There is no such thing as a human problem, symptom, or dilemma that is not about the politics of inequality and the way inequality is managed and mismanaged by humans. This is ordinarily about the way in which responsibility and authority are allocated equally or unequally between people in the practise of their everyday lives, and the advantages and disadvantages that come from the way in which responsibility and authority are distributed.
A common misunderstanding between a parent and teacher is over responsibility for a student’s learning, behaviour, emotions, and wellbeing.
This is understandable. The teacher is in the unique professional position of sharing responsibility and authority for that child with the parent – six hours per day, five days per week, forty weeks per year, often for longer than the parent, responsible for learning and, in the early years, a raft of other functional matters with the child. If a person has responsibility for a function or task, they require the matching authority to effectively deliver on that responsibility.
That is as true of teaching as it is true of parenting.
The Balancing Act
If responsibility and authority are not matched, interpersonal boundaries are threatened, possibly compromised, confusion reigns, and disputes appear over how responsibility and authority is exercised, when, and by whom. If parenting is a balancing act of responsibility and authority, teaching is the high wire performance in a circus with a big-top full of spectators waiting for the fall.
Whilst balancing and sharing responsibility and authority is difficult, it is a fundamental part of being human. Humans are notorious for not being able to manage themselves when they have more authority (and power) than responsibility. Authority and power go together.
Authority refers to the power of a person, group or organization to make something happen or stop something from happening. Authority is personal, political, and administrative. Authority is the control, permission, confidence and right possessed by or invested in a person/group/institution to oversee and (maybe) enforce certain laws, rules, obligations, or expectations.
This includes the authority to give orders, make decisions, impose limits, give permission, obstruct, influence, contain, say ‘yes’ or ‘no’, to enforce obedience, compliance and cooperation over a problem or symptom and its circumstances. There is the authority to speak up, remain silent, or hold secret knowledge about a problem or symptom and its circumstances.
Authority may be held by one person/organization or shared between more than one party. If authority is shared, the dilemma is how to share that authority, with whom, when, where, under what circumstances, and with what limitations, constraints, and accountability. Authority is now contested between families and schools, and between schools and other organizations.
Responsibility for student’s learning, behaviour and wellbeing is also shared by the family, school, and other systems. In high and complex (support) need’s matters, responsibility is ordinarily shared by multiple external health, disability, mental health, child protection, and justice systems. The more systems involved the more difficult it is to secure collaboration and cooperation required to produce or support an intervention and change.
The sharing of learning and wellbeing responsibility and authority requires careful negotiation between the family, teacher, and other stakeholders to ensure that responsibility and authority are not split or divided in a way that encourages a contest.
Responsibility / Authority imbalance – A Case Study
Alex is a 5-year-old student with an ASD diagnosis. He started school with a social and communication impairment (language delays), and limited fine motor skills (avoidance of holding a pencil). Alex has multiple external supports he accesses in and out of school.
Alex had a good start to schooling and engaged well with the teacher and other students and is now drawing pictures with the correct pencil grip. Alex is motivated by the teacher using a first this, then that strategy whereby he gets his own choice after he has completed the teacher’s choice learning activity.
Alex’s mother does not support the first this, then that strategy, stating that Alex is upset at home on days where he has not received his choice of activity because he did not first do the teacher’s learning activity. The mother is frustrated and overwhelmed and has requested that the teacher cease using this strategy with Alex. The teacher is anxious, frustrated, and defensive.
Bower Explanation and Intervention
The mother and teacher each have legitimate parenting and educational authority over their responsibility for the wellbeing and education of Alex; two separated but connected sources of authority slugging it out over and through his head.
The parenting and teaching imperatives are the same – the developmentally appropriate independence of the child. This requires each to keep responsibility with authority balanced – transacted through the functional nature of reciprocal give-and-take in Alex’s life at home and school. Alex must progressively learn how to use authority to fulfil his responsibilities in different contexts. This is challenging for the challenged child. The mother’s imperative may be to over-parent early to accommodate those challenges and allow Alex to slowly develop the skill required to manage responsibility and authority. The teaching imperative may be to progress Alex learning how to manage responsibility and authority and to accommodate less or differently.
The teacher’s authority is used to establish a structure that encourages and rewards responsibility and discourages Alex avoiding age-appropriate responsibility for his participation in learning. The mother exercises parental authority by contesting the teacher’s exercise of their educational authority over classroom routines, management, teaching strategy, approaches to learning, and behaviour.
This is a difference between parent and teacher over the functional nature of responsibility and authority resulting in a complicated triangular relationship between teacher, student, and parent; with a strong alliance between mother and son, an emerging fracture between teacher and parent; and an equivocal alliance/fracture between teacher and student.
The teacher here is in a less than equal position in a triangle that will become increasingly skewed, non-collaborative, and dysfunctional inevitably compromising Alex’s wellbeing and learning.
How can this be sorted? Where is the line, boundary, clarity about who can do what with whom, when, where, and how to resolve this?
Alex is at risk of cognitive and emotional triangulation in the parent – teacher fracture in a way that impacts on his mental health, wellbeing, behaviour, and interaction.
Each child’s response to triangulation is constrained by their socio-relational circumstances and internal neurobiology. Some retreat, others act out, some do both.
This captures the dilemma for twenty-first century educators as they fulfil the imperative of accommodating diversity. If Alex is not able to learn responsibility, his development will be compromised and this will negatively impact every other aspect of his learning, productivity, peer and attachment relationships, and identity. If the parent did not accommodate Alex’s challenges his development of responsibility and authority would be compromised. If the teacher’s authority to fulfil her educational responsibility to Alex is compromised, Alex’s learning will also be compromised. With both parties being correct in their intent and actions, collaboration and cooperation is required to equally share and balance responsibility and authority.
The parent’s authority to parent is not contested. The teacher’s authority to teach is. The teacher and parent positions in this triangle are unequal. Inequality becomes the problem to be solved.
Separate and collective parent – teacher responsibility and authority can be realigned by addressing and managing this inequality, fairly, functionally, and productively. Leadership was coached in the bower(note) protocol for a parent – teacher meeting. Bower(note) is a wholly contemporaneous, visual, verbal, word, and image, protocol that focusses attention on the contractual nature of the meeting, and the contractual relationship between the family and school over the education of Alex. Contract theory is informed by inequality and has justice as fairness at its heart. Bower(note) aims to remove the constraints to effective parent-teacher collaboration that come with inequality. As those constraints evaporate, collaboration often follows. Both parties ordinarily want the best for the child. Enough agreement was reached to be able to safely proceed. This was documented and handed to the parent in that moment, with a detailed follow-up and accountability process in place. The bower(note) process allows for psychometric diversity in cognition, intellect, processing, and memory. Disputes often occur when each party remembers the meeting and agreement differently.
Sign up for our workshop “Teaching at the Edge” on 12 October 2023 11am.