Commentary: Effective partnerships with parents require teachers to step back too
Teachers too must hold back from taking actions that increase parents’ reliance on them, says NIE’s Jason Tan.
SINGAPORE: The Ministry of Education (MOE) recently published a set of guidelines for school-home partnerships.
These guidelines are supposed to provide greater clarity on how schools and parents can work together as part of a common quest to develop all students holistically.
They focus on giving advice to parents on how best to work with schools. They also include tips on creating a conducive home environment for children to do homework and how to guide children to develop independent study habits.
Parents are also reminded that teachers are not required to share their mobile numbers and may not be able to respond to queries immediately. In addition, parents are urged to contact teachers only during school operating hours.
TEACHERS HAVE A ROLE TOO
Amid these reminders about the need to respect teacher-parent boundaries, little attention has been paid to teachers’ roles and responsibilities.
What are the appropriate ways for teachers to negotiate home-school partnerships and when might teachers be overstepping their boundaries?
A few years ago, MOE formalised the Teachers’ Ethos, which spells out professional expectations of teachers. Among the key elements is the need for teachers to form trusting, supportive and collaborative partnerships with families with the ultimate aim of bringing out the best in each student.
It is all too tempting for teachers, especially those teaching primary school students, to get frustrated when students fail to hand in homework on time. Some teachers assume that parents have failed to supervise their children and ensure that homework is done.
They therefore go beyond merely listing the homework for students in the classroom by WhatsApp-ing parents on a daily basis, providing detailed instructions on what homework has been assigned and how it is to be completed.
Behind such actions, the zeal these teachers feel is understandable and may indeed serve to ensure the responsibility of homework remains with the child and his or her parents.
However, it may have the unintended effect of leading parents to rely on such daily reminders. In fact, some parents may come to expect these reminders as a matter of course, and view them as an integral part of a teacher’s responsibilities.
Teachers may also be in danger of crossing an unspoken line between teacher and parental responsibilities, by dictating their expectations of parental responsibilities.
BUT INTERVENING IN HOME MATTERS CAN BE TRICKY
Another tricky situation arises when teachers feel that parents are not doing enough to support important school initiatives.
For instance, amid national drives to reduce sugar intake and tobacco consumption, teachers may unwittingly place themselves at odds with some parents when students share the message about healthier lifestyles with their parents, and urge their parents to change their lifestyles.
The last thing teachers want to do is to introduce strife within the family and undermine their students’ images of their parents as adult role models.
Even more detrimental is the tendency to judge students’ parents based on their children’s behaviour or academic outcomes in school and to assign all the blame to parents, while expecting them to fix the problem.
This happened recently when a teacher made a social media post in which she lambasted parents who she alleged had not taken the effort to spend time reading with their children.
Her unfortunate outburst demonstrates a condescending lack of sensitivity to the different circumstances which various parents find themselves in, and contributes little in promoting trusting, supportive and collaborative partnerships with parents – precisely the goal she seeks.
YET TEACHERS MUST INTERVENE ON SOME OCCASIONS
While as educators, we should all adopt a cautionary posture to avoid overstepping the boundaries needed for a strong, healthy teacher-parent partnership, that does not mean that teachers should apply a blunt approach and shy away from looking over their students’ lives outside of school altogether.
Indeed, because teachers spend an incredible amount of time with students, and are generally seen as trusted figures of authority, they are in a special position when it comes to ensuring the well-being of those entrusted into their care, especially those who are more vulnerable.
There are definitely occasions when they will not only be expected to but also called upon to actively intervene in students’ lives at home in the interests of their students’ welfare.
For instance, if teachers have reason to suspect that their students are victims of domestic physical or sexual abuse, they not only are within their rights to alert relevant authorities, but are often expected to look out for such cases.
Back to drawing appropriate boundaries between teachers and parents, it is interesting that MOE’s guidelines advise parents to restrict their communication with teachers to school operating hours. But what about teachers’ communication with parents?
Teachers need to recognise that not all parents can respond to their telephone calls or WhatsApp messages during these hours. In such cases, it will be impossible for both parents and teachers to adhere to these guidelines, and both sides must find a constructive balance that ensures they both play appropriate roles in educating our kids.
In summary, it is timely for teachers to remind themselves to watch the delicate line demarcating teacher and parental responsibilities.
Although teachers face increasing demands of public scrutiny and accountability, they need to ensure that they do not take on more than their work calls for.
In doing so it is worth bearing in mind three things:
First, well-intentioned acts such as sending daily homework reminders to parents may in fact undermine supportive partnerships by engendering an unnecessary reliance on these reminders.
Second, teachers need to be careful that they do not unintentionally undermine students’ respect for their parents.
Third, teachers need to work more closely with parents as allies rather than as adversaries. Blaming parents for perceived shortcomings does little to develop mutual trust between parents and teachers.
The guidelines issued by MOE are a good starting point to begin this conversation about what the best teacher-parent partnership should look like, and may differ depending on familial and school circumstances.
Trusting partnerships cannot be developed overnight. And it is only through a slow, careful process of listening to parents’ concerns instead of merely dispensing advice that teachers too can preserve hard-won trust and respect from parents.
Jason Tan is associate professor at the National Institute of Education.