An overlooked factor in quality pre-K? Parent respect for teachers


Jennifer L. Nelson is a postdoctoral fellow at Vanderbilt University. In this guest column, she discusses her research examining the relationships between parents and early childhood teachers in Atlanta.

She found how parents view and treat their children’s pre-K teachers can affect teacher well-being and program quality.

By Jennifer L. Nelson

Georgia's Department of Early Care and Learning was recently awarded a $2.9 million grant from the federal government. The goal of the grant is to support young children and their parents who live in the most underserved areas. To reach this goal, DECAL will implement a program needs assessment and support early childhood educators' opportunities to share best practices.

While these plans sound reasonable, they overlook what we already know about how Georgia can improve its educational programs for young children. Compared to national averages, the state is doing quite well in meeting quality standards.

A recent report by the National Institute for Early Education Research showed that Georgia met eight of 10 quality standards, with the exception of having class sizes of 20 or lower, and staff-child ratios of 1:10 or better. In areas of curriculum, teacher credentials, annual hours of professional development, providing health services and meals to students, and site visits, Georgia is excelling. But the areas of lack point to working conditions in preschools.

Working conditions, especially social aspects of the school's work environment, facilitate positive work outcomes for teachers. In turn, such working conditions benefit student learning outcomes.

In early childhood settings, studies funded by the Institute of Education Sciences Early Learning Network describe factors that support early learning, including parental involvement.

This research, along with other studies, aims to develop observation tools that will identify markers of program quality. Importantly, these tools highlight practices not just of the teacher and her/his instruction, but also parents' roles and teachers' social behaviors.

My recent research with colleague Amanda Lewis also shows the significance of parent-teacher relationships to these teachers' work. We find that when teachers do not feel valued by parents, the teachers implement various strategies to re-coup feelings of worth and respect.

We interviewed, observed, and spent time with 27 early childhood educators in the city of Atlanta. We made sure to include teachers from a variety of settings, public and private, schools and childcare facilities.

We found that when parents were challenging to deal with, teachers looked to the school or facility to provide protection and credibility to the teacher.

These challenges looked different in different schools. In public daycares (e.g., many Head Start programs), for example, parents would “be nice to the teacher.” But parents would seldom acknowledge, as one teacher put it, “how I am teaching their child, not just taking care of their child.” In private daycares (e.g., those often subsidized by employers), parents patronized teachers by inviting them to lunch and offering to hire them as a babysitter after-hours.

One teacher said, “Unless you say, ‘I’m a teacher. I’m not a babysitter,’ it can be like we’re the help.” Public schools and private schools exposed teachers to demanding parents who expected teachers to tally their children’s daily food intake or teach their 3-year-old fractions.

The lower value placed on early childhood teachers – by parents, society, or school systems themselves – impacts the teachers’ working conditions. Even if how preschool teachers are personally treated is not of concern to these parties, those interested in improving quality in early education programs should be concerned.

So long as teachers must consciously work to maintain a sense of self-respect in an important job, they have that much less energy and creativity to spend on their students. Parents can, as a first step, consider how they show respect for their child’s preschool teacher and her/his work, beyond “being nice,” reinforcing status differences, or trying to control the teacher.

To this end, grants could assist in building truly supportive parent-teacher relationships.

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