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Surviving Parent-Teacher Involvement

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Returning from a recent workshop on parent involvement, we marveled at the energy and commitment the more than 30 veteran teachers who had attended displayed. Over the past 10 years, we have been overwhelmed with anecdotes that show the lengths to which teachers will go to help students and their families. This group was no exception.

Even among these enthusiastic veterans, though, there were nagging doubts about how best to motivate parents to work with teachers. Some parents don't want to participate in school functions, or claim a persistent lack of time. The frustration and concern these teachers felt about unmotivated parents had been demonstrated by their willingness to spend a weekend in a workshop to get new ideas on the subject.

Can anything be done to enhance the prospects of parent involvement? We believe that the ways in which educators evaluate parents' behavior and participation often interfere with the development of successful strategies for increasing their collaboration.

Over the past 10 years, there has been ample rhetoric on parents' dwindling willingness to participate in schools. The dramatic increase in workforce participation of mothers over the past three decades is often cited as one explanation why, as is the vastly more complicated nature of today's schools and the social challenges they face.

Any review of parent-teacher involvement must begin with an examination of the two parties' perspectives on the benefits and costs of contact. Most people emphasize the benefits of such involvement, which are many. A list of the most commonly cited would include the following:

  • For students, increased achievement, greater motivation, fewer disciplinary problems, better attendance, more positive self-concept, and improved communication with teachers and families.
  • For teachers and administrators, heightened morale, more effectiveness in teaching, greater job satisfaction, improved relationships with students and parents, and enhanced community support.
  • For parents, more productive relationships with children and teachers, enhanced self-esteem, and sharpened decisionmaking skills.

Research, in many cases, confirms the wide-ranging anecdotal evidence that supports these positive aspects of parental involvement. But a counterweight of evidence suggests that some attempts to expand teacher contact with parents have produced less than uniform enthusiasm.

The down side of involvement includes:

  • An increased work load for teachers and administrators with few, if any, opportunities to receive compensation or recognition for their work;
  • The possibility that parents will not collaborate with teachers (possibly being seen as uncooperative and resistant to teacher overtures).
  • A lack of clear benefits, to the individual teacher, derived from working with specific parents or parents in general.
  • The very real possibility that even with a major commitment made today to increased involvement with parents, the educational bandwagon will move on to other priorities for teacher time and energy.

The issue of resistance or lack of motivation is worth examining, from both sides of the teacher-parent relationship. Legitimate differences may exist between parents and teachers, and across all parents and teachers, in perceptions of the value of increased contact.

A teacher may resist pressure to change past patterns of working with parents because he or she does not want to give up a style that has been successful in the past. Why fix something if it isn't broken? The teacher may perceive recommendations to alter the dynamics of encounters with parents as an attempt to change the teacher's control over relationship-building and agenda-setting with parents. The individual's sense of professionalism (competency and autonomy) is challenged whenever reformers attempt to impose change without fully involving those who would be affected by that change. Any attempt to change the status quo may fail to make sense to the teacher who has experienced success within existing arrangements or sees limited merit to increasing the involvement of parents in classroom governance.

Any recommendation to alter the intensity and nature of a well-established relationship like that of parents with teachers can be perceived in a number of different ways--as "much needed,'' as a realistic challenge, as the last straw on the teacher's back, or as "the worst idea since (you fill in the blank)''. Teachers' workloads show little likelihood of declining; thus, any argument suggesting more work (in this case, with parents) only adds to the possibility or the perception of overload and burnout. Working through individual teachers' perceptions of what is needed to best serve children represents a challenge to reformers.

These possible negative assessments by teachers of the value of increased involvement hold as well for parents. One point that schools anxious to involve parents must address is the parent's sense of what is best for the child. While schools may remain the single institution in our society that caters solely to children's development, the parent recognizes that the school's investment in the child can never resemble that of the parent. As reform rhetoric tells us, children spend only about 9 percent of the calendar year in schools. The remainder of time, they are at home or in the community.

Parental involvement, then, takes many forms: fulfilling basic parental obligations for a child's education and social development at home; providing home-based learning activities, collaborating with teachers (monitoring homework, tutoring, etc.); making up the audience for school events; participating in and building support for school events and programs; being a learner, too (participating in training offered through the school, whether on ways to be more involved, on parenting skills, or to improve basic skills, for example); volunteering time, being a classroom aide, or providing other assistance at school; being an advocate for the school and its programs in the community; and serving as an adviser or decisionmaker (on a board or committee with responsibility for advising school leaders or helping in school governance, for example).

Each form of involvement is important, the first being a 24-hour-a-day, 365-days-per-year commitment on which the success of much of what the school does is dependent. The remaining functions can supplement the school's 9 percent contribution to the family's commitments, but parental obligations to the child are non-negotiable. When the parent fails in providing basic nurturance, society must take up the slack. All the other parental school functions can be thought of as negotiable--the school must attract, recruit, and maintain parent interest in school functions and must be able to demonstrate the value of school services both with and without an additional investment of the parent's time and energy.

Parents who hesitate to become involved in school programs face labels such as "unmotivated'' and "resistant.'' These charges are not new. But blaming the parent for the child's school difficulties has become so widespread that it may be prudent for educators to examine the different explanations offered for why parents fail to participate in schools or collaborate with teachers.

Parents may think of themselves as unwanted guests in the school. Educators have worked hard to convince parents that schoolpeople can be entrusted with the care and education of children, in loco parentis. Some forms of parent involvement, especially conferences, heighten this sense of school-sufficiency, becoming ritualized forums that allow parents little genuine involvement in agenda-setting. Probably few parents who have attempted to influence school decisionmaking processes would say that they have not experienced barriers.

Another factor is the energy level. With the increased number of working mothers, parents in the main have much less time during normal school hours to visit, volunteer, and participate in committees that meet during the daytime. In the evening they are tired, faced with family responsibilities, and often with work assignments they must complete at home. With current pressures on parents, few traditional means of parent involvement seem as feasible and acceptable as they did in earlier decades.

In addition, there may be legitimate differences in viewpoint between parents and teachers. Why wouldn't there be? The parent maintains ultimate responsibility for the child's development. The teacher is a "short timer,'' with a much more limited sense of the child's capabilities and potentials. The parent already has a mandate to attend to the child's best interests. When he or she sees the actions of the school or its representatives as challenging those best interests, why cooperate? Better yet, why not take differences to an arena in place to address differences between parties in conflict, the court room?

Information on how parents can function as decisionmakers within schools is limited. Parents have few examples of school-governance success stories to copy or modify at the local level. In general, then, the atmosphere of relations between parents and teachers remains cordial as long as the parent behaves in a manner predictable and acceptable to the teacher. Likewise, teachers who are predictable and acceptable to parents gain credibility.

When differences between parent and teacher emerge, and cordial (nonassertive) approaches to problem-solving fail, the parties are left with two behavioral extremes: agreeing to operate assertively as equals or escalating the differences through the use of aggression.

There is much to commend the first option--training parents and teachers to function assertively within a relationship. Assertiveness can exemplify an ongoing commitment to clarity and honesty in communication. We believe, in fact, that assertiveness is central to all forms of negotiation between parents and schools directed at producing "win-win'' outcomes.

But while educators, through programs of professional development, can address their limitations as communicators and negotiators, parents, unfortunately, have few resources to call on in this area. We believe educators have an ethical and professional responsibility to insure that there is parity in relations between parents and schools, that is, that parents and educators have equal access to information, that valid information is exchanged, and that the relationship operates under conditions of full and informed consent.

More attention must be given, as well, to the fundamental concerns about time and energy overload for both sides of the interactional equation. Strategies that provide new, realistic avenues for collaboration without interfering with the basic obligations of educator and parent must be developed and piloted. And these must address the differential involvement of mothers and fathers and the perception by educators that mothers are a more comfortable or natural partner. If fathers have much to offer the school (and we believe they do), then targeting recruitment efforts at fathers should become a priority.

We close with two thoughts. The first of these is that schools can create opportunities for parents to define what involvement could mean. Rather than imposing expectations on parents, educators should negotiate with them on goals, policies, and procedures for parent-teacher collaboration that would take full advantage of the expertise and energy they bring to their children's upbringing.

Second, schools should consider how new technology--or new uses of existing technology--could create opportunities for interchange with parents and other caregivers. Access to teachers must not be restricted to times and settings dictated by the schools. With technology adding to a rich assortment of means to exchange information, we can improve both access and understanding. And, as a result, we can avoid labeling parental behavior as unmotivated or resistant and focus instead on what's most important to parents and teachers--the enrichment of children's lives.

Stewart Ehly and Dick Dustin are faculty members at the University of Iowa college of education in Iowa City.

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