parent teacher relationships

How strong schools became the backbone of the juggle struggle

When state premiers came out and said that schools were going to close in March of 2020, there was audible panic among parents. 

There was one exception to the ‘closed school’ rule, the children of essential workers

Somewhere buried in those directives was the simple truth about schools –  schools are essential for families so that they can keep working, pandemic or no pandemic.

We wanted to know if what we had always assumed was correct, that schools are one of the means that allows women today to juggle more than our mothers.

In short, we wanted to know if schools were an important part of allowing women to work and have children.

While we were undertaking this work during the pandemic, we wanted to understand how working women juggle it all and all the time, not just during COVID. 

We spoke with over 200 women to ask how they juggle it all. What we found, for anyone who works in a school, will be unsurprising.

What we found was that schools provide a huge amount of support to working families to give them the chance to pursue their work.

The women we interviewed were from a range of backgrounds. Some had families, some didn’t. Some were partnered, some weren’t, and some were in polyamorous relationships. We interviewed straight women and women within the LGBTIQA+ community.  

The women we spoke with reported having a huge mental load to carry. We defined the mental load as the emotional and psychological burden of the little things, the small, everyday, quotidian tasks that keep a house, a family and the world running. 

The mental load is everything from, in a family with kids for instance, making sure the children work on their homework, and knowing when it’s due, remembering to pick up milk from the grocery store, checking that the second load of washing goes into the dryer, making sure they have booked in to see the doctor and other various little ‘details and things’ that have to be done around and outside the house.

The biggest issue with the mental load was the job of remembering everything. And, this task fell almost exclusively on the women in heterosexual families.

And the group with the biggest mental load was heterosexual women with children. When it came to the pandemic, those women with children were under the most stress and pressure. As one of our participants stated:

I definitely carry about 90% of the mental load, my husband the other 10%, usually about himself. All other tasks, responsibilities to do with our children, dog and household fall to me. In terms of household tasks, it would be 80% me, 15% my husband, 5% my children. I would love them all to do more but they complain and don’t do it”.

She was hardly alone, we met a lot of women who were in the same boat, who were struggling before the pandemic, but even more during the school closures and lockdowns. 

Women we spoke with relied heavily on schools to help them manage their competing demands, indicating that their workload had increased considerably once school attendance was no longer available to their children.

But, while schools definitely gave women the chance to work, it also increased their mental load. Interestingly, it seemed to be the women who were responsible for being the interface between family and school.

In spite of women working more hours than ever before, of our 205 interviewees, we found that 154 said they were the major responsible person in their household. These 154 were tying the children’s shoelaces, turning up to the school when the child was in sick-bay and taking that phone call when the school needed something to do with their child.

We already knew, from the data, that women today are doing more than their mothers ever did. In spite of their increased paid work, they’re spending more time with their children than their mothers did in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, as the following table shows.

We also know men are doing more than they used to, but, in most heterosexual relationships where the family has children, the adult called on to do the school stuff is usually the mother. Some of our respondents stated that even where the father was listed as the primary contact, the mother was the one the school got in touch with.

Interestingly, the women in our study who were in homosexual, or poly relationships with children, reported there was always one person who was largely responsible for the multitasking: remembering the school excursions, the sports kit and the parent-teacher interviews as well as loading the dishwasher, putting on the next whites load and, on top of all that, the stuff for their own paid work. If they were a mixed sex poly realtionshiop that person was, can you guess?, a woman. 

But in spite of costing extra work, it was schools, we found, that provide an important opportunity for women to maintain links to the workforce. Schools allowed mums to manage their time and, yes, get a vital break from the kids. However, these women were paying that debt back in time, in the mental load, in remembering what the schools needed of them.

Our book provides a commentary on the lives of women today, presents research, and suggests strategies for balancing the mental load in practical ways.

We found that, before we can have equality within the workplace, there needs to be more equality at home, too.

The Superwoman Myth: Can Contemporary Women Have It All Now? by Jennifer Loh, Raechel Johns and Rebecca English (Routledge) Raechel Johns (left) is a Professor of Marketing at the University of Canberra, and currently the Head of the Canberra Business School. She has broad research interests focus on service management including technology use and also community wellbeing. She also has research interests in management, particularly focusing on workforce trends, the future of work, and productivity.  Rebecca English is a senior lecturer in the School of Teacher Education & Leadership in the Faculty of CI, Education & Social Justice at Queensland University of Technology. She teaches into the BCT Curriculum area as well as the sociocultural studies units and was a teacher in both the Catholic Education and Education Queensland sectors for seven years.

Parent-teacher partnerships: poisoned by ‘bad parent’ click bait

onnecThe late January back-to-school ritual has turned ugly. Among the cute little stories about multiple sets of twins beginning school together and the healthy snacks parents can concoct for their child’s lunchbox, is a new form of click-bait that blames parents for coddling their child and turning them into monsters that harried teachers then have to deal with.

One particular piece would have us believe parents feed their children nothing but junk, allow them to stay up to all hours then pass their “already tired” offspring to beleaguered teachers at the end of six weeks of holiday chaos. Mums and dads (but typically mums) then lie in wait for about the first two weeks, at which point they begin to “whinge” about their child’s teacher.

Have you noticed how opinion pieces like this follow a predictable pattern? First come the generalisations, then incitement to outrage, followed by the taking of sides (always the right one) and self-righteous advice gained from the perfect personal experience.

Another example of this type of ‘bad parent’ click bait features a series of rants by anonymous teachers about the horrors of teaching today’s school students. Seriously.

These articles may well do what they have been created to do, act as click-bait, but they are just plain awful when it comes to nurturing parent-teacher relationships in Australia.

They also have a nostalgic air; they present as a short-form journalistic ode to the ‘good ‘ole days’ when children were seen and not heard. Are we supposed to believe that no one parents well these days, even though a large proportion of teachers are also parents?

Evidence shows that today’s parents are probably working harder at parenting than at any time previously. Whilst it is always possible to find examples of neglectful or ineffective parenting (both now and in mythical golden-ages), those parents aren’t helped by contempt directed at them by the media.

And here I will add that teacher staff room gossip about parents should be included in things that are not helpful. Staffroom gossip can also breed an unhealthy feedback cycle that works to build reputations around particular kids and families. The result is that some students never get a fair go.

What’s worse is that it can set up a vicious triangle that works to keep teachers, students and parents at odds. The teacher generally ends up being at the long end of the triangle and it is very difficult to get a positive outcome from there.

What my research tells me

One thing that has come across very loud and clear in the many student interviews I have conducted is that no matter how dysfunctional their family background, children still feel love for their main caregivers.

When asked if there was anything they would change about themselves if they could, one boy replied that he wished that he could turn back time. He wanted to go back to the time before he was taken away from his mum, before she became addicted to drugs and alcohol, before she would lie on the floor in her own blood and vomit.

Children often know when teachers speak and think ill of their families. The resentment towards teachers felt by some of the young people in my research was palpable and many indicated that they reserve their worst behaviour for the teachers they perceive as judging them and their families.

Many teachers will know that one sure-fire method kids use to start a fight in the playground is to call another kid’s mum a “slut”.

But, what doesn’t seem to be as well understood is that the disapproving glances, dismissive air, imperious tone, and short shrift that some teachers give when interacting with parents is picked up by their children.

And it makes those childen angry. It makes them both defensive and protective. It makes them feel inferior. What it doesn’t do is help.

The strongest message that came through these student interviews is that, if forced, kids will back the people they love.

We need to reject the parent versus teacher positioning

That’s what worries me about click-bait that positions parents as inept and teachers as victims. Such articles exacerbate an “us v them” mentality.

It gives licence to hostile teacher behaviours that can affect a whole school’s culture. Over time, the more positive teachers may leave, taking with them the possibility of seeing and doing things differently.

The end result can be a war-zone with rampant bullying and physical aggression between students, complete disrespect for teachers, high absenteeism and very little learning.

Places much like the schools described in one of those articles. But rather than question how these schools became like that or what we can do to fix them, it seems easier or perhaps more entertaining to just blame parents and the ‘monsters’ they’ve produced.

Schools need involved parents

Parents are great advocates and many (mothers in particular) contribute a significant portion of their time to fund-raising for their local school, sitting on P&C committees, and/or supporting teachers in reading groups, going on excursions and donating class supplies.

This occurs much more now than in the good ‘ole days because many schools are critically under-resourced.

Children who have parents who are involved in their schooling, even on a very simple level, can have a much more positive experience. Teachers who get to know parents can find new ways to connect with their students.

For this to occur, we need to acknowledge that productive parent-teacher partnerships benefit all involved: students, parents and teachers.

So, as tempting as it might be, we have to resist the click bait because it won’t help any of us form those partnerships.

GrahambigLinda Graham is Principal Research Fellow in the Faculty of Education, Queensland University of Technology (QUT). She is the Lead Chief Investigator of two longitudinal research projects focusing on disruptive behaviour. One examines the experiences of students enrolled in NSW government “behaviour” schools (Australian Research Council DP110103093), and another is tracking the language, learning, experiences, relationships, attitudes and behaviour of 250 QLD prep children through the early years of school (Financial Markets Foundation for Children FMF4C-2013). In 2014, she was elected Editor of the Australian Educational Researcher (AER) and serves as a member of the Australian Association for Research in Education (AARE) Executive Committee.