence of that seed growing into a beautiful and strong tree. Or maybe not. Your job remains the same—plant the seeds.”

How do you plant seeds to grow stronger families? We’d love to learn about your best strategies and effective practices, too.

1More information about our interviews and findings is available in the new publication Stronger Families, Stronger Communities: 20 Years of Highly Effective Teaching Practices Supporting Two-Generation Learning. Watch for the upcoming free webinar series hosted by NCFL showcasing several of the Toyota Family Teacher of the Year recipients and their best practices. 

Kim Jacobs is the director of Education and Curriculum Development at the National Center for Families Learning.

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