Many teachers do not question the fact that they have a shared responsibility with parents for educating children, despite anecdotal evidence that this division of power can be problematic for both parties.
Academic research has done little to help bridge the gap between parents and teachers; until relatively recently, it explored the motivation for parents and teachers to work together in separate studies (Jacobs, 2008). This belief seems to have infiltrated society as many teachers and parents are not yet fully used to viewing collaboration as two interwoven strands coming from different points of origin to create one common end – the education and development of their children.
The two extremes
The problem for teachers is that we often experience two extremes. At one end we struggle to engage parents who show little interest in their child’s education and at the other, we can feel vulnerable and even under attack from the omnipresent eye of parents who demand high levels of involvement. What can we do as a profession to navigate our way between these two extremes and build mutually supportive relationships between teachers and parents?
Successive governments and educational professionals have benefited from an increase in evidence of the beneficial impact to children’s learning from having positive partnerships between school and home. Indeed, Wherry (2010, p. 10) maintains that ‘building parent trust in your school is a prerequisite for student achievement’.
Furthermore, Bryk & Schneider (2003) found that when school trust levels were high, so was student achievement and inversely weak levels of trust was significantly linked to poor academic performance. But there remains an imbalance between the numbers of studies exploring teachers’ motivation to enlist the support of parents compared with studies looking into parental motivation for involving themselves in their children’s education. Perhaps this is political and plays to a larger proportion of the electorate. Even so, scholars have still to reach a consensus on what motivates teachers to enlist the support of parents and as Jacobs (2008) states, ‘unless we know teachers’ perceptions of the utility of parent involvement, our picture is incomplete’.
Parental involvement in schools
It is widely accepted that there is a strong positive correlation between social and economic status (SES), parental involvement and children’s academic development (Lareau, 2003; Hoover-Dempsey et al., 2005).
Many of us recognise the characteristics of parental involvement; communication, volunteering, learning at home, decision making and collaborating with the community. To this, we should add the interplay between high parental expectations and high teacher expectations.
Parental involvement and the ability to have a strong voice in school governance are all policy initiatives granted by governments and embraced by schools wishing to create additional opportunities to support children’s achievement. This is particularly evident amongst middle class families where parents tend to have a greater interconnectedness with their children’s schools (Wright, 2009).
However, despite schools expressing a desire for parental involvement, in practice the phenomenon is not universally welcomed by teachers. Newly-qualified teachers (NQTs), for instance, often have to question their own beliefs about parents before they feel confident enough to negotiate and work with them (C. Meehan and P.J. Meehan, 2017).
For some teachers, parental involvement is greeted with suspicion and possibly even hostility.
Why do some teachers struggle with parental involvement?
This article believes that if parents have high expectations of teachers and demand a high level of involvement then teachers should welcome, nurture and hone their interest while cultivating interest among the many parents who may still be reluctant to get involved.
Issues of teachers’ perceptions of their own professionalism and of professional trust occupy a large part of the existing literature, explaining why some teachers struggle to accept parental involvement. Crozier (2000) goes as far as to suggest that teachers use their professionalism as a protective barrier to perceived parental interference and criticism.
The presence of parental involvement within staffroom conversation is believed to have a significant psychological influence on teachers’ perceptions of parents’ roles within schools (Bastiani, 1986, p. 23). It is difficult to measure the extent to which teachers’ perception of parental involvement impacts on teacher performance, however, it is important to be wary of the potential harm our own words (even if delivered in jest) can have on shaping reactions and teaching practice (Anderson, 2000).
Following a correlational analyses and paired-sample analyses of two hundred and eighteen parents and sixty teachers, results suggest that teacher perceptions of parents can be stereotyped and that such stereotypes may affect children’s academic performance (Bakker et al., 2007). This reflects older findings from Rosenthal and Jacobson’s (1968) work on self-fulfilling prophecies where pupils’ achievement has been seen to be affected by teachers’ perceptions of pupils’ SES, irrespective of the accuracy of these perceptions (Bakker et al., 2007).
Why should teachers encourage parental involvement?
What can teachers do to diffuse the tension and potential power struggle that are often characteristic aspects of parental involvement? How do we include parents to become an intrinsic component of our daily teaching practice? Through honest and open self-assessment of their personal and professional perceptions of parents and parental involvement, teachers can begin to establish positive relationships with parents to further improve children’s academic attainment.
Research reveals that teachers have limited control over the style of parental involvement that takes place within the home, but they can establish conditions within school that influence parental involvement (Wright, 2009). Some scholars, for instance, believe that open and honest teacher self-assessments of perceptions and attitudes towards parents and parental involvement will provide the opportunities for an improved understanding between teachers and parents (Wright, 2009).
Teacher expectation, of which we hear so much these days, is in fact, a driving force that is mutually reliant on parental expectations and parental involvement – the more we expect of parents the more we can see children learn and develop.
Benefits of parental involvement
Most contemporary research focuses on the impact of teacher expectations on individual children’s attainment levels, which is fed on an almost daily basis to teachers through the press and continuous professional development (CPD) programmes. We rarely hear, however, of the results of numerous studies which have shown a significant effect of parental involvement on children’s educational attainment (Bakker et al., 2007).
Studies reveal that parental involvement varies independently of families’ socio-economic characteristics. Bakker et al. (2007), for example, claim that the magnitude of observed effects of socio-economic background varies according to the aspect of parental involvement under scrutiny; it is the type of involvement and not the parents’ financial status that directly correlates to children’s progression at school. This is good news for teachers as we cannot influence parents’ incomes, but we can guide all parents to engage with children’s learning in ways that we know are carefully targeted to meet the needs of the individual child.
Teacher expectation, of which we hear so much these days, is in fact, a driving force that is mutually reliant on parental expectations and parental involvement – the more we expect of parents the more we can see children learn and develop. It explains why some teachers promote parental involvement and how they are able to manage that involvement.
What are the most helpful aspects of parental involvement?
The results of a series of interviews with key stage 1 teachers at a small school in Bath has highlighted a number of different reasons why teachers engage with parents. Their accounts revealed a number of vital categories that indicated the range of personal and professional benefits . At one end, there is the purely mercenary (but often necessary) requirement to mobilise parents’ involvement to help lighten workloads. It is time-honoured tradition to require children to finish off work at home or for younger children to learn key concepts such as phonics at home.
Their accounts stress the importance of being able to share the burden of heavy workloads and the admission that teachers cannot achieve the grades they are able to without relying on parents to consolidate class-based learning. This is seen to enhance rather than undermine a teacher’s professional status by creating a learning partnership where both parties see each other as vital specialists on different aspects of a child’s wellbeing. Above all else it is known that children learn best when they see that their home and school lives are interlinked.
In conclusion, we need to be encouraging all parents to be involved in their child’s learning. We need to see it as an opportunity to share the responsibility for educating a child and not an infringement on our professional judgment or practice. It is every teacher’s responsibility to share information about a child’s learning with a child’s parent or guardian and it’s increasingly our responsibility to foster parental interest in ways that will help children to flourish at school and at home.
It should not, however, be a teacher’s responsibility to determine how we should navigate our way through the many different versions of parental involvement that we deal with on a daily basis. Individual teachers need to know that they have the support of their senior leadership team and, in turn, schools need greater levels of guidance from the Department of Education and The Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services... More. It would be interesting to see just how many schools have a parental involvement policy.
In an era of tiger mums and numerous social media groups dedicated to helping parents share information about teachers and teaching, teachers could benefit from having more guidance about ways to nurture and channel the enthusiasm of parents at one end and how to engage less involved parents at the other (Pearson, 2011). We are all working to achieve the same goal and we might get there faster if there was more linked-up thinking between policy-makers, schools and parental groups.