Preparing Educators to Engage Families

Center for Family Engagement Logo

Subscribe for Updates


Notes from the Backpack banner

Episode 75 │ Preparing Educators to Engage Families

Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2023

Subscribe on your favorite podcast platform:

Apple Podcasts Google Podcasts Stitcher Spotify Tune In

Listen now:

Show Notes

Dr. Soo Hong

How do teachers find the most effective ways to engage families? Teachers often learn from their colleagues and even their own experiences as students. In this episode, Dr. Soo Hong, researcher and professor at Wellesley College, highlights the lack of formal family engagement training and the systemic changes needed to support early career teachers.


Keep the Conversation Going

Like this episode? Share your thoughts with us via social media @National PTA and by using #BackpackNotes. Be sure to visit for more resources from today’s episode.


Kisha: Welcome back to Notes from the Backpack, a PTA podcast. I'm Kisha DeSandies Lester.

Helen: And I'm Helen Westmoreland, and we are your co hosts.

Kisha: Yes. Hi, Helen.

Helen: Hi, Kisha.

Kisha: Here at PTA, we give families a lot of guidance on building strong relationships with their child's teacher. Today, we're going to focus on the teacher side. It's interesting. While, the quality of family involvement could depend on how a teacher engages with families. A recent report from the National Association of Family School and Community Engagement found that less than four of 10 teachers and administrators feel that their training fully prepared them to engage families.

Helen: Wow. That's not a lot, Kisha. So today we're going to explore how teachers are prepared to partner with families. What kind of support and training do they receive on the topic? And if your child's school isn't helping its staff engage with you and other parents.

How can you advocate for them to receive the support they deserve?

Kisha: Well, today our guest is Dr. Soo Hong, and she is going to help us answer all of those questions and more, Helen. Dr. Hong is professor and chair of education at Wellesley College, where she studies the relationships between families and schools. Soo is the author of two books that explore the family school nexus. One book is called A Cord of Three Strands and more recently, Natural Allies.

Most importantly, Soo is a former elementary and middle school teacher and the mother of two teenagers. Hi, Soo. I feel like I want to call you Dr. Hong, but hi, Soo.

Soo: Hi, Kisha. Hi, Helen. Nice to be here with you.

Kisha: It's great to be here with you as well.

Can you start by telling us a little bit more about yourself and what led you to focus on preparing teachers to engage families?

Soo: So my experience started as a school teacher, as you mentioned. So years ago, I don't want to say how many years, I started teaching. I taught in DC and then in Boston.

I think a lot of my ideas about teaching were related to the kind of teacher that I didn't want to be. I grew up as an immigrant kid and really felt like there was this clear separation between my family and community and the school. And so when I became a teacher, I wanted to teach in a diverse community, but I also didn't want kids to feel as if that separation had to exist.

I went into the classroom really ready to engage with my students and get to know them and get to know their families. And so that was the formative experience that led me to explore the kind of research questions I study today.

Helen: Awesome. Thank you for a little bit of that context. So, Soo you see probably hundreds of student teachers. Like over your career, maybe even in a year. Could you talk a little bit about what you're seeing in the field, right now, when it comes to how teachers are engaging families and also how that compared to what you did when you were a teacher?

Soo: Yeah, I mean, I guess in some ways we expect things to be really different, because I was trained so long ago. But one of the things that I've noticed is that, especially in relation to how we train teachers to engage families, we're really not doing very many things differently. So if I think about my own experience as a teacher, coming into my first years in the classroom. I had no language, no conceptualization, no training around working with families.

And so I found myself just doing what I thought I was supposed to do based on growing up as an immigrant kid in the K 12 school. So I knew that I was going to need to do parent teacher conferences and my school would have a back to school night. And I was just kind of feeling around in the dark about these things, just, doing what I was watching people around me do, doing what I thought I was supposed to do. And the interesting thing is as a kid growing up, you don't really have any idea what parenting teacher conferences are like..

Helen: You don't see behind that curtain.

Soo: No, no. And if anything, I was always curious about it, but I was never invited as a kid to come. There was always this like mystique and mystery around what they were talking about. And my parents always went into those conversations very nervously.

They were English language learners. They were immigrants. We came to the U. S. from South Korea. And my parents went to a school where they were one of 60 kids in the classroom. So there was really no expectation around parent teacher conferences or parent engagement. I think when they were invited to come into the school in those early days, they didn't really know why, they thought that it was going to be about something bad that they were sharing, or it always felt intimidating.

Probably the two of you feel this way too, because you have kids who are school age. Yeah. And even though we spend a lot of time thinking about family involvement. I felt really scared and intimidated going in to meet my kids’ teachers. Every time you hear from the school or get a phone call, you worry that there's something wrong.

I feel like those were a lot of the same interactions or anticipations that my parents had when I was growing up. On top of that, they had the cultural difference between being raised in a school system in South Korea and then raising kids in a totally different environment where the expectations might be different. And so I share the story because when I think about the ways in which we train teachers now, there aren't that many differences.

Teachers still have very little preparation. So they're not learning how to engage families. They're not having those conversations during their teacher training program. And likewise, they're still pretty fearful about having those interactions with families, as well.

Kisha: Yeah, that's so interesting and so true. What I want to know is what are the best practices of teachers who are getting it right, that are able to engage families in a productive way and they are making headways in relationships and helping to support each child in their classroom.

Soo: Well, I can talk a little bit about the conferences because I think that's something that a lot of our listeners are familiar with. That's one of the most traditional and universal ways that families and caretakers might enter the school. One of the things that I've seen the teachers that I work with that do this practice really well is one, instead of having parent teacher conferences or conversations, they kind of frame them as family conferences.

So I mentioned earlier, how do I do something as a teacher that I had never even been privy to as a kid growing up? Right. There's this mystique and kind of mystery around it. And I think that one thing that teachers that do family conferences do is that they invite the student to participate in the conversation.

And then the conversation is actually engaging the young person, engaging their family members. And we usually have those conversations towards the beginning of the academic year and I think one of the things that we don't always realize or recognize is that as teachers, let's say you have 28 kids in your class, it takes you a while to get to know all of those young people really well.

So in September, October, even November, I think the teachers that I work with as they're having these conferences and conversations with families, they're taking a listening stance. When I thought about what I was trying to do as a new teacher in my early years in D. C., I was really focused on what I was going to tell parents.

I spent a lot of time looking at my student work and figuring out what they were doing and how they were making progress and what made me anxious and nervous was getting it all right, like, here's how your child is doing in all these different ways. And it still felt early, it felt summative and evaluative. I think that those conversations can be oriented a different way so that teachers are taking a listening stance. And it's an opportunity to reach out to the family and be like, hey, how is your child enjoying school?

What feels new? What feels challenging? What do they like to do? How do you spend time as a family? What are some of the hopes and dreams that you have for your child? And I think that becomes a conversation where the teacher knows, ‘oh, I can see the family and the caretakers as a resource, and we can work together as a team.’ And it's so important to make that initial conversation happen because this is a little bit of a tangent, but one thing I'll share about my first year of teaching there were a lot of mistakes and I tried to learn from them.

Kisha: That's what it's all about, right?

Soo: Yeah, I think that's the thing. It should be all about that. But sometimes I think teachers, we feel this expectation that we have to have it all figured out. And one thing that I learned my first year as a teacher is I decided that I wanted to get in touch with my students’ families and I wanted to connect with them. I decided that every day I would go home with maybe a couple students’ contact information, their family phone numbers. And if I had time in the evening, I would call their home. And I had chosen those two or three names, thinking about making that phone call because that child had done something really cool in the classroom that I wanted to share with their families.

And so I started making these phone calls and every conversation started the same way. I would call them. They'd answer the phone, and so I'd have to introduce myself and I would say, hi, I'm Deshaun's teacher at school. I just wanted to call and check in with you. And there would always be silence.

Helen: What's wrong? What happened?

Kisha: Hmm. Yeah. They're waiting for the other shoe to drop, buttering me up.

Soo: Exactly. I would have to explain, well, I wanted to call because I heard from his PE teacher that he was really helping a friend today who was struggling. And I just felt like he really helped in a way that made such a difference to this child.

And I would explain that I was just calling to let you know that because I'm really proud of him and all of the responses were always the same after I would share the reason why I was calling, that it was this positive story around their child, like the family member and the caretaker would always say, ‘Oh, Oh, I was so scared.’ I thought you were calling to tell me that he did something wrong, that was the only way.

Kisha: Yeah, I feel you because that is, even though I don't get calls from the school about my son misbehaving or bad things happening. You still are like holding your breath. And it's just a reminder that teachers just have a really challenging job. It's just great that you're able to go home and make a concerted effort to reach out to each student in your classroom. But with the teacher shortages and issues with teacher retention, how do we make these family engagement practices seem like they're just melded into just the practice of teaching and not another thing added to a teacher's plate?

Soo: That's such a great question and I think it's a really important and honest conversation that we have to have because, I, of all people, I don't want to throw another thing on top of teachers who have been handed so much responsibility before, during and post pandemic.

Sometimes when I would talk about this with schools or teachers and administrators, they would often say, well, we just need to help teachers figure out how to manage their classrooms. I just want to figure that out first, and then I'll work on connecting with families. So I hear two things. Sometimes they say, let me wait and figure this other stuff out. That seems really important. And then I'll work out families. And then the other thing that we hear is how can you ask me to do one more thing? Everyone's asking me to do everything already.

And one of the things that I learned from the teachers that were part of The Natural Allies Book Project, because they all found their own ways of engaging students’ families in ways that felt right to them and that felt authentic to who they were. And one of the things that they all told me is that no one really taught me how to do this work, but I do this work because it helps me become a better teacher. And one of the teachers in my book, Megan Lucas, she talks about, yeah, you know, her. It was wonderful. And her experience as a novice teacher was this realization that, yeah, you do have to put in time to make these connections with families.

No doubt. There's really no way around that. If we want teachers to get to know the families, there has to be time and support for making that happen. But she often talked about it as a return on investment. So you make those connections and you see parents and caretakers as collaborators and partners who are working together with you to support this young person. And then when we think about all the myriad struggles and challenges or goals and objectives that you have as a teacher, those family members can be on your side. And so it might feel like you're putting in a lot of time to make those connections, but at the same time, when you have those relationships, it makes the goal for the next nine months of the year in terms of supporting those young people. It facilitates that.

Helen: I really appreciate that because as a parent, it's so meaningful, right? Like these small things that you're talking about that your child's teacher does, and you know it takes time, you're cognizant that it's taking additional time or whatever. But I feel like we've made the case. We know it matters for parents, we know it matters for kids. And I want to go back, Soo, to what you shared at the beginning that there's not that much training happening and it hasn't changed a lot over time.

So first, thank you for doing it. All parents are grateful. Thank you, Wellesley, for having classes on it. But my question is, why not? Like, why aren't teachers getting more training on engaging families? And what are you seeing in your role as you're preparing teachers as opportunities that we could do a better job taking advantage of to help parents have this more consistent relationship and experience with their kid’s teacher?

Soo: I think that one of the reasons why we're hesitant to really roll up our sleeves and do this work well or figure out what it's going to mean for teachers to be able to engage with families well, is that we have to recognize that there is sometimes conflict and misunderstanding, and distrust and antagonism and tension between families and schools. Sometimes unfortunately, educators don't feel as if their families are going to help them accomplish what they need to accomplish with their students. They feel as if they need to do what they understand needs to be done in spite of the families because they may have deficit views of families.

They don't think their caretakers are educated enough or even prioritize schools or education, and aren't going to be able to support their children. So these deficit views, these prejudices against families, really impact and color the way educators feel. Like who are the important partners in this work?

And so I think that because of that, we also have teachers who have a mindset where they feel like they're the best ones to understand and know what needs to be done in the classroom and how to support young people. So when we think about teacher training, we do a lot of thoughtful work around antiracist, anti-bias, and anti-oppressive teaching. And I think that we do that without thinking about how that bleeds into a teacher's work with families. If you're already working to create and cultivate teachers who have inclusive practices, why aren't we talking about your engagement with students’ families? Like it should be like one and the same.

Helen: And I imagine, too, that even in some of the nuts and bolts of how teachers are prepared your students aren't just going into their own classrooms, right? They're probably working with other teachers, who themselves have been trained, who may have different comfort levels, with what they want the teachers who are learning how to be teachers in their classroom to do. But I would imagine that there are some of those opportunities as well. Is that right?

Soo: Yeah, I think one of the things that I found really interesting, I'm working on a new research project right now, and I'm interviewing pre-service teachers. So these are individuals in a teacher training program, learning how to become a teacher. And I started this project before the pandemic, and I was interviewing pre-service teachers, across their program year, to try to figure out, you know, what are their thoughts about engaging families?

Are they even interested and curious in it? What are their feelings about it? What were their own family's experiences with schools growing up? I was asking, okay, you're a student teacher in an elementary school. What are your interactions with families? How have you gotten to know them? And you know what they would tell me is they don't have any. And in fact, I would ask them, well, you know, are there a parent teacher conferences happening or back to school nights and the preservice teachers would tell me, ‘Oh, there are, it's happening, but I'm not allowed to go.’

I know. They would say my mentor teacher doesn't want me to come, because they just want the conversation to be with the family or we're having this back to school night and they don't want me to come because they don't want to have to explain who I am and they think that parents are going to be like nervous or have questions about why I'm there. And then I would have other teachers tell me, we see our families every morning, but my mentor teacher tells me not to talk to the families because she wants the parents to come directly to her if they have a concern. They don't even want me to be a messenger.

Helen: That's hard. Right. How can you learn?

Soo: Right. You can't learn that way and you're intentionally being blocked from having those interactions that could be such good learning opportunities. And then sometimes you even have teachers that you work with who have these ideas about families like, ‘Oh, you don't need to talk to them. Oh, this family is like not really going to be helpful or, you know, they don't really care whether this child does well or not.’ And so teachers are sending these messages. So then you have people who are trying to learn how to do this work, because one of the things that I do find in my research is that there is a lot of curiosity and interest in engaging with families, but they don't really know how to do it.

And they're being kept from being part of those conversations, and then on top of that, they're hearing these messages that are pretty negatively portraying families. So earlier you started this episode saying, we want to understand how we can have this training or this experience for teachers. And we also want to like make sure that there are ways in which we're working with them to combat some of the negative portrayals that are unwarranted that they're hearing also. It's hard.

Helen: Yeah. And it's not just teachers, right? It's in the news too, right? There's a lot of yeah. There's a lot of bad parent narratives out there.

Kisha: It's so essential to to try to make sure that there's a channel of communication there. And what you're saying is there's just so many layers to that. So what is it that families can do because we don't want to be like, ‘Oh, teacher, you need to get some more training.’ We don't want to take that approach because of those narratives that Helen said. But what can families or PTAs, parent organizations do to help support teachers in a loving way that looks solution oriented and not blaming or directive.

Soo: Yeah, I think one of the things that parents can do is find ways to connect with each other. Lots of times when we think about family engagement, we're trying to think about how does this one particular parent connect to the school more efficiently or effectively. And we lose sight of the fact that in connecting with other caretakers and family members, families can just learn more about their collective experiences. They can come together to figure out some of the ways in which they can support a school. I think that we have to find ways in schools for there to be some story sharing and community building.

We almost want to go so quickly to the programs. Like what program can I create to have a lot of parents come out and do this thing and learn how to support their kids in this specific way. But I learn a lot from people in my field who focus on this concept of relational trust.

If I think about the ways in which me as a new teacher, I was like, learning how to work with families. A lot of it was just helping them understand who I was, that I cared about their child, and that I was going to make mistakes and feel bad about them, and that there was a way in which I could really learn a lot from them. Once I got to know them, it was okay for me to be open about some of those vulnerabilities so that they could see me as a human being. I think sometimes we focus so much on presenting ourselves as these people who know everything. And can't be vulnerable.

So I think that in order to really change the climate of trust between families and educators, we have to find ways to have real conversations with each other, get to know each other as human beings. And so sometimes like I've seen schools have like coffee and conversation or just like informal times where parents can get together. I visited a school School in Rhode Island once where, you know, I went to the school at the end of the day and the front hallway just looked like a lounge, like they had couches and comfy chairs, they had coffee brewing, they had these like mini fridges that had half and half and,, it was like signaling to people, yeah, when you come to pick up your kid at the end of the day, we want you to just stop and sit down and talk to each other and get to know each other. They had these little baskets that had toys for young children, like the toddlers and babies. I love that. Yeah. So I think we need to find space for us to share our stories. And I don't know, sometimes people think that's like unsatisfying, like, Oh, I want you to tell me like what program we should have in our school?

Kisha: I think it goes back to, when you're trying to solve a problem, sometimes it's simple and it's baby steps. These are not problems that you solve, with like one solution for everyone, every teacher, every student, every family is different and has different needs and personalities. Like you said, you're a person. It just takes me back to what you said, in the beginning of our conversation where you were just calling parents and parents were kind of silent because they were like, who is this lady? I don't know what she's going to say. I don't have time to deal with the problem with my kid. And it's like, ‘oh, wait, she's just telling about my kid's day and that he did something good’ that brings that relational trust that you talked about. So I find this very helpful.

Helen: Absolutely. I mean, Soo, we've been wanting to have you on the show for a while, so thank you for joining us.

Soo: Oh, thanks for inviting me. This was fun.

Helen: Before you go though, we're gonna ask you one last question,, which is of everything you've talked about and your just experience in this field, what's one of the big takeaways that you want folks to walk away from our conversation today with?

Soo: I'm thinking about a conversation that I had with my son's teacher last night because we connected on the phone just to check in and it was just to figure out, how's he doing in school? What are you seeing? And one of the things that I learned in the conversation. I was telling him, he's off to a really great start and he is telling us about his day and he's enjoying connecting with his friends and he feels engaged in class.

And this is what I was gathering from my son. And he's an honest sharer, he likes to talk about what's happening. And what was interesting was when I was talking to his teacher, he was saying, ‘yeah, I see him around at school, and he's having fun with his friends. And he feels like he's walking around with intention.’

And there was something nice about how our conversations came together and it felt like I had a more complete picture of what my son was like in school because sometimes like you hear what your kids say and you think, ‘Oh, is that true?’ And there was something really nice about talking to someone who's been getting to know my son. And he's like, ‘Yeah, I think our stories converge.’ The takeaway for that is, there's something reassuring, for our families when we get connected to the school and it's like not just about helping them read better or making sure that they're academically proficient, but we send our kids into this space and we don't see them and we kind of like hope and trust that everything's fine.

But, these connections between families and schools and the work that I'm doing, I think it just really helps us as family members and parents and people who care about these young people to really feel a sense of assurance that they're gonna be okay or that there are other people who are looking out for them and Right. And there's something beautiful about young people growing up, understanding that there's a community of people who care about me.

Helen: Yeah. And sharing stories.

Kisha: Yes, yes.

Helen: Soo, and if folks want to learn more about you or the research you're doing, any places they should check out?

Soo: So I obviously spend a lot of time thinking about these questions as a researcher. In the intro, you mentioned that there are two books that I've written and, one is A Cord of Three Strands and the other one's called Natural Allies. And they're both books that I hope kind of help us understand the relationship, between families and schools. Like, what can it look like? One of the things Natural Allies was published right before the pandemic. And so I wasn't able to do much of a book tour, but one of the things that I did do that was really fun is that I put together a virtual book club. And so during the pandemic, I invited each of the teachers who's featured in Natural Allies.

Yeah, to come in and do a webinar. And we did a book club chat. And you can actually find those recordings on my website. I feel like that's a really important fun, interactive compliment to the book that I wrote.

Helen: That is awesome. And your website is?


Helen: Awesome. Well, thank you again, Soo, for joining us.

Soo: Thank you for having me.

Kisha: Yes. Thank you so much. This has been great. And to our audience listening, thank you for joining us as well. For more resources related to today's episode, check out Thanks for tuning in and join us next time.