Are teachers expected to do too much 'parenting'?

Dr Jennifer Bleazby

Dr Jennifer Bleazby

By Dr Jennifer Bleazby

There seems to be an ever-increasing list of responsibilities placed on school teachers. Besides teaching academic skills and knowledge, teachers are now considered to be responsible for developing each child’s social skills, manners, organisational skills, personal hygiene, self-control, self-motivation and even eating habits and lifestyle choices.

Teachers are often expected to act as substitute parents, possibly as a result of the increasing number of families where both parents work.  Is there a risk that by expecting teachers to ‘parent’, we may actually diminish their ability to be effective teachers?

The Victorian Government has recently come under criticism for pulling the pin on a school program designed to fight childhood obesity. The ‘Kids - Go For Your Life’ program was launched in 2004 with the intention of teaching students and their parents about healthy eating and exercise.  While the government intends to replace the program with a new initiative, the opposition health promotion spokeswoman Danielle Green has accused Health Minister David Davis of abandoning the fight against childhood obesity.

But why is it that schools and teachers are being burdened with such responsibilities in the first place? 

Obviously teachers of health, physical education and food technology subjects would play an important role in fostering healthy eating and an active lifestyle. Such topics would be part of the curriculum that these teachers have been trained to teach. However, not all teachers are trained to teach these topics, nor are all teachers trained to teach the other types of social and personal skills mentioned above. 

While teachers obviously have some responsibility for the physical and psychological welfare of students, they are not psychologists or nutritionists or “lifestyle coaches”. When teachers are expected to fulfil all these various roles, they will inevitably have less time and energy to devote to teaching literacy and numeracy skills, critical and creative thinking, technology skills and the valuable knowledge associated with academic disciplines like science, art and history.   

This is not to say that teachers shouldn’t also foster good social and organisational skills, or lifestyle choices. In fact, the school is an ideal environment for promoting and modelling such skills. However, teachers should not be shouldered with the primary responsibility for ensuring students develop such abilities and personal attributes. Nor should teachers be expected to singlehandedly reverse poor attitudes or behaviours that students have picked up elsewhere.

When students come to school with poor manners, organisational abilities and even poor physical fitness, the teacher’s capacity to do the job they have been educated to do is reduced.  Parents and teachers need to work together to ensure that good values, attitudes and behaviours are being fostered in the home and then reinforced and further developed within the school.

Dr Jennifer Bleazby is a lecturer in the Faculty of Education at Monash University.