You walk through school gates as a small child, full of questions and looking for answers. You leave them years later, with excitement at where your life will progress. But what happens in the time in between?
Frequently large and imposing, school gates can form a barrier between families and their child’s educators, dividing the most significant influences in a child’s life. Dr Don Edgar (OAM) has been one of Australia’s greatest academic contributors to family law and policy. He says, “The purpose of an educational institution is to help a family educate a child.” If that’s the case, the parent-teacher relationship is one of the most important collaborations possible.
Unfortunately, when children start school, we often shut the College gates and we divide a child’s life into ‘school’ and ‘home’. We assume the majority of education happens inside of the gates. That’s not true.
What do parents and educators bring to the partnership?
Parents and teachers have different, but equally important banks of knowledge. Generally a parent has relational knowledge and teachers have expert knowledge. Parents know the way their child learns best. They can tell what’s most likely to create fear or pain and shut down their child’s learning. They also know particular nuances that will affect academic and social learning. Most of all, they give their child the confidence and support that comes with unconditional love.
Educators have expert knowledge in teaching and curriculum. They also have experience with the developmental stages children move through. They’ve literally seen it hundreds of times in hundreds of children. Teachers view this development with the wonder of someone who has decided that working with children and education is how they want to spend their lives.
If we marry that relational and expert knowledge, our children will be unstoppable. Still, frequently the partnership has not occurred, and an unintentional hedge is developed between ‘home’ and ‘school’ life. This division does our children no favours.
What gets in the way of the parent-educator partnership?
What comes between parents and educators is passion. The relationship is not simply a business exchange, it is the education of a child, which holds an emotional investment far greater than any other partnership
Mr Mathew Irving is a teacher and Deputy Head – Strategy at Wesley College in Perth. He explains that teachers are frequently overly sensitive to the criticism of parents, which is understandable. This is their vocation and part of their identity. So yes, they feel it deeply when they’re challenged. It questions their understanding of self. “Only very recently has education been dragged into the corporate world of transparency and responsibility. The classrooms are no longer the private environment of the teacher. Their results are online for parents, national testing is reported, ATAR results are turned into league tables. Performance is measured and questions are asked.”
This change has occurred quickly, and teachers are occasionally off balance as a result, especially when parents are aggressive and demanding. Rather than seeking to make an effective partnership around the child, there can be a clash between parent’s expectations and the vocation of educating and nurturing children. Both parties can bring a lot of emotional baggage to the relationship. For a parent, your child is the most important thing in your life. The gloves come off if there’s a perceived wrong. Parents approach teachers with an attitude they would most likely not use with any other professional.
Frequently, there is the expectation that educators be on call for parents at all times. It isn’t unusual for teachers to be cornered for a parent-teacher meeting on the sidelines of a sporting event or before a concert. More common is a parent waiting in a corridor for the teacher to finish their class. With the arrival of digital communication, this expectation to be on call has come more prevalent. I’ve had a parent complain at 8.00am that I hadn’t returned the email they sent at 10.00pm the night prior.
Of course, not all parents are this extreme, nor all teachers unaccustomed to criticism, however they are trends that are becoming far more visible.
What do we jeopardise when we don’t create great partnerships?
At the centre if our dilemma is children. Theyre the biggest losers when we don’t nurture effective partnerships.
What do they lose?
- Kids lose the opportunity for safe relationships with adults who are on the same page and invested in their care. Never underestimate how powerful it is for kids to be receiving the same messages about learning and values at home and at school. Disengagement comes when a child receives mixed messages.
- Relationships with teachers and other school staff are a child’s entry point into an adult world. If those relationships are positive, it is a great advantage for a child. It empowers them to face the world with an expectation of collaboration, mentorship and growth.
- Children don’t have as many significant adults outside of the home as they used to. This is due to the increase in smaller families, separated families, migration and the fact that parenting has become very private. All of this means that teachers have become more significant in providing different versions of what it means to be a happy, successful adult. If a supportive parent-teacher partnership exists, kids can seek clarity and different perspectives from teachers who are invested in their care.
- Children learn about relationships by seeing relationships. The partnership parents and teachers have, and the regard and respect they show one another, can have a powerful impact.
- Ultimately learning is compromised. If the relationship between teacher and student is sullied by undermining at home, the child loses. Respect breeds trust and trust is required for effective learning. It’s important to let your child know you trust their teachers. If you don’t have that trust, that’s a conversation you need to have privately with the school.
The Way Forward
Mr Irving says. “The way to navigate our way forward is to show respect – both ways. We’re each in this together and we’ve a shared opportunity to create the synergy that sparks a child’s passion for learning and life.”
He’s right. Both parties are working towards the nurturing and growth of a child. We have a common bond and interest. It’s such an important shared adventure that we need to fling those imposing College gates wide open and work our way forward together.
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