Teacher/family partnerships: How teachers view parents

Nurture an understanding of the differences between the role of the teacher and the role of the parent to become more professional.

There are differences in the roles of teachers and parents. Photo credit: FreeImages.com/Heriberto Herrera
There are differences in the roles of teachers and parents. Photo credit: FreeImages.com/Heriberto Herrera

For many early childhood educators, one of the more challenging aspects of our professional lives is establishing a positive relationship with each of the families in our classrooms. As we visit early childhood classrooms and interact with teachers and parents, we continue to observe and overhear teachers expressing doubts about some family members’ parenting skills. Some teachers do not hesitate to lay the blame squarely at the family’s door when things go wrong with children. Some teachers take over some of the parenting tasks themselves rather than discuss the issue with the family. Some teachers claim that they themselves are better parents to the child than the child’s own parents.

According to Michigan State University Extension, these extreme behaviors do much to damage the relationship between a teacher and the families in his/her classroom. While a teacher who feels superior to a parent may try to hide or disguise his/her attitude toward the parent, many times this effort fails and the families feel disrespected and judged. At best, a family who feels a lack of respect from the teacher will avoid collaborating with the teacher. At worst, these families will leave the program and search for a setting where they are more comfortable. Either way, it is a disruption in the child’s early care and education. And, it is avoidable.

One strategy that helps teachers is to nurture an understanding of the differences between the role of the teacher and the role of the parent in a child’s life. Dr. Lilian Katz, has examined these differences in her book Talks with Teachers of Young Children. In her essay entitled “Mothering and Teaching: Some Significant Distinctions”, Katz identifies seven dimensions on which parents and teachers of young children operate from opposite ends of the spectrum. The dimensions include intensity of affect, attachment, rationality, spontaneity, partiality, scope of functions and scope of responsibility. Within the first five dimensions, there is a broad spectrum of response which she describes as extending from high level to low levels.

In Katz’ view, parents have high intensity of affect (or emotional expression), optimum attachment, optimum irrationality, optimum spontaneity, and intense partiality toward their child. Simply put, they are more emotionally attached, more in love and more in favor of their own child than anyone else is. This is what we expect from parents, and we find it odd when parents do not show these types of reactions. Teachers, on the other hand, are expected to be less emotionally attached, have an easier time being rational and intentional, and impartial in their attitude toward a child.

But, many times, teachers struggle with the boundaries of the role. We find ourselves becoming emotionally attached to the children we care for and teach. We find ourselves loving them, becoming irrational and partial. We find ourselves thinking that we know what is best for a child and that the child is as attached to us as they are to their parents. And, this is where we stumble.

When we feel tempted to over-step boundaries, it is critical that every teacher remind themselves of the two additional dimensions that Katz’ identifies. These are the scope of function and scope of responsibility of a parent and a teacher. The parent’s function is broad. In Katz’ words, it is “diffuse and limitless.” Parents are expected to function as a parent to the child for as long as they live, and provide all types of care and support, from food, shelter and other material things to love, emotional support, guidance, direction and counseling. The teacher’s function is narrow. The expectation for teachers is to provide learning opportunities in a supportive setting. And at the same time, the parent’s scope of responsibility is narrow. They are expected to be responsible for primarily their own children. A teacher’s responsibility is broad; it extends to the entire classroom. The needs of all of the children and families are her/his task and duty.

Whether or not, as teachers, we accept Katz’ analysis of the differences between parenting and teaching, we all must accept that there are differences if we want to be professional. Our Code of Ethical Conduct reminds us that “Families are of primary importance in children’s development. Because the family and the early childhood practitioner have a common interest in the child’s well-being, we acknowledge a primary responsibility to bring about communication, cooperation, and collaboration between the home and early childhood program in ways that enhance the child’s development”. This cannot happen if teachers adopt a superior attitude toward some parents, and fail to search for ways to support family strengths. Understanding the role of the family and the teacher in the child’s world can help us support young children’s growth and development.

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