• by Aurelio M. Montemayor, M.Ed. • IDRA Newsletter • September 1996 • Aurelio M. Montemayor, M.Ed.

Valuing as an Article of Faith

The valuing paradigm has been part of IDRA’s philosophy since its inception. The term “valuing” is a some what ­clunky ­but ­useful antonym to “deficit” as used, for example, in the Coca­Cola Valued Youth Program. The word expresses a paradigm of unlimited high regard for children and adults. Valuing assumes tremendous potential. Applied to adults it means: Parents want the best for their children in education, career choices and future economic security. They want happiness and tranquillity. They want to be viewed as capable and intelligent, regardless of background, educational experience and economic status. Most parents will do what is best for their children, if at all possible, if given the information they need and if treated with dignity and worth.

A teacher with high expectations for all her students will not despair if some of the children fail to meet the expected standards. She will not lose her unlimited high regard because some are less than good students. Likewise, a person working with parents will not lose the fundamental valuing because parents do not show up at a meeting or do not follow up on some agreed­upon task.

Valuing does not assume or expect perfection. The reality is that there are hurt and disturbed people who are not acting in their own or their children’s best interests. But that is dealt with as it is experienced and observed. These assumptions are not new or foreign, but the point to be made is that we can encounter teachers and educators within our own ranks who unwittingly act out of negative assumptions when relating to the adult population of speakers of languages other than English. We might have some choir members agreeing with this sermon but acting in contradictory ways. The following are cases in point: a media campaign, a teacher’s conference and a speech.

A Media Campaign: Mixed up on the Message – Dangling Danger vs. Accentuating the Positive

During the past 12 months, this point of view has been tested in two different programs that directly affect parents, especially those who are economically disadvantaged, minority or speak a language other than English. One IDRA program, Adult Literacy Outreach Innovations, was funded by the Texas Education Agency to create an awareness throughout Texas on the urgent need for state­wide literacy. The IDRA organizational mission to create schools that work for all children encompasses encouraging the literacy of the parents, knowing how directly it affects the literacy of the children. In conducting research and then developing video scripts we surveyed literacy centers, consulted with a statewide advisory committee and contracted with a firm that had a positive history of working with non­profit and minority organizations to develop audio and video products (see article on Page 1).

We encountered opinions, in all quarters, that supported using messages that would grab the viewer’s attention through shock and fear. We were faced with the contradictions of a valuing vs. a deficit point of view, the latter being perceived as a necessary hook to get the general public’s attention. It was particularly difficult to reconcile the negative opinions because they were rooted in people’s perceptions about effective media campaigns. A prevailing notion from some advisors, interviewees and even the media production agency was that, for the message to be noticed and heard and to have impact, the problem had to be laid out in dramatic and negative terms; that is, the targeted persons had to be portrayed as a threat, a disease or a deficit by being illiterate. Some people who would almost vilify the illiterate adult are themselves very dedicated professionals who agree with our valuing model towards adults.

Our stand was and continues to be that the message cannot prejudice the public against the population we wish to serve. We ultimately produced materials that meet with our positive philosophy and also work as effective media messages. It was instructive once more to see that creating materials that give dignity, worth and positive value to persons depicted in media is not an easy task. Watchfulness and persistence are required. The choir to whom we think we are sermonizing might not be totally of the same faith, as is highlighted in the next example.

A Teacher’s Conference: Parents as Allies or Threats?

Picture this context: A group of bilingual parents are presenting to a group of bilingual educators about a bilingual education conference for parents by parents. The parents, as part of their leadership training, are describing the planning process and inviting the audience to attend. The participants, about 30 or more, are mostly teachers. The parents are understandably nervous when the session begins. They present their rationale for an educational conference for parents by parents and are taking turns reviewing the topics and planning process.

In this true­story occasion, two of the participants took issue when they heard the list of topics for the conference. One teacher told the parents that teachers have a difficult time, too. Another administrator was seriously bothered that there were topics on the agenda that seemed to be critical of the schools and some teachers. He asked, “What is this program for, anyway?” The defensive tone of these responses suddenly created an adversarial tension in the room. Several members of the audience jumped to the parents’ defense. One teacher responded that it was high time that parents were organizing themselves and learning about more aggressive advocacy for their children. The audience was overwhelmingly on the parents’ side.

Yet, the incident reveals that some people will go along with a positive view of parents only as long as it stays within certain bounds and sticks to particular topics. The parents who were presenting, trembling and drenched in nervous perspiration, were just trying out their fledgling wings in saying that things are less than perfect in their children’s schools. They had experienced excessive reactions from some teachers and principals when they had gone to discuss problems their children were having in school. This spurred them to have some of those same issues discussed at their conference. These parents and teachers are not inherently antagonists. The whole community needs to join in the efforts to create excellent schools.

Yet it was still difficult for those two bilingual educators to empathize with these parents. They felt threatened and attacked. The unlimited high regard can go out the window when we feel our institutional or professional allegiance challenged.

A Speech: Responsibility Good – Guilt Bad

Of greater concern was a major speaker who made a charming, engaging, humorous and bilingual presentation. He received a strong ovation from the audience of mostly bilingual and working class families. His message was that parents are ultimately responsible for their children and if the children go bad, it is the parents’ fault. The speaker’s use of “guilt” as a means to increase parent commitment to their children was textbook deficit model thinking. Encouragement and support of parent leadership is more apt to be nurtured by acknowledgment of parent efforts, strengths and achievements in the face of difficult economic and social conditions. It is an easy and cheap shot to make parents feel guilty about their irresponsibility toward their children. It is the common attack of schools with bad faith toward families; many times it is used as a smoke screen to deflect attention away from the schools’ being held accountable for the instruction that goes on in classes during the school day.

Valuable Lessons Learned: Be Vigilant

The parent committee that planned and managed the parent conference has been meeting this summer to evaluate the events. At one meeting, I chose to give my reaction to the speech mentioned above. It was a surprise to most of them. As I had expected, most of them thought it was a good speech and had not analyzed it for its content. After I gave my explanation, one parent leader said that she had initially disagreed with my analysis when I began talking, but as I explained it carefully she came around to my point of view. As leadership training, it was an important moment. The contrast of the two points of view, valuing and deficit, was clear to all of the committee members. They now understood more clearly how pernicious and prevalent is the self­ and peer criticism among parents. It was a serendipitous and appropriate learning “Ah ha!” – another success in the nurturance of parent leadership that is compassionate to other parents.

We must continue to support and strengthen our families, validate and weave our families into the marvelous fabric (rebozo and multicolored mantilla) that this country always has been and continues to be. We must be constantly vigilant of what messages we send to parents, and what unwitting but nevertheless influential feelings and attitudes we project toward our families, especially those who do not fit the middle­class, English­speaking mold. Our media messages about our families, our relationships to assertive parents, our speeches to them should support their liberation from institutionalized prejudices and economic disadvantage. We must reiterate in word and in deed that the parents of our (hopefully) bilingual children are valuable and worthy of praise that we welcome their aggressive leadership to create excellent schools for all children.

Aurelio M. Montemayor, M.Ed., is the lead trainer in the IDRA Division of Professional Development. Comments and questions may be sent via e-mail to feedback@idra.org.

[©1996, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the September 1996 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]