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Learning

I’m an Active Immigrant Parent, Not ‘Hard to Reach’

Jun 7, 2019

Moving countries is never easy, but if you are a parent of school-age children, that transition can be even more arduous.

When your children go to school in a new country, they have to study in a new language. But as a parent, you will have to navigate a different education system as well. That means curriculum, teaching methods and daily routines might be different.


Relevant Reading: A Love Letter to Canada from a Child of Immigrants


Immigrant Parents are Often Believed to be “Hard to Reach"

Educators often say that parents of immigrant students do not come to school events as often as other parents do. They are also said to participate in fundraising less and are usually not enthusiastic about being on a school council.

But are immigrant parents really “hard to reach”?

As an immigrant parent myself and someone who researched immigrant parental involvement in Toronto for four years, my answer is an unequivocal "no!"

I do acknowledge that as a graduate student at the University of Toronto focusing on the ways immigrant parents get involved in their children’s education, I had a bit of an advantage having read hundreds of articles on the subject before even starting to collect my own data. But even I was baffled when my son went to Grade 2 in Ontario.

Complicated school boundaries, a range of school programs to choose from and new expectations for parents took time to learn about and get used to.

Obstacles For Immigrant Parents

If you study or work full time, it is difficult to volunteer in your child’s classroom regardless of your prior experiences or immigration status, but at least this activity might be familiar to parents who grew up in Canada.

Eastern European immigrants I interviewed for my study were more active in the home domain. They supervised children's homework, organized extracurriculars and held high expectations for post-secondary education. They also developed literacy in their children's first language, supplemented the curriculum by using additional resources and paying for tutoring. 

That is far from what you can call uninvolved. But the thing is, what happens at home is not always visible in the school. Traditionally, Canadian educators expect parents to help children with homework, attend school events, volunteer in the classroom and raise funds for enrichment activities. And who can blame the teachers? With large classrooms, overcrowded curriculum and funding cuts, a pair of helping hands and several hundreds of extra dollars for supplies or additional activities are always welcome.

'That's not what makes learning more high quality and more effective, so I don't wanna be selling muffins, I am sorry.'

At the same time, half of immigrant parents that I interviewed considered volunteering, fundraising and school events as less meaningful for them.

The main factor is that immigrant parents in the study attended schools in countries with clear boundaries between the roles of school and parents, where parents are expected to be active at home, while teachers are trusted with organizing children's learning in schools. You do not usually go to school unless called upon. Schools are places for teachers and children, not parents.

As a result, many parents do not think they should help schools through fundraising by “selling muffins” or other activities on the school premises. Making photocopies for teachers or funding the purchase of smart-boards or laptops is often seen by parents as not relevant to schooling as they understand it. As one participant explained, “That's not what makes learning more high quality and more effective, so I don't wanna be selling muffins, I am sorry.”

But there's good news for parents: according to recent studies, activities on the school premises are not very useful for children’s learning and well-being. What is effective happens mostly at home: setting high expectations, talking about school, reading to children, visiting museums and going to libraries. 

How Immigrant Parents Reach Kids

Many immigrant parents are heavily involved in their children’s learning, but communication with teachers plays an important role in making sure that the school does value parental input. Not surprisingly, I also found that parents who had more frequent and satisfying communication with teachers were better informed about the school system in general and their children's performance in particular.

The quality of communication was improved when parents and teachers had similar ideas about the amount of homework, school discipline and teaching methods.

What does it all mean for Canadian educators? Where do we go from here? Clearly, teachers need to know how parents, especially immigrant parents, are involved in their child's learning.

Parent-school partnerships will become truly democratic and inclusive if teachers begin to see the assets that immigrant parents have and not just their deficits.

One promising approach that had positive results in the past was home visits. By visiting the homes of their students, teachers can understand the life circumstances of families and observe home-based activities parents take part in.


Relevant Reading: My Mother Didn't Raise Me 'Canadian' and Now I Know Why


Home visits to multilingual families would also shed light on literacy practices in languages other than English. This is vital in places like Canada, where the share of immigrant parents is rapidly growing.

Finally, teachers need to be supported and trained to be able to collaborate successfully with immigrant parents, whose educational experiences and expectations abroad are different compared to non-immigrant parents. Parent-school partnerships will become truly democratic and inclusive if teachers begin to see the assets that immigrant parents have and not just their deficits.

We are definitely not “hard to reach”!

Article Author Max Antony-Newman
Max Antony-Newman

Max Antony-Newman got his PhD in Education in November of 2018 from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) of the University of Toronto focusing on parental involvement, immigrant students and linguistic minorities. Prior to his doctoral studies, Max taught ESL to diverse students in Canada and Europe for more than a decade before completing his MA in Education.

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