What Families Need Now From the Perspective of a School Parent Liaison
This is a special blog post because not only am I interviewing an expert in family outreach but I am interviewing my mom, Aleida Goetchius, who is truly my first mentor and forever hero. This is a translation of a conversation she and I had about her role as a Parent Liaison in Northern Virginia. Aleida has been a Parent Liaison for 16 years supporting all families with a specialty in supporting families from international backgrounds who are navigating the American school system for the first time. Aleida was named the 2017 Region 4 Outstanding Hourly Employee and one of five finalists for this year's Outstanding Secondary Teacher Award in her district.
In this conversation, we talk a lot about support for families in general and most specifically for international families whose first language is not English. I hope you enjoy reading this conversation as much as I enjoyed having it.
Andrea: Can you share a little about yourself? What is your background and how did you end up in the role that you have at your high school?
Aleida: I’m originally from El Salvador in Central America but I have been living in the United States for many years. My husband retired from the US. Army. He and I have two children, Andrea and John. My first job was at the Salvadoran embassy in Washington D.C. as an assistant administrator to the consul general of El Salvador. Due to my husband's work, we moved a lot within the United States and abroad in countries such as Venezuela, Chile, and El Salvador and I left the workforce for a bit. When we moved to Virginia I began working for the district as an interpreter. Months later, I was attending a PTSA meeting at your school and one of the administrators asked me if I would consider the role of Parent Liaison, a primary requirement being that I speak a second language. Fast forward to today and I have been working for the district for 16 years with all of our families with specific support for international families at the high school.
Andrea: What are the main responsibilities of your job and how has it changed over time?
Aleida: At first, my responsibilities were to ensure that parents/families and teachers communicated effectively which involved conversations about attendance, grades, and behavior. I quickly realized that our families were really craving the social aspect of school, where they could connect with one another and learn about the resources available to them. They needed to hear from administrators, teachers, and community members. In those early days, I was not encouraged to work directly with students, which was an obstacle since the students are the essential piece of the puzzle and they need support just as much as their families.
Our families were really craving the social aspect of school, where they could connect with one another and learn about the resources available to them. They needed to hear from administrators, teachers, and community members.
Andrea: As a parent yourself, what was challenging about navigating the American school system?
Aleida: As a parent who speaks English communication wasn’t a challenge for me. It was a big learning curve with you (Andrea) as my first child to figure out the college process and all that. I knew participating in your education was important so I could learn what was available to you. I think having the language and courage to reach out is an immense advantage. This is where I think the Parent Liaison role is so important because families who don’t have the language it’s hard to know where to begin. They have to figure out with whom to speak for different needs and many families don’t feel welcome in the schools because the systems weren’t created with them in mind . I see it as my responsibility to create a space where families are not just welcome but encouraged to play a role in their child’s education. This looks different for many families. I have begun offering English classes for families, where all are welcome so we are truly providing the first tool to engage. We also a big event called called “Hablemos” or “Let’s Talk” hosted at the beginning and end of the year where we welcome families, administrators, teachers and counselors and even guest speakers to discuss topics of interest for the families in Spanish or English with translation services, we have a meal and have an open discussion. At the end of the year we also announce the winners of scholarships from a partner organization. We also take the time celebrate parents and guardians who have participated and organized events throughout the year.
Andrea: I know your topics and priorities have had to change due to the pandemic. What is the biggest need of the families you work with during COVID-19?
Aleida: They have absolutely changed. I am now supporting families with acquiring meals, medical services, mental health services. We also have so many families whose members are essential workers so they are concerned about the higher rate of contracting COVID-19. This doesn’t even account for the complete change in the learning model with remote and hybrid learning. Some families are struggling to pay rent, some have lost their jobs. They have so many immediate needs that are making it difficult to engage in the school community so we have to address those first.
Some families are struggling to pay rent, some have lost their jobs. They have so many immediate needs that are making it difficult to engage in the school community so we have to address those first.
Andrea: What is the biggest mistake people make when communicating with international families? How could this be improved?
Aleida: I think the biggest recommendation is that teachers and school leaders need to work to become informed of the backgrounds of their families. What language do they speak and how to offer interpretations. Sometimes school personnel don’t know the time that works best for families so reaching out to find out if they need interpreters and what time is best for reaching out is essential. Additionally, for international families, I think all of us can make a greater effort to get to know the student and their interests, hobbies and strengths and what that looked like in their country of origin. Asking these questions helps initiate trust building.
Andrea: Speaking of trust, I know that many students you work with have experienced past trauma and COVID-19 is adding to this stress. What resources or supports do you recommend for teachers as they navigate their own trauma and the trauma of tier, students?
Aleida: This is a really tough topic we are trying to address at our school. We are fortunate to have social workers, a psychologist and a nurse who are able to support students and families with whom I work closely. We have processes from past emergencies. What we are finding is the pandemic is bringing up a lot of past trauma for students and the resources we had such as counseling are now virtual. My first recommendation is that teachers and staff ask students and families how they are doing, remember that learning is crucial AND we never know what is going on in the home. It is not the teacher’s responsibility to address trauma but you can play a crucial role in facilitating help if you are the person they trust to share their challenges. You can also play a role in connecting families to the supports and resources within your school or larger district or county.
Andrea: Any other advice for teachers working with families who don't speak english as a first language?
Aleida: I know every school might not have someone in my role so you might consider advocating for a Parent Liaison role that can be covered by someone already in the school. Additionally, when it comes to international or immigrant families I recommend patience and mindfulness; every immigrant family has their own story to tell and it is a privilege to hear it whenever they feel comfortable sharing it.
About Andrea Goetchius
Andrea Goetchius is an Associate Partner at Education Elements, working with schools and districts to best meet the needs of all learners. Andrea enjoys collaborating with and connecting clients across the country to leverage a community of innovation as schools embark on a personalized learning path. Andrea began her career as a Special Education Teacher in Glendale, Arizona. During her time in the classroom, she coached and supported student teachers and led staff development. Andrea then worked for Teach For America as a Manager of Teacher Leadership Development where she coached and supported teachers to match their strengths and skills with the needs of their students. She has coached in pre-school to twelfth-grade classrooms with a focus on implementing Culturally Responsive Pedagogy in the classroom. In her current role, Andrea specializes in projects that bring personalized learning to scale across districts, regional centers, and state entities. She is passionate about the development of innovative leaders.