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Ambivalent Partners: Power, Trust, and Partnership in Relationships Between Mothers and Teachers in a Full-Time Child Care Center

by Wendy Hobbins McGrath - 2007

Background/Context: There is much rhetoric regarding “parents and teachers as partners” despite little evidence that such partnerships, as described in the early childhood education literature, actually develop. The literature on parent-teacher partnerships does not examine parents’ and teachers’ interactions or what those interactions mean to them.

Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: This study focuses on the daily exchanges between mothers and teachers in a child care center during drop-off and pick-up times. In so doing, it examines aspects of parent-teacher partnerships and parent involvement that are absent in the current literature.

Setting: The setting for the study was an ethnically and economically diverse child care center in a large East coast city serving children from the ages of 2 to 5.

Population/Participants/Subjects: Participation in the study was voluntary in terms of interviewing and videotape recording; all mothers and teachers were observed. Thirteen mothers participated fully in the study. All the staff agreed to be videotaped. I interviewed 12 of the 17 permanent staff members.

Research Design: The study was an ethnographic case study of mother-teacher relationships in a toddler room of a child care center. Embedded within the study was a microethnographic video analysis of mother-teacher interactions in the classroom during morning drop-off and evening pickup times. Fieldwork was conducted over the course of 1 year.

Findings/Results: The findings suggest that mothers and teachers in the center were “ambivalent partners.” In interactions with teachers, mothers’ trust in the child care arrangement was at stake, and they looked to the teachers to provide them with information about their children, which bolstered their trust in the center and made them feel connected to their child’s experience. Teachers were less invested in trusting parents, and they appeared relatively unaware of how much power they had in their interactions with parents.

Conclusions/Recommendations: I found little evidence of mothers and teachers working as partners in the care of their children. Given the fluctuating power dynamic in parent-teacher relationships and the necessity of trust for parents, the development of partnership was framed in ambivalence.

Mothers and teachers come to the table with different expectations, knowledge, and needs, but also with a desire to work together. That interest in working together could be fostered by the child care institution by structuring more time for parents and teachers to interact and by providing support and training for teachers in their relations with parents.


Relationships between mothers and teachers in child care centers tend to be taken for granted. Research on child care primarily has looked at the effects of institutional care on young children. The research shows that institutional child care is generally not harmful to children and that high quality centers may be beneficial for children (Galinsky, 1992; Goodman, 1995; Leavitt, 1994; Zigler & Finn-Stevenson, 1991). However, much of the research on parents and teachers experience of child care is heavier on rhetoric than on research. There is much rhetoric regarding parents and teachers as partners despite little evidence that such partnerships, as described in the early childhood education literature, actually develop. Furthermore, there is a tendency in the relatively little research that does address adults experiences to take the perspective of either parents or teachers, as opposed to viewing them in relationship to each other. These relationships are important to understand because, in a very real sense, they form the living boundaries between family and child care systems. Moreover, these relationships form crucial supports for the care and development of children.

This is a study of the relationships of mothers and child care providers, or teachers, at a private nonprofit child care center in a northeastern U.S. city. The study explores the nature of relationships between mothers and teachers. Data are drawn from participant-observations, videotaped recordings, and interviews conducted over a 12-month period during 1999 and 2000


The dominant metaphor for ideal parent-teacher relationships in early childhood programs is partnership. Theoretically, the concept of parent-teacher partnership describes parents and teachers as collaborators in fostering childrens development and in designing appropriate preschool programs (Powell & Diamond, 1995). Frequent and open communication is considered the hallmark of partnership. Envisioning parents and teachers as partners includes seeing parents as collaborators on issues ranging from designing strategies for meeting their individual childrens needs to seeking donors to equip classrooms with computers. Such collaboration is difficult to achieve because many working parents do not have the time to participate in their childrens programs (Elicker, Noppe, Noppe, & Fortner-Wood, 1997). Consequently, partnership is vulnerable in full-time child care centers because of low levels of parent involvement (Powell, 1991).

The theoretical argument for parent-teacher partnership stems from a paradigm shift in thought in the field of early childhood education. Two major paradigms regarding parent-teacher relationships have shaped the field over the past century. First, the image of parents as having insufficient knowledge about child development spawned the parent education model of parent-teacher relationships that dominated the first half of the 20th century. In accordance with the parent education model, educators felt compelled to correct parents faulty assumptions about their childs capabilities and to teach them strategies for fostering their childs development and coping with behavioral issues. Second, the relatively recent image of parents as resources and decision-makers prompted the concept of parents and teachers as partners in the care and education of children. Thus, during the latter half of the 20th century and continuing into the present, there has been a shift from the parent education model of parent-teacher relations to the model of parent-teacher partnerships (Powell, 1991, 1998; Powell & Diamond, 1995). This shift is related to the expansion of the market for institutional child carefrom poor women to upper-middle-class womenand has effectively changed the language used to describe parent-teacher relationships in early childhood programs. However, in practice, the model of the teacher as the child development expert and the parent as learner often comes into play and may be initiated by either or both parties.

The shift from the image of parents as learners to that of parents as partners also has led to tension in some areas, such as classroom placement and discipline issues. Uneasiness arises in part because parents and teachers have different types of knowledge, which may lead to different perceptions of the child (Powell & Diamond, 1995). Teachers knowledge is derived from theory, research, and practice in early childhood education and child development, whereas parents knowledge is primarily experiential and based on their sense of their childs strengths and needs (Powell & Diamond). Educators and administrators expect that early childhood programs support parents by providing them with information about child rearing and child development (Powell, 1991). However, such support often puts teachers in the position of authority, relegating parents to the role of learners.

Despite the language of partnership used both casually and more formally in early childhood programs, we know little about the extent to which parent-teacher relationships are actually experienced as partnerships. For instance, it is not clear that teachers and parents perceptions of their relationship agree. Moreover, teachers and parents may lack sufficient time to develop the open communication and understanding considered integral to effective collaboration. Furthermore, the relationship dynamics associated with parents and teachers make partnership difficult to achieve.

The literature on parent-teacher partnerships does not examine parents and teachers interactions or what those interactions mean to them. Discourse on partnership abounds, but it lacks an understanding of how partnerships are actually constructed and what the partners are looking for in the relationship. It is clear that construction and maintenance of relationships among teachers and parents require work, and that work is often challenging given structural (time, job demands, and so on) and social (role, diversity, stress, and so on) issues. How that work is actually (as opposed to theoretically) accomplished and how those issues are handled are often overlooked in the literature on parent-teacher partnerships.

Instead, the talk about and the research on parent-teacher partnerships focus on levels of parent involvement. Parents are encouraged to be involved in child care centers by participating in parent associations, attending meetings, fund-raising, and organizing special events. Often these activities involve working with the centers administration rather than the teachers, because someone must take care of the children while these activities are occurring. Parents are also asked to help with field trips, and on those occasions, they do in fact work with the teachers.

Yet parents and teachers do communicate daily in child care centers, and their relationships are built in those routine exchanges. Thus, almost any work they do together occurs in the classroom in their daily interactions, when they talk about the children and how to foster the childrens development. This study focuses on those daily exchanges between parents and teachers. In so doing, it examines aspects of parent-teacher partnerships and parent involvement that are absent in the current literature. Furthermore, by viewing the life of the child care center through the lens of parent-teacher relationships, this in-depth study provides an understanding of adults experiences of institutional child care.


The setting for the study was an ethnically and economically diverse child care center in a large east coast city serving children from the ages of 2 to 5. At full capacity, the center held 55 children divided into four groups. Class size ranged from 10 to 17 students, based on the age of the children and the size of the room, with an average class size of 14. The youngest group of children was staffed by a head teacher and two assistant teachers, and the other groups were staffed by two teachersa head teacher and an assistant. All worked full time on staggered shifts to cover the 11 hours that the center was open each day (from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.). According to the parent handbook, head teachers in each of the classrooms had college degrees in early childhood education or a related field, and assistant teachers had either a high school degree and at least one year of experience in a day care center, or a Child Development Associate Credential (CDA). In addition, the center was staffed by an executive director, a business director, and supplemental staff who worked in the classrooms and in the kitchen. The aim of the observations and interviews was to develop an understanding of the nature of parent-teacher relationships in the child care center.

I chose to focus on the 2-year-old classroom because it was the youngest age group served by the center and therefore most likely to have mothers new to center-based child care. However, because the center was relatively small, I was able to spend time in all the classrooms and gain a perspective of the center as a whole.

At full capacity, the toddler room held 13 children and 3 teachers. Participation in the study was voluntary in terms of interviewing and videotape recording. Thus, the number of mothers fully participating varied over the course of the year I collected data. In all, 13 mothers participated fully. There was a good deal of transition into and out of the toddler room throughout the year. As new children joined the toddler room, their mothers were made aware of the study and invited to participate in interviews and videotaping. As children turned 3, they usually transitioned out of the toddler room and into either the older toddler room or the young preschool room, and I continued to follow those mothers. All the staff in the center were aware of the study, and I interviewed 12 of the 17 permanent staff members.

The center was diverse ethnically and socioeconomically in terms of the families served and the staff who worked there. There were 7 Latina teachers, 2 African American teachers, an Indian teacher, and 2 White middle-class teachers when the study began. There was considerable staff turnover throughout the year, and by the end of the data collection period, there were 5 Latina teachers, 4 African American teachers, the same Indian teacher, and no White middle-class teachers. The director and the business directors (the original business director was replaced midyear) were White middle-class women. The kitchen staff person was a Latina woman. Many nationalities were represented in the parent body, and many languages were heard in the center among the families.


This study was designed as an ethnographic (Erickson, 1988; Glesne & Peshkin, 1992; Hammersley & Atkinson, 1995; Morse, 1998) case study of mother-teacher relationships in a toddler room of a child care center. Embedded within this case study was a microethnographic (Erickson, 1992; Erickson & Wilson, 1982) video analysis of mother-teacher interactions in the classroom during morning drop-off and evening pickup times. Fieldwork was conducted over the course of 1 year,  from late August 1999, following the annual major transition when the children move to new classrooms, through August 2000, up to the point of the annual transition.

I collected data in the following manner. (1) Participant observation (Erickson, 1988; Glesne & Peshkin, 1992) in the classroom two mornings (7 a.m to 9 a.m.) and two evenings (4 p.m. to 6 p.m.) per week during drop-off and pick-up times. These observations were based on a pattern of observing Monday and Tuesday one week and Wednesday and Thursday the next, leaving Fridays open as make-up days for those lost to holidays and other schedule changes, such as snow days. (2) Jottings/notes (Emerson, Fretz, & Shaw, 1995) recorded in the field during classroom observations and casual interactions with the study participants, and immediately following interviews with study participants. (3) Videotaped recordings of mother-teacher interactions in the classroom during drop-off and pickup times. (4) Fieldnotes (Emerson et al.; Erickson, 1988; Glesne & Peshkin) typed up after every observation and visit to the site. (5) Participant observation of all parents association meetings (one per month), parent workshops (two held during the year), occasional staff meetings and workshops (as permitted by the center director), and special events at the center. (6) Descriptive, analytical, and phenomenological memos written throughout the research process (Emerson et al.; Hammersley & Atkinson, 1995). In these memos, I recorded interpretive insights and worked through issues of subjectivity arising from my experience as a teacher and my feelings about what was happening at the center. These memos then provided a starting place for the initial review and analysis of the data. (7) Audiotaped recordings of in-depth semistructured interviews (Fontana & Frey, 1998; Kvale, 1996; Rubin & Rubin, 1995) with the study participants conducted over the course of the year. (8) Transcripts of audiotaped interviews and selected videotaped interactions. (9) Review and analysis of site-specific documents (Glesne & Peshkin) for example, parent handbook, staff guidelines, and newsletters.

In addition to the fieldwork discussed above, I used a video camera to record interactions between mothers and teachers. My fieldwork guided such sampling considerations as what, when, where, whom, and how to record (Erickson, 1992). The focus of these recordings was on the daily face-to-face interactions between mothers and teachers in the classroom. My aim in making these video recordings was to create an exhaustive record of daily interactions that I could analyze to learn what happens in those interactions (Erickson & Wilson, 1982): what the interactional work was (verbal and nonverbal) and how it was accomplished, and what it revealed about the nature of these particular mother-teacher relationships. Thus, the use of videotaped recordings in this study was intended to make the ethnography more sensitive and systematic (Erickson; Erickson & Wilson).

As in all qualitative studies, the data analysis process I undertook was inductive. That is, the codes, themes, and ultimately the issues discussed in the data sections were derived from the data themselves through an iterative and recursive process of examining and organizing the data repeatedlyessentially using a grounded theory approach of constant comparison (Glaser & Strauss, 1967).


The findings suggest that relationships between mothers and teachers in the center were ambivalent partnerships. Although both parties were primarily concerned with the care of the children, they tended to have different views of the children and expectations of one another that rarely were met to their satisfaction. In interactions between mothers and teachers, mothers trust in the child care arrangement was at stake, and they looked to the teachers to provide them with information about their children, which both bolstered their trust in the center and made them feel connected to their childs experience. Mothers experienced an unusual form of trust with the teachers. Unlike other forms of trust that begin with no trust and then build through positive experiences (see, for example, Giddens, 1990; Govier, 1997; Hardin, 2001), mothers had to trust the teachers immediately in order to leave their children in the teachers care in the first place. This trust was also unusual because the parents and teachers often had little empathy for each other. Trust was fragile yet imperative for parents.

Teachers were less invested in trusting parents. However, the teachers allowed parents to behave in ways that added to their distrust in them. For example, teachers enforced center policies inconsistently regarding the care of sick children and fees for late pickups. Teachers tended to feel undervalued by parents and felt that their careers in early childhood education were at stake if parents complained about them. Consequently, they appeared relatively unaware of how much power they had in their interactions with parents. Adding to that divide, educational matters were most often discussed between parents and the center director rather than between parents and teachers.

Next, I discuss the studys findings concerning teachers surprisingly powerful position in classroom interactions with mothers; the form of trust that parents were compelled to place in a child care center; and implications of these findings for partnership between mothers and teachers.


Mothers described partnership with teachers in terms of each sharing her respective knowledge about the child with the other. Mothers in particular were interested in what teachers could tell them about their children. This information about their childrens well-being was an important part of mothers maintenance of trust in the center. Having entrusted their children to the care of the center with little information on which to base their trust, mothers used additional information provided by teachers to help maintain their trust. In this way, the mother-teacher partnership was dependent on daily exchanges, particularly at pick-up time, when a childs day was discussed.

The information that teachers had about the childrens experience in the center was a source of power for teachers in their relationships with mothers. Though in many ways, teachers tended to have little power in their relationships with mothersthe positions of the child care teachers in society and in the center were lower than those of the mothersteachers were relatively powerful in the classroom. One mother commented, Im very . . . conscientious about treating them as professional people, but, of course, since theyre dealing with my daughter it is a personal relationship, too . . . [you] walk into the classroom, and its just an intensely kind of personal experience. Teachers had considerable control over what happened in their classrooms and, in particular, over two things of great importance to mothers: the children and information about the childrens experience in the center. This kind of power fed itself. The authority teachers held in the classroom increased the dependence of the mothers, which in turn strengthened the authority of the teachers.

The video analysis reveals an important finding about the power dynamic between mothers and teachers: In the classroom arena, teachers were more powerful than mothers. For example, one video clip shows a mother ask, Did he have a good day? to no response from the teacher. In another interaction, a mother arrived to pick up her children, and the teacher announced that her son had been no good all day. The mother laughed at first and then realized that the teacher was not joking. She pulled a child-sized chair up to sit next to the teacher, who was seated in an adult-sized chair. The teacher then reported the childs misbehavior. This kind of power dynamic was true regardless of the socioeconomic status of the mothers; in the first example above, the mother was African American middle class, and the teacher was Latina working class, and in the second example, the mother was White middle class and the teacher was African American working class. This paradoxical power dynamic was also true despite the relatively greater power that parents had generally in the center. In addition, the video analysis highlights the silent role of the child in the parent-teacher relationship. Mothers tended to be acutely aware of their childs physical presence in their interactions with teachers. They were often simultaneously managing two conversational floors, one with the child and the other the teacher. Teachers were, of course, managing their classrooms while engaging with parents.

The center teachers may or may not have always been aware of their power and commonly felt undervalued by parents and frustrated by parents behavior. Teachers complained about parents disregard for the centers sick child policy and reported that they sometimes felt that parents simply saw them as babysitters. Teachers feelings may have interfered with their awareness of their tactical advantage over parents in the classroom.

For example, in each of the video clips analyzed, the mother was of a higher socioeconomic standing, had a higher status occupation, and had more education than the teacher. Yet the mothers were beholden to the teachers for insight into their childrenin the form of an answer to the question, How was his/her day?despite their relatively privileged positions. In addition, although parents as a group held a great deal of power in the centeran active parents association held monthly meetings with the director (and no teachers) during which educational issues were often discussedthe video analysis shows that in individual interactions with teachers, parents power was mediated by their desire to know about their childs experience.

Mothers nonverbal behavior in the classroom contributed to the teachers power. Mothers physically joined the teachers in their workspace, moving close to them and squatting or sitting in toddler-sized chairs to meet the teachers eye level. That action did more than create a participation structure for the interaction; it communicated respect for the teacher and effectively minimized the mothers relational advantage (e.g., social class, occupational status, education).1 Mothers may have acted this way because the teachers held information about their children that the mothers needed to affirm their childs well-being in the center, and thereby their trust in the child care arrangement.

Teachers stated that they knew that parents needed to be apprised of the childs day to feel connected, but they appeared relatively unaware of how powerless mothers felt in their presence. For instance, one teacher commented,

Ive always had an open relationship with the parents because I feel that Im with their child most of the day, and at the end of the day, I do like to talk to them about what happened. And I know that that is a vital part that they miss, and a lot of them really want to know what is going on. So I do try to keep them informed of everything, good or bad. . . . They just want to know, I think they just want to feel involved or included in what happens in their childs [day], or maybe they want to talk about it on the way home as a way of bonding or whatever . . . but anything that would make them feel included or safe with you as their child care.

Mothers did want information, as the above teacher described, but they were sensitive about how that information was communicated. For example, one mother described meeting with her childs teacher because she was concerned about her childs behavior and the behavior of other children toward her child:

And I told her [the teacher], were not saying our daughter is an angel. We know what shes capable of doing. But these behaviors are out of her norm. . . . So I said, I want to talk about that. And she says, well. She said, its interesting you coming in telling me that other kids are being aggressive towards her. Well, I got called into the classroom today and . . . another girls face was scratched and your daughter did it. Had I not gone in I would never have found this out. It was like, wow. I said, well, that gives you an example of why were concerned. . .I would assume, if I was a parent and every day I came there, every week I got something like that I would be very distressed. It would be like, like what am I doing wrong? Maybe this is not a good match for her. Whats happening in the classroom? . . . . I see this as a partnership. Im willing to listen and hear whatever you have to tell me . . . but you cant come and tell me what my child did wrong [when she has a] scratch on her face, and youre telling me its her fault. I dont want to hear that. If you say theres a scratch on her and you tell me what happened and this is how we handled it [then Im okay].

Many of the teachers did express concern for the parents feelings, and they reported using routines through which they delivered good news before bad news or made sure to communicate something positive about the child. One teacher said that she liked to give parents a sandwich of good news, then bad news, then good news, and never delivered it in front of the child or when the parent seemed pressed for time. Teachers knew that behavior was a particularly sensitive topic for parents, but they tended to think that parents were uncomfortable discussing problems because of how their childs behavior reflected on their parenting. However, teachers were relatively unaware of how powerless parents felt in their presence vis-a-vis the children.

Teachers perceived parents as having a stronger voice in the center because parents tended to have frequent direct communication with the director, and the teachers felt unsupported by and distrustful of the director. In addition, teachers acted in ways that undermined their own positions and increased parents power. One important way was through failure to enforce center policies regarding sick children and penalties for late pick-ups. This was an issue around which teachers could have exerted power. Instead, they tended to collude with the misbehaving parents. In the following example, a mother arrived late to pick up her child and the teacher waived the late fee:

The late mom returns to the room with her wallet in her hand and says, How much do I owe you ladies? The teacher says, You are a lucky lady today. The mother says, No, you are waiting. The teacher says, No, you called and said you would be here at 6:10 and you got here at 6:08. The mother says, Oh. The she jokes about calling to say shell be here at 6:30 and coming at 6:28. The teacher laughs and says that then she will charge her double. The mother continues joking about going all the way up to 8 p.m. She says, That would be great for my Christmas shopping. The teacher says then she would triple the fine. They both laugh and the mother says that would be very expensive Christmas shopping.

In another example, a mother arrived in the morning with her sick child. She told the teacher, and the teacher allowed the child to stay for the day:

[A few moments after arriving one morning,] a mother tells the teacher that her child has an earache. She says she couldnt take him to the doctor today because shes having car trouble and she has a big board meeting this afternoon, but she will call and see if she can get him an appointment for first thing tomorrow morning. The teacher asks, What if he complains about it? gesturing to her ear. His mother says she will be downtown in a big board meeting all afternoon. Then she says, Of course call me, but . . . Then she says she thinks hell be okay. She says, But I dont want them calling his dad or anything. Hell be okay. The she says to her son, Sorry [childs name], thats just one of the things about being a single mom. You know that, dont you [teachers name]. Then she says thank you and goodbye.

This kind of collusion may have been a consequence of unintentional gendered communication. Teachers sympathized with mothers work pressures and so did not always enforce policies against picking up the children late and bringing sick children to the center. Though the teachers grumbled among themselves about the parents rule infractions, they seldom expressed disapproval to the parentsand almost never to mothers. Parents extended their dominance through their carriage in these instances. Though apologetic, parents rarely expressed gratitude when teachers cared for sick children.

The teachers behavior in those instances may have been related to the legacy of child care as low status, service-oriented womens work. The understanding that teachers communicated to mothers regarding work and family stress had the collective effect of making the teachers feel exploited when they had allowed it to happen. Thus, the power dynamic between mothers and teachers was unusual: In individual interactions in the classroom, teachers had the advantage; however, institutionally, parents as a group were more powerful than teachers.


Trust in parent-teacher relationships was unusual because it did not develop over time, and it was not mutual. Mothers had to trust the teachers from the moment they left their children in the center. Parents at the center often explored many child care arrangements before enrolling children in the center. The centers youngest age group was the 2-year-old group, and families tended to have used babysitters, nannies, au pairs, family day care, or other centers before joining the center. Many parents said that they felt that child care centers were safer than in-home arrangements because there were generally a number of adults present, and they were supervised by a center director. Mothers vulnerability lay in their inability to control the childs environment and observe the childs experience in their absence. Their trust was confirmed when teachers shared information about the child that was congruent with a mothers understanding of her child. Communication between parents and teachers was strained when there was a difference of opinion or when information was not communicated expediently, thereby threatening trust.

The staffing situation at the center, which included multiple assistant teachers and frequent staff turnover, was disconcerting for mothers and undermined their trust in the center. By necessity, mothers trusted all the teachers, but they preferred some over others. They were careful to explain their preferences in terms not related to trustthey tended to talk about teachers personalities or styles of interactingthus ensuring that their trust in the teachers was not compromised when a less preferred teacher was responsible for their children. For instance, one mother commented,

If its important information, I would say, it doesnt matter whos there; I probably would share it with whoevers there, at the center. However, I do feel, probably, more comfortable or closer to certain teachers . . . Im not criticizing anyone. Im just saying I can think of one or two that I would definitely go to before anyone else.

Mothers also found ways to reconcile teachers opinions with their own when they differed. For example, one mother commented,

I was confused during the period when [teachers name] was telling me different things every day about why [childs name] was acting up with her friends and not being cooperative. But I suppose I sort of thought she was trying to figure it out, too, so I cant expect her to have every possible well-developed insight at this stage of the game either. I tend to kind of wait and see whether Im wrong or whether Ive got more to learn . . . I really take the approach that they know a lot of things that I dont know.

These kinds of rationalizations helped mothers maintain trust in the teachers and the care that their children were receiving.

Trust and power intersected in the information that teachers provided mothers about children. How the teachers communicated with parents either enhanced or called into question the parents trust in them and either added to or undermined their authority. Teachers were particularly aware of the importance of parents trust in them. In interviews and staff development workshops, teachers reported that they knew that communication was vital to maintaining parents trust. However, teachers seemed mostly unaware of their absolute power over how information about the childs experience was shared, and parents dependence on them to feel included in the childs day. It may have been that teachers were both conscious of the mothers need to trust them and concerned about the possible risk to their career if mothers found them untrustworthy. Many of the teachers were involved in a dispute with the center director during the year of the study. Teachers empathy with parents and their concerns over their own jobs may have overshadowed their awareness of their power in their interactions with mothers in the classroom. Furthermore, the teachers emotional experience of feeling taken for granted by parents and unsupported by the director may have been foremost for them.


Partnership between mothers and teachers was approached in daily transitions inside and outside the center, particularly in conversations at the end of the day. Theoretically, the concept of teacher-parent partnership views parents and teachers as collaborators in fostering childrens development (Powell & Diamond, 1995). Frequent and open communication is considered the hallmark of partnership. At the center, it seemed that mothers and teachers were more committed to the idea of partnership than the practice of it. They were primarily interested in the notion of partnership because in theory, partnership is thought to benefit children.

Though neglected in most of the literature addressing parent-teacher relationships in child care centers, the child had a pivotal role in parent-teacher interactions and therefore in their relationship. In fact, the teacher-parent relationship is best described in terms of their relations to the children, in a kind of tripartite relationship. This is consistent with Galinskys (1992) assertion that the teachers relationship with the child is the most important aspect of child care for both parents and teachers, and that mothers tend to believe that child care is beneficial for children when the teacher is sensitive and responsive.

Mothers and teachers focused almost exclusively on the children, especially on the teachers relationship with the children, unless the mothers and teachers had a conflict. Mothers primary concern was for their childs well-being. They privileged their childs relationship with the teachers over their own relationship with the teachers. For example, one mother commented that she had less interaction with the teachers than she was accustomed to, so she relied on observing them with her children: Well, you watch them with the kids. You listen. Try not to put words in their mouth, which Im prone to do. And get a read of how the kids feel about them. And look them in the eye.

Similarly, another mother remarked,

So to me, its a question now of the proof is in the pudding. How I see him [her child], how he reacts to me when I pick him up, hes happy and hes not happy to leave. How the other children are behaving. Ive spoken to the other parents. Ive validated my observations of this place more through some of the other moms and seeing how the other kids handle it here.

The mere presence of the children during mother-teacher interactions tended to submerge mother-teacher relationships. For instance, mothers emotional experience of leaving their children in someone elses care was certainly a feature of their relationships with the teachers. And teachers, as the replacement caregivers and the facilitators of the transitions in and out of the center, could be the focus for that anxiety. Disagreements between mothers and teachers tended to bring the mother-teacher relationship into view because they shifted the focus from the child to the adults. However, this tended to be a temporary shift. Parents and teachers most often worked out their differences of opinion outside the daily interactions they had in the presence of children to preserve a sense of consistency for the children. In this way, children may have interfered with the practice of partnership because parents and teachers rarely felt secure enough in their relationship to resolve their differences in face-to-face interactions.

Partnership between mothers and teachers was also undermined by the inequality of the relationships. Partnership presumes mutual responsibility and participation in a relationship in which each member has equal status. The parent-teacher relationship was fundamentally unequal because teachers were providing a service for parents. In addition, although teachers supported parents by facilitating their transitions, providing information about their children, and providing advice, parents did not support teachers to the same degree. This made their relationship appear visibly unequal. In that regard, the balance of power in the parent-teacher relationship was tipped toward the parents advantage. The advantage to parents was not corrected by the power that teachers held through their knowledge about the children. Although the video analysis showed that parents deferred to teachers in these situations, teachers tended to cooperate with parents by sharing their knowledge with parents; parents did not tend to reciprocate with their own knowledge of the children or with acknowledgement, to the teachers or the center director, of the teachers expertise with children.

The potential for partnership was also undermined by differences between parents and the teachers and center director in the expectations of parent involvement. Although central to the guidelines for Developmentally Appropriate Practice of the National Association for the Education of Young Children (Copple & Bredekamp, 1997), the paradigm of partnership between parents and teachers generated expectations that rarely were met. For instance, many parents at the center expected their involvement to be more substantive than fund-raising and chaperoning field trips. They wanted to have a role in program developmentto see themselves as collaborators in their childrens education.

Alternatively, the center staff saw partnership as parental support and involvement through fund-raising and helping with field trips. More important, the teachers considered parents partners when parents willingly engaged in dialogue about their children, accepted teachers interpretations of their childrens development, and supported their classroom management by enforcing classroom rules at home. Teachers at the center tended to be skeptical of the parents ability to become partners because they saw the parents as chronically stressed. The director of the center commented,

We live in a very high-powered society, where we get caught at certain, what we consider to be, lifestyles that are important that can be very detrimental to their children. For instance, a child could be picked up late three days out of five. A child who is anxious and waiting for that parent to come. But, on the other hand, the parent is in a high-powered job and traffic is terrible.

And a teacher commented,

Sometimes some kids are just impossible for weeks or months, forever at a time. And sometimes, when their parent comes in to talk to me, I just feel like . . . why are you . . . you know your childs . . . you know why we both know? Because you bring your child in here at quarter to 7. We dont even open until 7. You pick your child up at 6:15. Put them in bed at 7:15, you can spend an hour a day. And then you sit up here and ask me, how was he today, how was she today? The same as they are every other day. And weve discussed this. So I feel like, I dont want to talk to you. I dont want to have eye contact, I dont want to talk to you, because I keep saying the same thing over and over. Nothing is going to change.


Thus, a fundamental obstacle to achieving partnership was the teachers expectation that parents were incapable of being partners.

Parents, on the other hand, did expect to become partners with the teachers. They reported that they felt as though partnership was achieved when they had regular, informative communication with the teachers about their child that led to a shared view of the child. Parents interest in the curriculum appeared to threaten some of the teachers, particularly because teachers were excluded from parent meetings in which parents discussed educational issues with the director. That tripartite dynamic prevented collaborationalthough teachers did not seem interested in parental collaboration on curriculum anywayand satisfactory dialogue about education between parents and teachers. Furthermore, outside the classroom, the parents, supported by the director, exerted power as the principal consumers in a service industry. Inside the classrooms, the teachers were the experts who held knowledge, which the parents desperately wanted, about specific children.


In this yearlong study of mother-teacher relations at a socioeconomically  and ethnically diverse child care center, I found little evidence of mothers and teachers working as true partners in the care of their children. Although mothers and teachers shared responsibility for child care in the larger sense, several characteristics of mother-teacher relations undermined the potential for partnership. Differing expectations, unbalanced power relationships, issues of trust, the adults discretion about their interactions in front of children, and the mothers sensitivity about the behavior of their children all led to ambivalence about true partnership.

The child was an extremely powerful agent influencing relationships between mothers and teachers. First, the mother-teacher relationships were predicated on teacher-child relationships. Some mothers focused so intently on the quality of the teacher-child relationship that they did not appear even to consider the child care value of developing their own relationship with the teacher. Second, interactions between mothers and teachers tended to center on the childs experience and well-being. Thus, mother-teacher relations were colored by the childs experience and behavior. If mothers perceived their children as unhappy, it tended to undermine the mothers trust in the teacher and the child care situation. Lack of trust could undermine mothers interest to work as partners to improve the situation. In addition, reports of childrens misbehavior were a sensitive topic for mothers. Mothers could be embarrassed by their childrens problem behavior or, often, interpret reports of the childs misbehavior as criticism of their parenting. How mothers and teachers dealt with this information influenced their relationships. Finally, mothers and teachers were reticent to speak openly in front of the children, and the children were nearly always present during mother-teacher interactions. In sum, it was as if the child were the fulcrum of a seesaw on which parents and teachers teetered.

The childs power was often visible in interactions between mothers and teachers because the women were monitoring the childs activity while they conversed and because the child frequently interrupted their conversation. Although mothers and teachers typically acknowledged the childs physical presence and responded to the childs bids for attention, they rarely commented on how the child influenced their interactions. Thus, the child appeared to have a silent but powerful role in parent-teacher relationships.

This study was a single-site ethnographic case study of a child care center. That design allowed me to get to know the setting and the participants well but did not provide an opportunity for comparison in multiple child care centers or across types of child care arrangements. A multisite study could show how parent-teacher relationships vary institutionally and which features appear constant.

For example, a key influence on parent-teacher relationships in this study was the relationship between the staff and the center director. The existence of an institutional structure separating administration and educational/caregiving practitioners is a primary characteristic that differentiates center-based care from other care arrangements. The director-teacher relationship is likely to be an important one for parent-teacher relations generally in child care centers. A multisite study that included different types of care arrangements could explore more deeply the role of the director on parent-teacher relations. A study that included multiple centers could examine regularities and differences in director-teacher relations and how they influence parent-teacher relations. In particular, how, when, where, and with whom educational issues are discussed, how center policies are implemented, and how parent-teacher communication occurs in other centers could expose different patterns of interaction that might lead to different interpretations of mother-teacher relationships.

The relationship between staff and the director at the center was particularly dysfunctional compared with other centers in my experience. However, the socioeconomic status difference between the director and teachers in the center is probably not uncommon, given the educational background requirements of the two positions. That the director was White and middle-class, held an advanced degree, and was significantly older than the parent and the teachers contributed to her power as executive director, particularly in relation to the teachers who were mostly working-class women of color. In addition, the directors socioeconomic status may have led to a sense of comembership with the parents. These kinds of structural differences are likely to be present in many child care centers. Again, additional research could focus on director-teacher relations.

This study focused on parents and teachers of 2-year-olds. Interviews with mothers of older children in the center would add insight into the parent-teacher dynamic in the classroom because preschool-age children can, however selectively, report directly to their parents about their experience in child care. Moreover, this study focused on mothers rather than fathers. A study of the dynamic between fathers and teachers would be interesting to compare with that between mothers and teachers in an effort to understand the extent to which ambivalence in the parent-teacher roles is associated with gender roles.

The findings of the study have implications for helping parents and teachers develop more useful and rewarding relationships. Clearly, issues of power and trust are central to the possibility of parent-teacher partnerships. Given the fluctuating power dynamic in parent-teacher relationships and the necessity of trust for parents, however precarious, the development of partnership was framed in ambivalence.

Valuing parent-teacher relationships means forgoing the current rhetoric of partnership because it presumes a depth and commitment to the relationship that rarely exists. Partnership is an ideal worth striving for, but it will require sensitivity to the complexities of relationships between parents and teachers and recognition of the work involved in developing those relationships.

This study has shown that mothers and teachers come to the table with different expectations, knowledge, and needs, but also with a desire to work together. That interest in working together could be fostered by the child care institution in several ways, including (1) adjusting staffing patterns so that when parents are present, a teacher can be available to them; (2) providing support and training for teachers in communication and parent-teacher relations; and (3) making teachers work visible to parents through open house presentations and parent meetings that include teachers.

Parent-teacher relationships have a long way to go toward becoming partnerships, but I think it is possible and worthwhile for that movement to occur. The benefits of a committed partnership between teachers and parents include more sensitive and consistent care for children, support and peace of mind for parents, and support and respect for teachersall of which would have great implications for reducing stress for all concerned. If we are serious about improving the quality of child care, research and policy regarding child care must attend to adults and childrens experiences. The child care crisis is not simply a matter of supply and demand or quality, affordability, and availability. It is about improving the lives of those providing and receiving child care services so that all children receive high-quality care, all teachers work in economically sustainable and socially supportive environments, and all parents are able to make informed and confident decisions about child care.


1 See Erickson (1992) and Erickson and Wilson (1982) for discussions of multiple viewings of a recorded interaction and the microanalysis of strips of interaction showing that shifts in the physical arrangement, posture, shared gaze, and interpersonal distance of participants in space often accompany shifts in the social arrangement of participation.  Furthermore, relational roles, social identities, and rankings are aspects of the overall pattern of social organization evident in the participation framework or structure.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 109 Number 6, 2007, p. 1401-1422
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 13130, Date Accessed: 10/16/2021 9:19:20 PM

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About the Author
  • Wendy McGrath
    Independent Researcher
    E-mail Author
    WENDY HOBBINS MCGRATH’s research interests include teachers’ work lives in varied educational settings; school-family relations; and the culture of child care. Her doctoral degree is in Education, Culture, and Society from the University of Pennsylvania. Prior to attending graduate school, she was a child development specialist in the Early Childhood Development Center and Campus Child Care Center at the University of Vermont.
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