Chapter Eight: Parents and Families, Communities and Schools

8.3 Separate Worlds: Traditional Patterns of Parent-Teacher Relations

Despite the role that families play in promoting educational success, schools have generally made only limited attempts to develop well-structured links with parents, and home–school relations are often still characterized by a considerable degree of unease. There are several explanations for this. Traditionally, social scientists have pointed to the inherent incompatibility of families and schools as social institutions in terms of their goals, roles, and relationships. Within the family, children and adults form small and enduring social units that are characterized by highly personal and emotional bonds of dependency and support. These cohesive social units operate in marked contrast to the ways in which large numbers of students are required to relate to a relatively few teachers in schools and classrooms that are, more or less, bureaucratically organized, and where relationships are typically task-specific and sometimes impersonal. Given this incompatibility, it was argued that homes and schools’ separate purposes are best achieved independently, when “teachers maintain their professional, general standards and judgments about children in their classrooms, and when parents maintain their personal, particularistic standards and judgments about their children at home” (Epstein, 1986, p. 277).

A further barrier to parent–teacher collaboration is created by teachers’ long-standing ambition to be afforded the status and prestige of true professionals. Inasmuch as such aspirations are seen as requiring teachers to be the possessors of a unique and specialized body of knowledge that is unavailable to others, the pursuit of such recognition has the dual effect of both devaluing, in the eyes of the school, the knowledge that parents possess about their children and discouraging teachers from sharing their knowledge with “nonprofessional” parents, even though these are essential elements of meaningful collaboration. When this drive for professional status is placed within the context of the deficit view of families noted earlier, it is hardly surprising that only limited effort has been made to develop broad-based initiatives that could transcend the structural differences that characterize families and schools, and work collaboratively toward commonly held educational objectives.

As a consequence, parent–teacher relations often remain poorly developed, left up to the efforts of individual teachers, reaching only some parents, and directed away from central issues of instruction and governance.