Coping with emotionally challenging expectations: Japanese beginning teachers and their relationships with students’ parents’

July, 2021

Source: Teachers and Teaching, 27:5, 423-437

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

This study focuses on emotionally challenging expectations in parent-teacher relationships.
The authors’ assumption was that these expectations are meaningful for the beginning teachers and their experiences during teacher induction.
The authors conceive of expectations as emotionally challenging when they deviate from the cultural and institutional norms or from teachers’ personal educational ideals, eliciting negative emotions and forcing teachers to cope with them by, for example, using emotional labour (Hargreaves & Lasky, 2005; Lassila, 2017).
To identify and understand emotionally challenging expectations, the authors have drawn on the narrative accounts of Japanese beginning teachers.
The cultural and social norms prescribing appropriate social interactions in Japan are quite strong, leaving teachers little leeway in negotiating parents’ expectations (Sugimoto, 2003; Wakimoto & Chôshi, 2015).
Their research question is: what emotionally challenging expectations are there in beginning teachers’ relationships with parents, and how do beginning teachers cope with them?
Unravelling the often implicit and normalised expectations in parent-teacher relationships in a particular context, such as Japan, provides a wider understanding of teachers’ work as a relational practice and offers insights that can be used to move beyond discourses that frame beginning teachers from a ‘deficit’ perspective.

The research context
The data consist of interviews with 17 beginning teachers.
Participating teachers were recruited via the first author’s professional academic network, and university professors acted as go-betweens.
The so-called snowball sampling was also used in which participants suggested other teachers for interviews.
Many participants came from ‘K-school’, a lower secondary school where the first author conducted fieldwork.
The aim was to recruit participants with a variety of backgrounds and work environments.
The participating teachers had completed four-year programmes in universities to obtain a teaching license.
These programmes provide basic skills on pedagogy, guidance and subject knowledge, but due to limited exposure to the lived realities of schools (only a three-week practicum), graduating teachers’ skill levels can be low (Howe, 2005).
The participating teachers worked in primary or lower secondary schools.
They came from both major urban and rural areas.
All had graduated from universities providing teacher licenses.
The teachers’ ages ranged from 23 to 35 years.

Data collection
The first author, who is proficient in Japanese, conducted narrative interviews at places of the participants’ choosing.
What characterised the conducted narrative interviews is their discussion-like nature, open-ended and wide questions and the role of the researcher as an active participant (Riessman, 2008).
The first author began the interviews by inviting the participants to recall what motivated them to become teachers and elaborate on the professional issues they faced.
Relationships, emotions and their entanglement were the themes that guided the interviews.
He also asked participants to recall and reflect on at least three positive and negative experiences concerning their work, eliciting this way stories about specific relationships (e.g., parent relationships) and emotionally significant experiences when they did not naturally emerge.
The interviews lasted from 30 minutes to 1 hour and 40 minutes; the average length was around one hour.
As a result of data analysis, the authors found that beginning teachers described facing three emotionally challenging expectations in their relationships with students’ parents:
(1) they do not fully understand what is expected of them,
(2) they are expected to turn to colleagues for help with difficult issues involving parents and
(3) they are expected to endure and learn from criticism.

Findings and discussion
The findings illustrate various emotionally challenging expectations in beginning teachers’ relationships with parents.
First, beginning teachers do not seem to fully understand what is expected of them, which creates discomfort.
Second, they are expected to rely on colleagues for mediation and help, which is emotionally challenging (because it implies that they cannot handle situations themselves) and exposes them to criticism.
Third, they are expected to endure and learn from criticism.
To cope with these emotionally challenging expectations, the beginning teachers need to perform emotional labour to bring their emotional display in line with cultural and organisational expectations.
The findings show that beginning teachers perform emotional labour in their relationships with parents in many ways.
Sometimes the beginning teachers act according to the expectations that they are in lower position than parents.
They try to look at the situation from the parents’ perspectives.
On other occasions, they deal with the situation by themselves, or decide to turn to their colleagues seeking collaboration.
A final strategy is to try and frame their encounters with parents as learning opportunities.
The emotionally challenging expectations participants described were connected to wider socio-cultural and organisational ideals and norms.
However, the findings show that not all of the expectations originate from parents.
They may also be voiced by colleagues, and some are connected to ideas concerning how one learns about being a teacher via everyday shared practices.
The findings are in line with previous research, which has shown colleagues as highly influential in parent-teacher relationships (e.g., Kelchtermans & Deketelaere, 2016; Kelchtermans & Vanassche, 2017; Lassila & Uitto, 2016).
How colleagues acted both a source of and release from the emotionally challenging expectations similarly points to emotionally complex nature of relationships with colleagues (see Hargreaves, 2001).
The findings suggest that there is an image of a proper teacher that beginning teachers strive to embody and that this aim requires them to perform emotional labour in parent-teacher relationships.
This bears resemblance to how student teachers have been found to align one’s being and actions according to normative beliefs on being a teacher (Lanas & Kelchtermans, 2015).
The findings suggest that beginning teachers’ relationships with parents are family driven or family centred (Porter, 2008); teachers do not seem to be treated as equals because they cannot defend themselves on many occasions.
For enhanced collaboration, building an understanding of common interests regarding the learning and well-being of students is crucially important.
However, the findings suggest that parents and teachers can see things differently, making communication difficult and, in some cases, limiting collaboration in parent-teacher relationships (see Bang, 2018; Holloway et al., 2010).
The expectations of many parents and colleagues can be seen as rooted in the deficit discourse, which suggests that beginning teachers lack necessary skills and competencies, making them look inferior to their more experience colleagues (Correa et al., 2015; Kelchtermans, 2019).
The findings are also in line with this previous research as beginning teachers’ stories show this deficit discourse in parents’ and colleagues’ attitudes.
The socio-cultural and organisational expectations are such that it is hard for them to demonstrate sufficient competence in dealing with parents.
They cannot easily practice a more professionally oriented model of cooperation, which is more common among experienced teachers due to their seniority and experience (Shimahara, 2002).
However, the beginning teachers’ coping through emotional labour suggests they do have means to at least endure the situation even if it is not directly possible to overcome this position.

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Updated: Mar. 15, 2022