It’s often said that parents are a child’s first teacher. From lullabies and pat-a-cake to stacking blocks and identifying colors, almost everything we do in those early years is teaching our children something new.

But many parents feel their role as “teacher” diminishes as a child grows. This couldn’t be further from the truth, says Jametta Lilly, who took on the role of chief executive officer of the Detroit Parent Network in mid-2018.

This member-based organization, which provides parent and leadership trainings and other workshops and educational resources aimed at serving low-income families in Detroit and beyond, aims to engage parents and others to “ensure every child has a champion.”

“Learning is lifelong, and it starts in the home,” Lilly says. “The home helps to add on to what the schools do and the schools help support what goes on at home, too.”

A pressing need

Parents remain in the teaching role throughout a child’s life – and Lilly feels they should feel empowered to stay involved in every aspect of their child’s education.

This includes understanding how the school system works and using that information “to be advocates and champions for their children,” Lilly says.

This is an especially crucial message for parents here in Michigan.

“We have a lot of wonderful schools, but unfortunately in the state of Michigan, we’re down at the very bottom of the nation in terms of a lot of the issues around quality,” she says.

“DPN was born some 16 years ago to make sure that parents’ voices are part of the improvement of school systems and the discussion of what’s best for children. The U.S. has slipped dramatically in terms of the quality of its educational system, but what we see particularly is the adverse effect on black and brown children.”

With that in mind, DPN works to help parents – with a particular focus on African-American and Latino communities – to understand these dynamics and “how to mitigate against those inherent inequities and disparities.”

School-age shift

Once children start elementary school, many parents feel most of the educational responsibilities shift to the teachers and school district.

“That’s not a perspective that’s going to prepare our children for the world we’re living in,” Lilly says. Instead, it should be a two-way street – with parents and teachers working as a team. “It’s all about relationships.”

Some parents even feel left out of the process at this point, unsure how to get involved or nervous about overstepping their bounds. Others are negatively influenced by their own school experiences.

“No matter what your experience was with your teacher (or) your old school, this is my opportunity to have a new relationship,” Lilly says, “and it’s going to benefit my child and my neighbor’s kids and all our kids.”

How to get involved

If you don’t know where to start, keep it simple.

Can I volunteer? What can I help with?” she suggests. “Build that relationship.”

Then, if there is a conflict to be resolved, the relationship is already there to start with. “The dilemma is for so many of our parents, particularly those who move often, is they never build relationships,” she says.

If you do feel something isn’t going quite right in the classroom, Lilly suggests the following:

  1. Listen to your child. “Ask them to explain from their perspective what the concern is.”
  2. Speak with – and listen to – the adults involved.
  3. Keep an open mind. Don’t automatically side with your child or the other party.
  4. Remember that you are modeling to your children how to handle conflict.
  5. Know your options. If the issue isn’t being resolved appropriately, try the principal, district administration or the school board. “Go higher up if you need to.”

Don’t feel that your own educational attainment should prevent you from being involved in your child’s.

“You do not have to be an astronaut yourself to have your child want to shoot for the stars themselves. They can be the astronaut,” she says.

‘Flipping the script’

Schools play a key role, too. Parents should feel welcomed by teachers and school staff – not like an annoyance. Unfortunately, parental involvement is sometimes seen as a distraction.

“Instead of partnering, (schools) say, ‘Give me your kids, we’ve got an awesome program – and you go away.’ These are some of the unspoken dynamics.”

So sometimes, as parents, “we should flip the script.”

“Say, ‘I’m here as a partner with you to make sure my child is learning,'” Lilly says. “‘You better understand this; help me understand what I can do at home to help my kid with this.'”

Avoid isolation

The parent-to-parent connection is key too. By engaging with other parents at your child’s school or in your community, Lilly says, you can find support and work together on addressing issues.

“Too many of our parents are isolated,” she says. “That old saying about ‘it takes a village’ really is true.”

Certain issues need the combined voices of many. After all, some of the greatest challenges facing children’s education today can’t be solved solo.

“We want to educate people to be awesome parents and champions at home, but we’ve gotta help more of our families understand that democracy is an engaging process,” Lilly adds. “It is our hope that we are giving them the tools they need to advocate not only at schools but for policies that are going to create better schools.”

No matter how you get involved, know that your role matters.

“Every parent makes an extraordinary impact on that little life that comes through them. It’s just one of the most profound gifts that we as humans have,” Lilly says. “A parent may feel like they’re only a small part of it, but we have to help them see that greater possibility. We’re part of something much, much bigger.”

Photo by Noel Hagen, courtesy of Model D