It isn’t something taught extensively in pre-service teacher training, but it can be crucial to a child’s learning experience. Natalie Sanders spoke to Dr Sue Saltmarsh about the parent-teacher relationship.
Engaging with learning is a lifelong process – from the rocket clock of Play School through to postgraduate study and beyond.
The experiences gained during primary and high school years provide a platform for an individual’s future relationship to learning.
While this relationship can be a complex one, parents play a large part in their children’s interaction with education. Dr Sue Saltmarsh from ACU’s Faculty of Education argues that this integral relationship between parents and teachers should be encouraged – to provide the best possible educational outcome for children.
If the parent-teacher relationship becomes fractured or dysfunctional it can have an enduring impact on the child’s learning. “Parents set the tone for how children engage with educational institutions,” Dr Saltmarsh said. “If the relationships between parents, teachers and principals are positive ones then children are more likely to see themselves as belonging and valued in the school community.”
While many schools have created an environment where communication between parents and teachers is highly valued and their practices reflect that, there are also many examples of schools where communication is a problem and parent school relationships are under pressure.
To explore the issue Dr Saltmarsh, an Associate Professor of Educational Studies, is undertaking a study on Engaging with Parents, Carers and Families – and examining the relationships between parents and schools throughout New South Wales. By conducting focus groups across the state in independent, Catholic and public schools, Dr Saltmarsh is hearing what’s important to parents – and early results indicate that it’s not necessarily good grades.
“We have an educational and political climate that really puts a lot of emphasis on competition, accountability and the measurement of outcomes,” she said.
“An interesting response from the focus groups was that across the sectors parents expect schools to be about more than outcomes. They want schools to be part of the community and not separate entities that are only interested in results.”
Ideally, school is a place where parents form relationships with other parents, get to know different children and engage with their child’s teacher. If they are excluded or feel marginalised they feel that they are not welcome to play a part in their child’s educational experience.
“We haven’t had any parents that were involved in our study talk about leaving a school because they weren’t happy with the quality of education their child was getting, but we have had parents talk about leaving to find another school where they would feel more welcome.
“Parents have commented that teachers may see 30 kids each year for the next 20 years, but parents only have their own children and will ultimately live with the consequences of positive or negative educational experience. So the stakes are really high for parents who want to see their child do well at school and grow up to have a healthy positive relationship with learning.” Dr Saltmarsh said the same is true for teachers.
“Teachers’ work is complex, and can involve dealing with sensitive issues where students’ families are concerned,” she said.
“Parents we interviewed recognised that teachers have a tough job, and many commented that the problems they’d experienced might have been avoided if there had been better communication strategies in place.”
In a second phase of the study, teachers from around Australia have been interviewed about the ways that parent engagement is currently being taught at university. Findings show that in some universities, students learn about parent-school relations in a small number of lectures and tutorials, while in other universities entire subjects are devoted to the topic. Dr Saltmarsh said this was one lesson that should be taught consistently for the sake of children’s education.
“It’s really important that commencing teachers feel well-prepared for dealing effectively with parents,” she said.
“Parents want to be taken seriously, and to make a meaningful contribution to their children’s school experience. Teachers need to have a good understanding of how they can manage relationships with parents so that when problems do arise, they can be addressed effectively.”