Mery Faial Zaynoune: Bringing Schools and Families Together

Aspir(e)ing Profiles  is a series where we feature leaders in education, child and human development and health and wellness connected to the Wheelock College Aspire Institute. Look out for our monthly profile. You might be next!
describe the image It wasn’t until Mery Faial Zaynoune became a mother that she realized just how wide the gap between parents and teachers can be. After starting out as a paraprofessional at Haynes Early Education Center in Roxbury, Mery transitioned to her current role as the school’s Community Field Coordinator. When rifts between teachers and parents grow, Mery’s ability to empathize with each group makes her to go-to person for getting families involved in schools. Family engagement is critical because it ensures that children receive consistent, reliable support inside and outside the classroom. As a parent, Mery empathizes with the challenges facing other parents who want to engage with schools, but lack resources to do so. Between work, appointments, and other obligations, parents’ schedules can’t always accommodate school involvement. And as an educator, Mery understands that busy teachers lack time to build the family relationships they need to help their students succeed. Mery explains, “Parents need a whole lot of help. They need to know what’s going on in the schools and how help their child in whatever they can. Sometimes they can’t be at the schools and have to help from home. Engagement doesn’t mean you’re in the building all the time.” In Mery’s eyes, the biggest barrier to family-teacher relationships is a lack of communication. “The parents know what the teachers do. The teachers don’t know what’s going on in the families’ lives and what’s going on at home. When you don’t communicate, you start making assumptions and that widens the barrier.”But Mery is used to working in resource-strapped environments. Before joining Haynes EEC, she served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Cape Verde. As a member of the Corps, she learned that sometimes “working from scratch” is the only way to get things done. Mery carries this tenacity and creativity into her work at Haynes EEC as she pulls together the school community to support kids through family engagement. She may have started out “working from scratch,” but Mery has quickly developed a robust family engagement program at her school. And as a member of Aspire’s Boston Family Engagement Partnership (BFEP), Mery has acquired even more ways to help schools and families create their own connections.

“Parents need a whole lot of help. They need to know what’s going on in the schools and how help their child in whatever they can. Sometimes they can’t be at the schools and have to help from home. Engagement doesn’t mean you’re in the building all the time.”

After joining BFEP last summer, Mery learned new strategies to reinforce family engagement at Haynes EEC while developing her own professional skills. One of the highlights of her Partnership experience was hearing author Lynne Griffin speak about resiliency and change. Mery explains that Griffin’s talk helped her generate support strategies for her school during changes in the administration and teaching staff. Without resiliency skills, Mery says, kids and parents don’t know how to handle change.

Mery’s also cites BFEP’s emphasis on cultural competency as a valuable resource when working with diverse populations. When describing a class she took on recognizing prejudice, Mery says that the advice she returns to most often is that we must “overcome biases to help others.”   It’s not an easy task when so many of our discrimination goes unacknowledged, she adds. With these skills from the BFEP and her own experiences as a parent, Mery has enhanced family engagement programs at Haynes to include all children and families, regardless of their background.

Of the many successful programs Mery has worked on, the 100 Word Challenge stands out as an effective partnership between schools and families. The 100 Word Challenge teaches families how to teach their children ten high-frequency words each week. After ten weeks, the children had learned 100 words. Mery attributes the success of the program to its clear goal: 100 words in ten weeks. It took work (and communication!) from families and teachers alike to get every child to the goal.

But with great successes come challenges. Recently, a child at Mery’s school was struggling with a difficult situation at home when his father ran into legal trouble. The child’s behavior took a downhill turn after he could not cope with the stress. Recognizing the need for a swift intervention, Mery explained the situation to the child’s teacher and brainstormed ways to help the student stay well-behaved in class. Mery also offered her encouragement to the child’s family. In these situations, Mery says, “There’s no real answer. It’s a work in progress.” Family engagement cannot neutralize problems at home or school, but it does provide an avenue for collaboration between the people in a child’s life. With lessons like these in mind, Mery hopes to move forward with an expanded plan for family engagement at her school.

Mery’s action plan for next year at Haynes EEC is ambitious, and she is confident that she will be able to enact positive change. One of Mery’s biggest goals is improving the school site council, which is made up of school and community members. Mery’s objective is to train the school teachers who sit on the council to be more effective leaders. Her other area of focus will be helping teachers make their own relationships with families, instead of acting through Mery. She explains, “The teacher and the parent need to have a relationship… it will be those two who need to get the child to where he or she needs to be academically and socially.” By leveraging the unique position of everyone involved at the school—kids, parents, administrators, and teachers alike—Mery’s work reminds us that family engagement is a powerful tool to build success.

Getting to know Mery:

Last movie Mery watched: Rise of the Guardians

Mery’s quote to live by: “If you give a man a fish, he eats for a day. If you teach him to fish, he eats for a lifetime.”

Mery’s favorite place: Anywhere there is water