Why “Family Business?”
As a teacher, you bring your whole self to the classroom. And like everyone else, your understanding of your world—the classroom, the school, the nation—is rooted in your racial and ethnic identity, your gender identity, your physical abilities, your age, your personal experiences, and so on. Each of your students also brings their understanding of the world to the classroom every day.
Gaps between the way students and their teacher experience the world—and by extension, the classroom—create significant obstacles to learning. Family Business is a daily classroom practice conducted at the beginning of each class that helps teachers bridge these gaps. During this time, Family Business transforms the traditional academic environment into a family room—a space where students feel seen, understood, cared for, and heard. Here is more information about Family Business.
- Define “family” together. Invite your students to define “family.” Explain that families do not always see things the same way, but their bonds of respect and support are more powerful than those differences. Make sure students understand that the class will set aside time for Family Business every day. Explain that this time will be a non-negotiable feature of every class meeting, but participation will always be completely voluntary. The only exceptions will be for emergencies or major school events, such as state, district, or school benchmark exams.
- Discuss and agree to norms. Guide discussion about agreements the class will follow to maintain healthy, respectful interactions. These are expectations that create a safe space, such as, “No one talks while others are talking.” Ask students to discuss how violations of these agreements would erode support and how that would look and feel. Some teachers tell students to view their classmates as their siblings. As you and your students establish norms, send the message that each student’s authentic self—who they are as an individual—is a welcomed, valuable addition to the classroom family. Make sure everyone agrees to all of the classroom norms.
- Have four non-negotiable norms. As you discuss norms, introduce these four and include them in the final list of norms everyone agrees to uphold: (1) Every student listens attentively. (2) Students do not use the names of anyone who is not part of the classroom family. They must use pseudonyms in stories that involve anyone outside the classroom family. (3) What is said during Family Business is not repeated outside the classroom. (4) Everyone who wants to talk during Family Business gets to talk.
- Begin each class with Family Business. If possible, create a welcoming physical space for Family Business. For example, group desks into a circle rather than rows. At the beginning of each class ask, “Who has Family Business?” and open the floor to students to discuss what is on their minds. On some days, there will be a lot of Family Business. On others, it will be very brief. Many teachers find that Family Business typically takes about 10 minutes per class. Remember that Family Business is an investment in understanding students, helping them develop autonomy, and helping them build trusting relationships with you and with one another. Ultimately, it will save time in terms of classroom management, and most important, it can help students succeed.
- Model transparency, and give it time. Over time, students will begin to talk about their own lives if they believe your classroom is a safe space to do so. But students are unlikely to open up just because their teacher asks them to. And a classroom does not feel safe just because a teacher announces that it is. Model transparency by sharing information about your life. Talk about something you did over the weekend, something you saw in the neighborhood that inspired you or made you giggle, or a new food you tried. Some teachers play music at the beginning of Family Business to get students’ attention, show their own musical taste, and provide a starting point for discussion.
- Ask questions. Sometimes it helps to start Family Business with a prompt that breaks the ice. Such prompts should be as broad as possible so students can use them as an entry point to discuss what is most important to them. If the initial question—“Who has Family Business?”—does not lead to discussion, ask how people spent the weekend or to share something that made them smile recently.
- Help students process personal issues and current events. Family Business thrives when students begin to trust their teacher and their classmates. At that point, students begin using Family Business to discuss significant issues, including loss of loved ones, problems at home, and school issues. Family Business is also a ready-made forum for helping students process unsettling national events, such as police violence and the events of January 6, 2021. Be present and allow students to talk. Honor the risks students take when they share something personal or engage in discussions that make them vulnerable.
Chezare A. Warren, Ph.D., Peabody College, Vanderbilt University
Susan Lessner, M.Ed., Thornton Fractional School District