Symbiotic Schooling
Annie Stutzman, MS

Symbiotic relationships have various outcomes. In commensalism one group benefits, while the other remains neither helped nor harmed. Parasitism, the bleakest symbiotic relationship, leaves one group wounded or worse, and, in contrast, mutualism leaves all groups involved benefiting from the relationship. While a school’s mission is to provide a safe and nurturing place for children to access educational opportunities, focus should also include creating similar circles for the people holding up these spaces, namely teachers and students’ families. 

Communities have to approach the educational system with a macro-view lens. Just as Emily Solari’s directive to push multiple levers simultaneously at the teacher-training level to address the United States reading crisis (Solari, 2020), the various circles within schools must link together with the support of administration and dedicate themselves to advocating for and building upon the foundational needs of not just the students but themselves, the teachers, and the families. It is essential that the plight of literacy rates in the United States be a forefront concern, and one way we can approach this civil rights issue is by involving all partners. We must strive for mutualism in school communities in order to alleviate effects of educator burnout, severely struggling students, and frustrated families. 

Through access to resources, assistance through scaffolded support systems and continual assessment, reflection, and communication, the three school stakeholders—teachers, parents/ guardians, and students—will be enabled to progress with the benefit of the 3 A framework as a structured, sensitive, holistic ecosystem. 


Access and equity are key foundational pieces to building trust and safety within a school community. When there are expectations for children to meet certain standards, there is accountability for teachers and parents/guardians. If these educational stakeholders have not historically had ingress to spaces that support them, expectations for students must be adjusted accordingly. However, if school communities are truly dedicated to creating collaborative spaces for each other, reciprocal inroads to resources need to be present and accessible.

Teachers: The ideal system will provide educators with preservice training embedded in the Science of Reading with strong focus on language acquisition, social-emotional learning skills, and other ecological factors that may impact student outcomes. 

The reality is that schools are in a state of teacher triage. After decades of inadequate teacher preparation at the university level, compounded by a lack of ongoing professional development (PD), followed by the COVID-19 pandemic, educators, at no fault of their own, are grasping to maintain coherent and cohesive day-to-day learning experiences with their students. It is requisite that the people largely responsible for children’s growth be underpinned with access to 

■ applicable PD opportunities, including 

• training in culturally responsive teaching and anti-oppressive language. 

• language and literacy instruction based on Science of Reading research. 

■ agency in discussions surrounding PD choices for their school or district. 

■ exposure, understanding, and practice of literacy screening measures. 

Parents/Guardians: While resources can be difficult to gather and filter for teachers, this is a compounded issue for parents/guardians. In addition to working one or multiple jobs outside of parenting, they are expected to research and curate on topics in which they might not have background knowledge. Reciprocal relationships between schools and families will deliver outcomes where parents/guardians are equipped with the knowledge to help their child enter school with a stronger language foundation and feel more confident in being the best advocates for them. 

Children’s literacy foundations are established as early as infancy and grow throughout early childhood when the brain is at its greatest plasticity levels (Hutton et al., 2020). 

It is requisite that the people largely responsible for children’s growth outside of school be provided with access to 

■ comprehensive and comprehendible resources; 

■ educational events with experts in the field; 

■ convenient skill-building workshops at low to no-cost; 

■ affinity groups with other families.

Students: Learning for a child begins long before they enter a classroom. Language exposure begins on Day 1, and children need ongoing and specific language discovery and repetition to develop the skills they will later need to learn to read. Parents/ guardians need to dedicate time to fostering environments that include 

■ robust language exposure through conversation and games; 

■ informed interaction with caregivers and books from infancy onward; 

■ intentional read-alouds; 

■ a wide variety of reading materials.


A scaffold can only work effectively if it is cemented in a strong foundation. To organize cooperative communities like schools to sustainably improve outcomes, prioritization is put on systems rooted in trust and shared commitment that hear the needs of each group and cultivate constructive communication amongst them. 

A scaffold can only work effectively if it is cemented in a strong foundation.

Teachers: Assistance is interlocked with access. Teachers cannot be expected to be solely responsible for seeking out and paying for professional development out of pocket, especially as the profession continues to be one of the most overworked and underpaid fields. Equitable access to resources includes financial assistance and resource pooling. Administrator assistance must include 

■ involvement in dialogue around professional opportunities; 

■ participation in ongoing skill-building; 

■ leadership of disbursement of funds and time for colleagues; 

■ structured follow-up with skill sharing within the community. 

Parents/Guardians: The expansion of educational offerings for families is progress, while equity remains a necessity. When creating areas of access to assistance the following must be considered: 

■ Welcoming spaces with DEIB values 

■ Community building to create trust 

■ Curated and specific seminars 

■ Equitable time and cost for offerings 

Students: Each day children and adolescents arrive at school, informed by their life experiences, navigating a life outside of the walls of the classroom, negotiating emotions, and carrying the weight of adversity. Schools are obligated to create safe spaces to learn and develop and 

■ guard students from physical harm and threat; 

■ implement bullying protocols; 

■ foster social-emotional skillsets where children are empowered; 

■ facilitate culturally responsive teaching and anti-oppressive language. 


The third piece of this framework is continual assessment, which includes reflection and clear communication. Effective assessment demands transparency and trust. These values expand through rigor and dedication of all parties. With clear expectations and support comes advancement, which allows continual extension of a vision. 

Teachers: Evaluative observations of teachers are commonly viewed as stressful and ineffective. To change that narrative and to fortify a collective mission of a school, fruitful teacher assessment programs include 

■ trust and confidence in safe spaces; 

■ constructive feedback rather than judgment; 

■ clarity; 

■ reflection and action informed by assessment; 

■ mentors to guide progress. 

Parents/Guardians: Parents and guardians of children are typically viewed as the group receiving the assessments, in the form of report cards, Individualized Education Plans (IEPs), or parent/teacher conferences. To successfully mold and maintain a mutualistic community, all voices must be heard. For parents/ guardians, this includes 

■ trust and confidence in safe spaces; 

■ clarity; 

■ reflection and action input from school and parents; 

■ mentors to facilitate navigating educational systems; 

■ priority in parent advocacy. 

Students: Teachers and students alike receive value from efficacious assessment strategies. Students thrive when assessment practices include 

■ trust and confidence in safe spaces; 

■ clarity on areas of improvement; 

■ an emphasis on strengths; 

■ effective feedback; 

■ support with objectives in areas in need of improvement. 

Thoughtfully building frameworks and relationships takes time, dedication, and empathy. Prioritizing equity and mutualism is a foundational piece to the plan. This work is extremely crucial for marginalized groups and is vital to the educational ecosystem. Economist Hendrith Vanlon Smith noted, “Humans as a species will need to embed the concept of symbiosis into our global society such that in all of our activities—we are voluntarily benefitting from and providing benefit to a multitude of other life forms.” The rewards are seen as teachers, parents/guardians, and students build agency for themselves. Once empowered, people can achieve things once not thought possible, including access to essential education. A school is a permaculture. It is a living organism and full of diversity. It is through the mutualistic symbiotic relationships that educational communities will not just maintain or sustain but thrive.