For Indigenous parents born into legacies of residential schooling and racial discrimination, interacting with teachers is complicated. But according to a new study published in the Canadian Review of Sociology, this history affects middle class and lower class Indigenous parents in strikingly different ways.
The paper’s author, Emily Milne, carried out 50 in-depth interviews with educators and parents from four Southern Ontario school boards for the study. Forty of the interviewees identified as Indigenous, mainly Haudenosaunee, Anishinaabe, and Métis.
Milne found that middle class Indigenous parents interacted with teachers as relative equals, and were often vocal and forceful in advocating on their children’s behalf. For lower class Indigenous parents, however, the intergenerational experience of residential schooling appears to have magnified feelings of discomfort with teachers.
“I have the worst fear of teachers, to be honest with you,” said one participant. “Even if the teacher’s the same age as me, I’m nervous around them.”
The study showed that lower class Indigenous parents felt disempowered to question or challenge educators. When these parents did reach out to express concerns at school, teachers were often unreceptive, as the parents’ approaches usually did not align with the teachers’ expectations.
This is a big problem, according to Milne, because parents’ engagement with teachers often leads to educational advantages for their children. The children of lower class Indigenous parents may be denied important resources, such as supplementary learning materials and entrance to after-school or academically gifted programs.
Milne, who is an Assistant Professor at MacEwan University, warns that it’s critical that teachers ensure they are making schools more meaningful and inclusive for Indigenous parents and families, especially in this age when education policies typically identify “active parent involvement” as an expectation.
“Parents are not uniform – all parents don’t interact with educators and schools in the same way,” says Milne, who was surprised to discover that some of the teachers she interviewed weren’t aware of Canada’s residential school history.
“There are lots of efforts right now to close achievement gaps and encourage Indigenous students to stay in school and to do well,” says Milne. But many teachers, she says, are overlooking how their interactions with parents might be a key piece of this picture.