"What Teachers Hate About Parents" - a Response
by Stewart Ehly - May 02, 2005
Time Magazine's recent article "What Teachers Hate About Parents" raises many questions about the current state of parent-teacher communication.
Times cover story What Teachers Hate About Parents (Gibbs, 2005) may be attention-catching journalism, but it echoes many published sentiments (almost all from educators) concerning parents and their impact on the relationship between teacher and child. Of more importance is what can be done about the tensions that are highlighted in the title to the report. Help teachers deal with their hate? Recognize that hate is not the relevant feeling and help teachers to understand their emotions better? Focus on the school as a system and strive to create a climate of acceptance?
There are many ways to address the issues noted by Time Magazine. Before considering desirable outcomes, I suggest that the scope of the discussion first needs to be established. I believe the literature provides adequate confirmation that parental involvement is important. The next issue to address should be why, in the face of the evidence, schools raise barriers that affect the most fundamental element of parental involvement: parent-teacher communication? We then might consider whether the possibilities for improving communication are unlimited or, if not, whose voice will determine what is acceptable discourse.
I have been involved in education for many years. I have talked with thousands of parents and teachers and even trained a few teachers to engage in parent involvement. One conclusion that I have reached is that to succeed, communication with parents must be recognized as time intensive and emotionally challenging. Little good results if teachers and parents communicate only because they feel obligated to do so (the ritual nature of conferences described by some commentators). Instead, the intensity of engagement can signal that both parties value and are connected emotionally to the communication process.
Communication that is supported by teachers, parents, and administrators has the best opportunity for genuine connection. Having time, skills, and motivation are important, of course, but the expectation that communication is essential must come from the participants. Does the school value the parent, seek input, invite questions, recruit participation, open doors for involvement in governance, offer guidance and feedback when requested? These activities are part of the communication process that the school and its staff control.
Given such control, how are we to interpret the remark that teachers hate parents? Do teachers want to be left alone? Be allowed to control every aspect of communication with parents? Set rules for parent participation and be the arbiter of acceptable behavior?
Teachers and administrators would reject the tone and content of these questions, and who could blame them? Teachers and administrators are professionals who work in bureaucracies that require rules for the system to function. Critics of schools, let alone voices raised against all forms of bureaucracy, protest that systems that are unresponsive to their clients must be changed. Joining school critics are advocates for change in every service provided by government. Reinvention of systems to cater to the consumer is the mantra.
What then to do about relations between parents and teachers? If change is needed, who is to act? Teachers? Parents? Schools? Society?
Yes, of course, to each of the above. Yet how is change to be initiated? No consensus for change exists within the schools, which face the daily challenges of operating an enterprise with many, often competing, demands. More of a consensus exists within the literature written by teacher educators. Here, movement towards a model of partnership is promoted.
The parent advocate literature, while much smaller in volume, echoes many of the themes touted by teacher educators. Generally missing from the discussion are the voices of the actors in the day-to-day communication at schoolsparents, teachers, students, administrators.
Until the focus shifts to the challenge of communication and recognizes the priorities and relevance of all parties, Times depiction of teacher-parent relations can be viewed as an unintended outcome of our current system. To shift to a new arrangement between home and school, core assumptions concerning the mission of the schools and the roles and responsibilities of teachers and administrators must be examined in light of their relevance to and impact on parent engagement. Im not sure who is willing to promote a discussion to support such an examination, but I believe that until we are honest about what we ignore as relevant, we remain trapped in a cycle of high hopes and failed expectations.
Chris Argyris offers insight into the defensive routines that operate within organizations. Assumptions used by members of an organization can have unintended consequences, inhibit learning, and create barriers to change. Current school systems are classic examples of organizations built around defensive routines. What would Argyris suggest as a strategy to address such routines? Among the possibilities would be an organizations commitment to examine its values, and to avoid what Argyris labels self-fulfilling and error-escalating processes.
Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot offers a similar perspective in her recent book, The Essential Conversation (2003). While acknowledging the boundaries between home and school, she promotes more inclusive communication between home and school. To implement her proposals, too extensive to be discussed here, requires what Michael Fullan and others have labeled system-level change.
In my final nod to the literature on communication, I suggest that parents and teachers start their conversations with a commitment to assertiveness and negotiation, recognizing that emotions are an essential element within collaboration. Schools can support positive parent-teacher communication by re-visiting core assumptions about school governance. Who owns the (public) schools? If the answer is that everyone does, then it is time to develop new visions of involvement.
New expectations of engagement would affect the balance of power now present in parent-teacher communication. Changes of any sort would have consequences. But those could be addressed if all parties are committed to negotiation.
Will parents modify their perceptions of teachers under this alternative scenario? Will teachers feel more positive about parents? I trust that parents and teachers will benefit, on average, from increased communication. When differences occur, they can be acknowledged and addressed if the organization supports inquiry and learning.
No easy solution exists for the matter raised by the Time essay. A commitment to new ways of thinking and acting is part of the solution. Another part is associated with how the school responds to the challenge embedded in John Maynard Keyness statement: "The real difficulty in changing any enterprise lies not in developing new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones."
Lightfoot, S.L. (2003). The essential conversation: What parents and teachers can learn from each other. New York: Random House.
Gibbs, N. (2005, February 21). Parents behaving badly. Time, p. 40-49.