Parent-teacher relationships

The previous section of this chapter has explored the factors that appear to permeate Ethiopian and Eritrean parents’ experiences of home-school relationships. The remaining part of this chapter examines the factors that seem to marginalise parents and prevent them from becoming involved in their children’s education.

As the quotation that opened this chapter indicates, one main barrier to effective parental involvement is the attitudes of some teachers. The parents talked about how teachers’ attitudes were partly a barrier to their getting fully involved in their children’s education. Eritrean mothers and Ethiopian fathers reported that their communication with teachers was very brief and impersonal, without adequate information, and the only reply they received was the standard “they are doing well”. As a result, parents felt they did not receive substantive information during their interactions with the teachers (Messele, 2007). Despite Mr Zenawi, an Ethiopian father was frustrated that the teachers seemed to be unwilling to discuss his children’s school progress, he has not made any formal complaint to the school. Given that Eritrean schoolchildren require a high level of academic support, Mr Joseph (community worker and father) made the following comment:

You know the teachers see the mothers with limited English and uneducated, they think they would not understand. They know the mothers are not going to challenge them. They just look down on them.

A similar study has shown that parents’ knowledge of English shapes teachers’ perceptions of them (Kuyok, 2011; Lee, 2005). Interestingly, even in my conversations with British members of the public, they often saw a lack of English language skills on the part of parents as a bigger problem and expected their children to fail. One typical comment was that because of parents’ lack of English and education, it is assumed that they do not care about their children’s education. Standard responses whenever I mentioned East African children’s poor academic performance were “poor children”, “those parents don’t care about education” and “they [parents] do not value education like West African immigrants do”. Similarly, the first assumption of researchers who study language-minority children is

Parental involvement as social Capital 147 always that such children come from literacy-impoverished homes where education is not valued. This is consistent with the current literature on parental involvement on refugees and immigrant parents based on the deficit-based perspective.

A community worker similarly explained that some teachers believe that non-English-speaking parents lack language skills, so do not have much to offer as far as education is concerned. This statement suggests that their limited participation in the school involvement process exacerbates schoolteachers’ negative perceptions of some non-English-speaking minority parents. Beyond teachers’ negative perceptions, Ethiopian and Eritrean parents face several roadblocks in seeking to create social capital. Mr Joseph went on to explain the “doing well” response from teachers:

You know even though their children are telling them they need extra help with their schoolwork and they don’t get help at school, the parents stay quiet. This is because our culture said respect teachers and do not question them.

He went on to point out that when the teachers say Ethiopian and Eritrean students are doing “well”, one can ask compared to whom.

The above-mentioned examples also indicate that the mainstream literature on parental involvement keeps telling us that the academic ability level of the student is an indication of the degree of parental involvement. The experience of East African parents, however, tells a different story. Ethiopian and Eritrean parents view British schools as one of the best things about living in Britain. Therefore, they press their children to work hard to become educated and earn a degree. One can also argue that East African parents possess high aspirations but, unlike West African immigrants, do not have the means to accomplish them. Although educational success is valued by Ethiopian and Eritrean parents, the “scarcity of educational resources that parents bring to the table, which means in many cases, they are not able to translate those values into effective institutional support for their children, confronts the difficult years of adolescence” (Rumbaut & Portes, 2001:80).

Lack of parent-teacher relationships

Since many African cultures are relationship-oriented, face-to-face communication is important to parents from these cultures. Interpersonal relationships, especially, are an important part of Ethiopian and Eritrean culture as a means of communication. Given that most Africans have originated from an oral culture, Africans prefer oral information, and most importantly, they prefer one-to-one interaction in explanations of their children’s academic progress. Although parental lack of English language fluency has been cited as the primary barrier to home-school relationships,

the lack of one-to-one interaction with teachers, and “doing well” without giving detailed school progress of their children are still considered as a barrier to parental involvement in their children’s education. For example, the parents had positive experiences of the supplementary school teachers when these teachers took the time to explain to them the ways in which their children needed more help with their academic work and what they had to do at home.

Treating each family as unique individuals

When I asked all the Ethiopian, Eritrean and Somali parents and African teachers for comments regarding teacher-African parent relationships, they all had a standard response, i.e., a teacher needs to get to know the background of each family and its present life; this was a recurrent theme in this study. This response also resonates with suggestions made in Chapter 5 on culturally relevant and responsive teaching practices that recognise each student’s needs. In particular, in dealing with recent refugees, schools need to treat each family as individuals to help them assess the multiple needs of refugee families and allow them to understand firsthand the hardships refugee and migrant families face on a daily basis.

In the context of African parent-teacher relationships, Mr David, a schoolteacher and a British-born Black African, talked about how schools should be dealing with African parents:

Schools need to provide information in the language the parents understand. African parents need to know how the educational system works. They need to know how their child is academically progressing in the language they understand.

Therefore, Mr David suggests, teachers or schools first need to establish good relationships with the parents of their students. Similar to the desire of second-generation students to bond with their teachers, the response from East African parents has confirmed that developing a relationship with their children’s teachers was identified as key to them. This form of relationships is also critical when dealing with cultures that centre “we” such as those where most African parents originated. The parents here emphasised the bond they seek to establish with the teachers of their children.

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