A really horrible dynamic has grown up in schools, where parents treat education as a product, and their children’s learning as a commodity that they expect schools to deliver.”
As a teacher, you might well be cheering these words of wisdom from psychologist, parenting guru and Australian educational expert Steve Biddulph. But you may not like what comes next quite as much: he suggests that schools themselves have sometimes also been guilty of buying into this narrative.
“Schools defend themselves against this consumerist attitude by hitting back with increased homework, expectations and rules, which passes the blame [to parents],” he argues. “It’s an unhealthy circle in which the child feels pressure from all directions.”
Biddulph is well versed in how to ensure children thrive. He has been a psychologist for more than 40 years, his series of parenting books (including Raising Boys and The Secret of Happy Children) have sold 4 million copies, he has spoken and lectured across the world on childhood and parenting and he has been patron of several charities working with children.
He’s certain that the teacher-parent relationship matters a great deal to both the emotional and academic outcomes of a child.
“There is a great deal of research, going back for many decades, that kids do best when parents see the school and teacher as an ally and friend,” says Biddulph. “Children who perceive their parents as believing in their school have a better attitude to it and apply themselves more.”
Both teachers and parents have a crucial role in building that relationship, he believes: “This has to go beyond just being nice to each other at parent-teacher nights. It has to be a real friendship that transcends formal roles. Both sides need to drop the parent or teacher mask and be themselves.
Discarding the masks
That’s not just about being more “truly you” than “teacher you” (those two versions of the self can be varying degrees apart, depending on the individual teacher). Rather, it requires teachers to genuinely get to know parents on a friendship level, he explains. And, he says, it is also about collaborating to take on a system that seems intent on creating an environment in which relationships are hard to build.
“Sympathy for the difficulties each faces is important,” he says. “In Britain, the growing pressure put on teachers through pointless and excessive testing and paperwork means many teachers are exhausted. And parents are often too busy as well, with little downtime. It’s not surprising that a rushed conversation at the end of the day doesn’t always engender good relationships. We need to learn from countries like the Netherlands, where school is a lot slower, more relaxed, and there is time to get to know each other.”
“Nobody is willing to take the pressure off and say that school marks and school success are not as important as loving learning, finding your own strengths and being willing to fail in order to learn.”
He believes schools are starting to force a change, though: “The crisis in mental health finally seems to be making schools re-examine their success focus and ask if that’s really the best preparation for adult life.”
And he is hopeful that this will enable parents to rethink some of their expectations, too.
“Parents have to realise their own part in the team, which is to raise kids with backbone and heart,” he says. “Home should be a peaceful haven and a place where children feel secure and relaxed. And where there are clear expectations to help them fit in and work together. This delivers to the school a child who is already emotionally intelligent.”
A sense of belonging
Biddulph feels it will be helpful for parents to have more opportunities to be part of the school community.
“Many parents had a bad time at school themselves, or did not trust it – and this is especially so with lower income parents,” he explains. “Having events and ways for parents to be in and enjoy the school environment – from concerts, talks and fairs to ‘dad and daughter’ days or ‘dads and lads’ activity nights – is key, because these sorts of events allow mixing and belonging to develop.”
Of course, no matter how hard schools try to forge better links with their parents, sometimes there may be more serious issues that can’t be easily overcome. So does Biddulph think that teachers’ roles become even more important when children’s family lives are difficult?
“Some children come from homes that are very unhappy places,” he admits. “For these children, school is the only place they experience stability and warmth from adults. Teachers sense and know this and, if they are not under too much time pressure, they can step up and become a surrogate parent, or at least aunty or uncle figure.
“Children know when an adult likes them and love to be around that person, and that is the key to them learning well. Of course, some kids are difficult to like and that takes a really special kind of adult.”
In other words, while schools can’t entirely mitigate the problems children experience at home, they really do have the power to make a significant difference. And the qualities that he says a teacher needs to take this “parental” role have the happy side effect of improving the educational experiences of the others, too, says Biddulph. Those qualities are largely the same for boys and for girls.
“My research into boys found four factors made the biggest difference: teachers need to be friendly, firm, fun, and focused,” he explains.
“So it was a balance of relational and task orientation. Girls are more tolerant of poor or disorganised teaching, but all children like a teacher who is warm and strong. Also, many boys lack fathers in their lives, and so male teachers who are warm and nurturing are vital, especially in primary schools.”
Biddulph is clear that the relationships between parents, teachers and children lie at the heart of all education – get these right, and the rest should follow.
“We learn from people we like and who we sense like us. Most teachers are in the profession because they themselves had a teacher that they loved. But we can all sometimes struggle with our roles, and we are all learning as we go. Being humble about this and not blaming others is the key to a more friendly, and therefore flexible, team effort. It’s a good thing for children to see this continuous learning being modelled, too.
For me, that’s what makes teaching the most central profession to social wellbeing there is.”
Kate Townshend is a primary teacher in Gloucester and a freelance journalist. She tweets @_katetownshend