A difficult act to balance : partnership between teachers and parents of children with a disability
Degree GrantorUniversity of Canterbury
Degree NameMaster of Teaching and Learning
This qualitative study investigates how ten parents and six teachers of children with a disability negotiate and enact partnership in New Zealand primary schools. In-depth interviews were conducted to examine their experiences of working together and to identify the factors that they considered essential for supporting an effective partnership. Data were also drawn from school policies and documents describing the New Zealand Special Education 2000 policy documents. Since the inclusion of children with disability in regular classrooms there has been an increased recognition of the important role of parents as partners in their child's education. The New Zealand Special Education 2000 Policy Guidelines have clearly articulated a vision of partnership between parents/caregivers and education providers. These guidelines promote partnership as a means to overcoming barriers to learning and ensuring successful learning outcomes for children with a disability. For parents, these guidelines potentially signaled a new way of working with their child's school. Parents had high hopes that a partnership, which involved them in sharing knowledge and decision-making, could contribute to better resources and learning opportunities for their child. While the teachers and parents in this study viewed partnership as a desirable outcome, many found the process of negotiating partnership to be problematic. Frequently they were challenged by their different understandings and positionings, and the knowledge/power dynamics in their interactions. Parents found that their knowledge was not sufficiently valued and that there was little clarity about how to work in partnership with their child's class teacher. Teachers were required to meet a diverse range of educational needs, and to fulfill the expectations of parents and the Ministry regarding partnership. However, many found that they lacked training in working with parents, and few had any training that supported them to understand and meet the special needs of children with disabilities. This study shows how multiple discourses of partnership and of disability shaped teacher/parent interaction and created barriers to achieving effective partnership. While the Special Education 2000 policy documents reflect a democratic discourse, through promoting the democratic participation of parents, this study shows that professional discourse continues to dominate interactions between parents and teachers, and maintains barriers to achieving effective partnership. Through professional discourse, teachers tended to position parents' knowledge as secondary to their own. Parents found that their child's particular learning needs were not always recognized by their class teacher and the necessary conditions for their success in learning were not always provided. Parents had found that, when their views differed from teachers, there were few structures that enabled them to negotiate different perspectives. Partnership, for these parents, had been a stressful experience, involving considerable personal cost. While this study identifies barriers to forming effective partnership, it also highlights the factors which parents and teachers found helpful in achieving an effective partnership. Parents wanted a partnership with clearly stated roles, responsibilities, systems and procedures so that they knew what they could, or could not, reasonably expect from the school. They wanted the school to be the proactive party in initiating meetings. Parents also wanted the school to make their child's learning programme and progress more visible, and to value the knowledge they wanted to share about their child. This study shows that teachers need to recognize the position of power they hold in relationship to parents and what steps they can take to minimize this power differential. For parents and teachers to work effectively together, the many dimensions of partnership need to be recognized, made visible and critically examined by each school. The negotiation and enactment of partnership may continue to expose different perspectives between parents and teachers. However, these differences can be viewed as a valuable opportunity for learning how to achieve better partnership. Through such a partnership, the educational needs of children with a disability could be more effectively met.