The Heart of Family Learning: A shining example for engaging families in education

I recently had the chance to catch up with Ivonne Ortiz, the 2022 Toyota Family Teacher of the Year, from Mesa, Arizona. In hearing her thoughts around working with adult learners, I could sense her passion and joy for learning, developing connections, and supporting families! This month’s blog elevates the lessons we can all learn from Ivonne and highlights the practices she embeds in her classroom everyday to bring strength and hope to children, families, and her community. 

Graphic with Dr. Felicia Cumings Smith's headshot and a red ribbon in the shape of a heart. The text reads At the Heart of Family Learning with Dr. Felicia Cumings Smith

Ask Ivonne why she loves working with adult learners and she will immediately focus on the way learning ignites family and community transformations. She recognizes not only the importance of day-to-day interactions in her classroom but how these interactions are shaping future generations. She told me, “I may never know the impact of the seed I am planting in each one of [my students]…but I know that something good will be harvested later on—not just for that family but for future generations.” As educators, family-facing professionals, and others working for the betterment of families and communities, we don’t always see the impact of our work. It takes patience, faith, and trust that what we’re doing now has the power to transform lives and experiences for years to come.

During my interview with Ivonne, I heard nuggets of wisdom which have helped her grow as an educator and leader in her community. For example, Ivonne said, “This work takes empathy.” Practicing empathy is an important part of strengthening community within the classroom and building a positive culture among students[1].

Before becoming a family literacy instructor she too was an adult learner. “I was a part of a similar program,” she said. “And I witnessed the impact it had on me, to be able to help me become the person I am right now.” Being able to understand where her students are coming from—whether that’s working long nights and showing up for class the next morning or needing an adapted curriculum for individual learning styles—is so important in supporting them to be successful. Creating a personalized learning pathway that is responsive to each learner’s needs and contexts is a hallmark of her approach. The adult learners that she encounters and their children thrive in this atmosphere because of her ability and willingness to relate to them.

Ivonne believes fiercely in her students’ ability to improve their lives, and she knows that establishing goals is a necessary step. She said, “We know that each adult learns with an internal motivation and when goals are established, the students are able to see how much they have grown, how much they have achieved already, and how far they have come. 

“Each one of [my students] has so much to give,” Ivonne said. “I learn so much from their experiences and that helps me to bring better resources to them.” I really appreciate how Ivonne places great emphasis on fostering personal relationships, setting goals, and knowing the learners inside and out of classroom contexts; these actions signal her commitment and passion for helping her students move toward greater success. 

Screenshot of a virtual meeting with Ivonne Ortiz, her colleague Norma Huerta, and NCFL staff
Screenshot of a virtual meeting with Ivonne Ortiz, her colleague Norma Huerta, and NCFL staff

Ivonne’s experience of being an adult learner not only helps her to be more empathetic but also to structure and design learning experiences that are equitable and inclusive—and that’s the focus of her project that is funded by the Toyota Family Teacher of the Year award. 

This spring, Ivonne and her colleagues began supporting parenting adults and caregivers in their quest toward leadership in school and community development. Using the Parent Nation curriculum developed by TMW Center for Early Learning + Public Health at the University of Chicago, families at four schools within Mesa Public Schools learned skills to be advocates for their children, families, and communities, as well as co-designed the training based on their needs and interests. Later this year, families at four additional schools will be trained and participants will lead the planning and implementation of improvement projects. The work will culminate in a Family Literacy Parent Conference organized by the participants next spring.

Ivonne’s family leadership project is shifting the work and conversations in Mesa, Arizona.  Educators are intentionally creating space for family voices which is playing a vital role in addressing community challenges. It’s these types of interactions among students, families, and schools that lead to shifts in perspectives and narratives about the possibilities for every learner in every community to thrive. 

Co-designing solutions for challenges with and alongside families and community members is the most sustainable way to impact change, and educators and family-facing professionals are instrumental in this work. In an effort to support stronger, more intentional partnerships between school and community, the National Association for Family, School and Community Engagement (NAFSCE) recently published a set of core competencies in family engagement. These core competencies are not intended to be role-specific but clearly establish a universal set of criteria to utilize across the spectrum for family-facing professionals, of which educators are included. 

Toyota Family Teachers of the Year embody these competencies and so much more. Ivonne’s work to engage families is a shining example for other educators to work effectively alongside parents and families toward creating equitable learning experiences and outcomes. Hear directly from Ivonne on May 4th when she joins NCFL on our next webinar! Find more details and register for this free opportunity by clicking here.

Award-winning Strategies for Family Engagement | Available in Spanish | Thursday, May 4 3pm ET

I also want to take the opportunity to invite you to nominate a colleague who is doing impactful work engaging families in learning. Please consider nominating them for the 2023 Toyota Family Teacher of the Year, here. The deadline is May 18.

Toyota Family Teacher of the Year | 2023 nominations now open

The Toyota Teacher of the Year award celebrates the powerful work of amazing educators who build intentional and meaningful partnerships with parenting adults and families. We look forward to learning about more educators who are bringing strength and hope to families and communities learning together. 

Start your nomination today!


Dr. Felicia Cumings Smith

A lifelong educator and national thought leader for teaching and learning, Dr. Felicia C. Smith brings decades of valuable experience to advance NCFL’s mission of working to eradicate poverty through education solutions for families. Having served in a variety of leadership roles in P-12, higher education, nonprofit, and philanthropy, her career has allowed her to experience leading systems and develop a unique vantage point of a learner’s educational trajectory from preschool to adulthood. Smith holds an Ed.D. in education leadership and administration from the University of Kentucky, and an M.A. in elementary education with an emphasis on K-12 literacy development and B.S. in elementary education from the University of Louisville. 

Follow Dr. Felicia C. Smith on Twitter and LinkedIn.

[1]Owen, L. (2015, November 11). Empathy in the classroom: Why should I care? Edutopia. Retrieved April 25, 2023, from