Parent–teacher relationships in school micropolitics: beginning teachers’ stories

August 2021

Source: Teachers and Teaching, 27:6, 461-473

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

This article asks how are micropolitical conditions and strategies portrayed in beginning teachers’ stories of parent–teacher relationships.
The article contributes to the theoretical discussion of parent–teacher relationships in schools and particularly examines how issues of power and interests emerge in beginning teachers’ experiences of those relationships. The article has theoretical and practical implications for addressing parent–teacher relationships as an aspect of schools’ micropolitical realities, which can provide pre- and in-service teachers with a more nuanced view of these relationships.

The authors employ a narrative approach in this research focusing on parent–teacher relationships in school micropolitics.
Seven Finnish beginning primary school teachers were interviewed one to three times during the first 2 years of their teaching careers (the first interview was during their first autumn as a teacher, the second at the end of their first school year, and the third at the end of their second school year).
All interviewed teachers worked in public schools.
As often typical for beginning teachers in Finland, the interviewed teachers started working in temporary contracts after graduation.
The interviewed teachers chose the location for the interviews, which lasted between 40 and 100 minutes each.
The interviews were narrative in nature, which allowed teachers to tell about their everyday experiences as beginning teachers and to make sense of those experiences (Riessman, 2008).
In line with the narrative approach, these stories are regarded as reconstructions produced in a particular context and time and as a result of interaction between the interviewed teacher and the interviewer (Elbaz-Luwisch, 2005; Riessman, 2008).
Although the interviews were conversational, the interviewer had an overall plan for the topics to be covered in each interview, focusing on different relationships in the teachers’ work, their most positive and negative work-related experiences, and their thoughts about the future.
The authors analysed the stories from the perspective of micropolitical conditions and strategies (e.g., Kelchtermans & Ballet, 2002a, 2002b) still focusing both on content of the stories and the teachers’ ways of telling. During this second phase of analysis, the following four narrative themes were identified:
(1) parent–teacher relationships as a technical duty,
(2) parent–teacher relationships as a trust-building process,
(3) parent–teacher relationships involving other actors, and (4) parent–teacher relationships as positionings.
Several of these narrative themes could be present in one interview.

Findings and discussion
This article provides insights on how micropolitical processes in schools impact the actual development and significance of parent–teacher relationships for beginning teachers as part of their work lives.
Micropolitics enable as well as limit what these relationships can look like and how beginning teachers learn to cope with parent relationships.
The fact that beginning teachers often worked in temporary contracts influenced on the parent–teacher relationships (cf. Jenkins et al., 2009; Marent et al., 2020).
The findings are in line with the recent research that has challenged the deficit perspective on beginning teachers’ dealings with their students’ parents (see Johnson et al., 2014; Kelchtermans, 2019).
Although the teachers often positioned themselves as young and inexperienced (as the deficit approach suggests), at the same time, they claimed agency and described themselves as active participants with various skills and ways of acting with students’ parents and constructing meaningful parent–teacher relationships.
In line with previous research (Kelchtermans & Ballet, 2002a), the findings demonstrate the different micropolitical strategies that beginning teachers use to enact and construct parent– teacher relationships and how they trusted and relied on their own professional judgement when working with the parents.
The micropolitical strategies that were visible in teachers’ stories included, for example, building trust by inviting parents to face-to-face meetings, seeking support from colleagues, avoiding taking sides in the middle of different interests, positioning themselves and parents in certain ways, and trusting in one’s own judgement.
The findings of this article reveal the different micropolitical conditions that enable and limit the construction of meaningful parent–teacher relationships.
Rather than emphasising the creation of strong personal bonds with the parents, relationships could be described as technical duties to complete, including completing various forms and evaluations and communicating online.
Earlier research has mainly focused on the possibilities created by digital communication platforms in parent–teacher collaboration (Kuusimäki et al., 2019), but there is also a need for a research that critically elaborates how online communication may affect and shape the micropolitical conditions of parent–teacher relationships (not only positively), and student–teacher relationships.
Prior research on parent–teacher relationships (e.g., Lasky, 2000) has paid less attention to the fact that parent–teacher relationships can involve also other actors.
The authors’ findings show that parent–teacher relationships do not necessarily include just parents and teachers, but rather are multidimensional, encompassing several intertwined relationships that micropolitically condition parent–teacher relationships.
Other actors and relationships (such as students, colleagues, principals and even teachers’ own family members) as part of the school can impact teachers’ striving towards desirable working conditions and, as such, become micropolitically relevant (see also März & Kelchtermans, 2020).
This article illustrates that beginning teachers do not only describe the challenges (see Jenkins et al., 2009) encountered with students’ parents, but that the phenomenon is more versatile.
Based on the authors’ findings, they hence argue that it is important in teacher education to enable pre- and in-service teachers to appreciate parent–teacher relationships as part of a complex relational micropolitical network that includes several other actors.
Thus, the micropolitical perspective can promote understanding of parent–teacher relationships and that it is not just teachers’ (or parents’) decisions and individual choices that create conditions for parent–teacher relationships (Janssen et al., 2012; Ozmen et al., 2016).
It is impossible to give pre- and in-service teachers specific tools for constructing relationships with parents.
However, teacher education could provide conceptual and theoretical tools and approaches aimed at helping teachers to understand the micropolitical dimension of parent–teacher relationships and to assist teachers in developing their micropolitical literacy and strategies.
Furthermore, based on their findings they argue that school leaders and principals should regard beginning teachers as active participants who may clearly need support and guidance, but who also have diverse resources and ways to challenge and improve micropolitical practices, norms and rules in the school community, including those that relate to parent–teacher relationships.

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Updated: Mar. 30, 2022