We learnt last week that the Ministry of Education (MOE) has commenced a series of meetings with parents across Guyana and teachers and that the objectives of these so-called Town Hall meetings are to attach greater importance to the teacher/parent collaboration in the delivery of education. The Ministry’s intended emphasis on the teacher/parent team is encouraging and, it has to be said, has been historically lacking as an education delivery mechanism, though our first concern here is with the choice of what we know as the Town Hall meeting as the forum for this pursuit.
The Ministry of Education, not for the first time, is verbally acknowledging what research in the field of education has long determined i.e. the importance of close relationships between teachers and parents in the turning out of socially well-adjusted and intellectually accomplished children. Here, it is apposite to point out that the Parent/Teacher Association has long been the customary mechanism for fostering relationships between home and school though there is evidence that in relatively recent years the role of the PTA has been significantly expanded beyond child well-being issues. These days, PTA’s are being asked to deal increasingly with matters pertaining to substantive school administration including providing various forms of material and management support for schools and school-related activities. That apart, it is no secret that the extent of parent support for PTA’s varies from community to community, with parents in some communities holding largely to the view that the formal education of their children is entirely a matter for those who are formally qualified to deliver same. Indeed, the argument has even arisen as to whether, over time, the substantive purpose of the PTA may not have all but disappeared beneath a completely adjusted agenda that is concerned as much with school administration as with the social and intellectual welfare of children.
All that being said and whilst one unhesitatingly supports the MOE’s view that rendering education delivery more worthwhile depends on enhanced teacher/parent relationships, we cannot help but wonder aloud as to whether so-called ‘Town Hall’ meetings as conventionally defined, can accomplish the objective of cementing closer teacher/parent relationships.
For a start, in remote communities, particularly hinterland ones, ‘Town Hall’ meetings (even if these were not to conform specifically to the conventions of coastal communities) can be enormously challenging with considerations of travel distances and suitable meeting places, issues that will almost certainly compromise interest in and attendance at those fora.
Further, what we define as Town Hall meetings are, by definition, certain to raise their own communication-related problems once they are applied to the exercise of teacher/parent relationships. Not only are Town Hall meetings usually larger-group (and by extension less intimate) gatherings that allow less for the small group-communication dynamic that ought to apply in teacher/parent interaction, but these meetings are customarily far better suited to politicians and public officials seeking to deliver messages and answer questions from members of the public.
Accordingly, If the MOE’s Town Hall meetings are to conform to what we are used to getting out of fora of this kind, then we run the risk of ending up with those time-worn and counterproductive ‘top table/larger audience’ formula in which the agenda is dictated by a handful of designated officials providing lengthy mixtures of admonition and recommendations which are internalized by parents often with ill-concealed disinterest and in which little in the way of the substantive objective is accomplished. Here, an individual parent’s concerns about the particular weaknesses of his or her child or a teacher’s worry over the seeming nutritional or mental health deficiencies of his or her charges (which, in large measure, is what results-oriented teacher-parent interaction is all about) have no real chance of being properly ventilated.
If, as the MOE says is the case, that staging of these fora is to encourage parents to embrace collaboration between home and school and to empower parents through health and family life education as well as to realize interaction on social issues that can affect the academic achievement of their children, then it might do well not to rely on Town Hall Meetings, in their conventional sense, to realize these objectives. Successful parent/teacher interaction require the creation and careful management of what frequently and by necessity, must be a controlled and intimate environment in which the participants can feel a complete lack of restraint in airing what, all too frequently, are deeply sensitive issues. Critically, there must be equal opportunity for a two-way flow of communication in an environment unhindered by protocols that have to do with rank and authority.
This newspaper’s own admittedly limited research on the subject has thrown up a few interesting examples of the manner in which teacher/parent relationships are managed elsewhere. One that we found particularly striking and which, with some adjustments and a greater modicum of institutional preparedness might be workable in Guyana is one in which teachers are assigned manageable groups of students for whom they execute the role of a ‘school parent.’ That teacher, on Parents’ Day and on a continual basis, would engage the parents of those children in frank and open discussions (an exercise that simply cannot be accomplished at a Town Hall Meeting) on matters relating to issues including conduct, social and emotional well-being, physical health and in-school performance. This arrangement has been known to build a strong relationship between teachers and parents.
Challenges to enhanced teacher/parent relationships in our school system require adjustments on all sides. Those challenges include the absence of any serious local studies of the teacher/relationship and how this can contribute to significantly enhanced student performance. That apart, it is difficult to see how the effective discharge of teacher responsibilities in the ‘school parent’ formula can be realized except teachers feel a sense of empowerment that can only come about through an enhanced institutional recognition of their status as professionals. In their current condition of what, frequently, is a professional esteem deficit, teachers, in many instances, are probably unlikely to be inclined to shoulder what they are very likely to see (and, in fact, would be) as an onerous additional responsibility to which no reward or recognition is attached.
If the Ministry of Education is correct in its conclusion that raising the in-school performance of children depends heavily on fostering an enhanced teacher-parent relationship, it has still not found the correct formula for so-doing.
In those instances where purely one-way dissemination of information may be its sole purpose, the Town Hall meeting may be appropriate. Where, however, sensitive issues, some of which are bound to be bilateral to individual parents and teachers, are bound to arise and where the environment must of necessity be convivial to affording inherently publicity-shy parents adequate opportunity to contribute to the discourse then the Ministry of Education must rethink the institutionalization of the Town Hall Meeting (at least in its conventional form) if it genuinely seeks to realize an effective two-way communication flow between teachers and parents.