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The role of conflict

Posted By: Scott Metzger on September 13, 2005
I appreciate Stewart Ehly's conciliatory response to the problems of parent-teacher interaction, but his argument downplays the fundamental conflict of interests between parents and schools, especially the teachers. Certainly there are instances in which teachers are flat-out wrong, know they are wrong, and simply hide behind school bureaucracy to avoid redressing unquestionably legitimate parent demands. I suggest that much more commonly when parents and teachers are forced into interaction, each represents a separate interest that is reasonable and appropriate from a differing perspective. I fear that these kinds of conflicting perspectives cannot be readily resolved by opening up the school bureaucracy and establishing parent partnerships, putting teachers more readily at the mercy of certain parents (those motivated to avail themselves of the open system).

A common example that I've experienced and witnessed in my times in schools is a parent demanding a special concession for their child--a changed grade or admission into an advanced course with limited enrollment. From the parents' perspective, they are only doing what is best for their child: With schooling conflated with status-credential attainment, a wise parent does everything possibly to see that the child's transcript is as strong as can be. This is a perfectly legitimate, reasonable perspective. From the teacher's perspective, they are only doing their job in a way that is fair and consistent. A teacher gains or loses nothing by assigning Johnny a D- or a B+, nor does the teacher gain any advantage whether or not Johnny gets to enroll in AP English. The teacher quite reasonably and legitimate can argue, "Hey, I made my best professional judgment. I'm not gaining anything out of it, leave me alone." When parents lean on a principal to order a teacher to change a grade (this happened to me once in my first year of teaching) or admit a previously rejected student into an AP course, the teacher has little incentive not to comply but ultimately resents the manipulation that, from the teacher's perspectives, need to be fair and efficient for the overall society.

Parents are trying to maximize what their children gain from the school at a minimized difficulty; teachers want to maximize the autonomy of their professional judgment against individualistic interference at a minimized difficulty. I suggest this is why teachers "hate" parents. I agree with Ehly that "hate" was a provocative and poorly chosen word in the original title--I would have used "dread" instead. Every day when I came into my classroom and saw the message-waiting light flashing on my phone, I was struck by a sense of dread: "What special treatment does a parent want now?" This is a fundamental conflict of interest that I don't think will ever go away from schools. Making the bureaucracy more open or inserting parent partnerships into the structure will not do away with the fundamental conflict, it will only position some active parents to benefit more fully from the school and reduce teachers' systemic defenses.
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 The role of conflict by Scott Metzger on September 13, 2005
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