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The teacher as the main factor influencing the welfare of a child at school: perspectives from Estonian families.

School is a very important environment for children; it is where they spend a large part of their lives. Without doubt, school is considered to be an important institution for the development and socialization of children and youth--a place where new members of society are prepared for social life.

Discussions about the Estonian education system include consideration of how school supports the development of personality. Estonian children go to school starting at age 7. The preschool education system is professional, but is not compulsory and often not available to all families, due to a shortage of places. Compulsory school attendance continues through to graduation from the 9th grade or until the child turns 17. During the first school phase (grades 1-4; primary school), children are taught by one teacher--the primary school teacher. Starting in 5th grade, subject teachers provide instruction.

The Estonian Human Development Report 2009 shows that, on the one hand, the country's pupils do well on such international comparative educational studies as Trends an International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA); on the other hand, however, studying does not seem to offer Estonian students pleasure or be of interest to them (Sutrop & Kraav, 2010). Also, a European Union study about the welfare of children shows that although Estonian children place well educationally speaking (in second place among children of the European Union countries), they are only in 20th place in terms of subjective welfare (Bradshaw, 2009).

Socialization entails learning such skills as reciprocal reasoning, trying out and questioning rules, and experimenting with new modes of social interaction (Antikainen, 1998). The contemporary approach to socialization considers this process in terms of a two-way influence, in which either end of the dyad influences the behavior of the other party (Schaffer, 2009). Teachers, as key figures at school, and thus significant members of any school relationship, have a significant influence on the well-being of children at school, the likelihood that they will experience success, and how their social skills will influence the development of self-concept. Factors that play a role in those interactions include the teacher's professionalism and human qualities (e.g., empathy, warmth, tolerance, etc.).

According to the reciprocal influence approach, the task of the school as the main environment of secondary socialization is to offer possibilities for a mutual influence that is active and raises questions, offers reasons, and addresses doubts. In addition, it is the task of the school to support the further development of self that has formed during primary socialization, as well as the building of personal identity. Therefore, school is simultaneously an environment for socialization and individualization. A school's practices should support students' abilities to make individual choices, respect themselves, and continuously develop themselves (Nivala, 2006). The kind of school that focuses on the child's individual development assumes that every child's personality is taken into account, and parents are considered to be partners.

In reality, however, teaching ready-made knowledge is done at the same pace with all students, using the same material; gaining knowledge is valued over pupils' personal development (Eisenschmidt, 2008). Cooperation with parents is often nonexistent. Both school and home over-emphasize knowledge at the expense of value-based education and social skills (Sutrop & Kraav, 2010).

Finnish researchers have conducted a meta-study of childhood studies, examining how the social capital that children need is created. Their study shows that school is the second most important environment, after the home, for forming social capital important for children's welfare (Ellonen & Korkiamaki, 2006). Teacher-pupil relations, relations between teachers and parents, and relations between parents themselves are all important. The cooperation of these various parties enables the development of shared social norms necessary for the emergence of social capital (Ellonen & Korkiamaki, 2006).

The current article is based on a larger study that examined the expectations and experiences of Estonian parents related to preparation for school, factors influencing the choice of the school, and school troubles and joys. This article focuses on the part of the study concerning the families' expectations for schools and teachers, and on the real experiences of children attending school. Since the study includes parents of children who are starting school, the focus is primarily on expectations and experiences that are related to the work of primary school teachers.

METHODOLOGY AND SAMPLE

The study method was a questionnaire survey given to parents of children who first went to elementary school in the autumn of 2008, which focused on the following subject areas:

* Parents' assessment of children's institutions from the aspect of the child's development and preparation for school; main factors influencing the choice of the school

* Parents' understanding of and expectations about the roles and tasks of different professionals at school and their cooperation

* Assessment of the need for hobby activities

* Parents' expectations for the teacher

* Parents' understanding of and preferences for different school types in the education system

* Attitude toward joined classes (in small, rural schools, children of different ages are taught in the same classroom during primary school)

* Possibilities for guaranteeing safety at school

* Parents' understandings about the roles of different stakeholders when making decisions that affect education policy.

We were especially interested in the school-related experiences of parents of school-age children. Here, we focused on the joys and worries related to school, the need for different services, and services received that corresponded with actual needs.

The questionnaire consisted of both closed- and open-ended questions. Closed-ended questions were analyzed quantitatively using frequency distributions, correlation analysis, and cluster analysis (Salundi & Tiko, 2009). Answers to open-ended questions were analyzed through thematization, which identified the categories presented here in bold type. This article presents qualitative material gathered with the study, using quotes from parents' answers.

The sample was formed taking into account convenience. We guaranteed representation of all Estonian counties when determining the size of the sample, making sure that up to one third of kindergartens from every county would be included; from every kindergarten, we included one third of the families with a child who started school in the autumn of 2008.

We enlisted the help of employees from county and local government education and culture departments, who organized the delivery of questionnaires to parents as well as their return after completion. In a number of cases, we obtained questionnaires directly from the kindergartens.

We sent out 4,340 questionnaires and received back 2,326, some of which were only partially completed. We analyzed 2,166 questionnaires. In some places, the parents' enthusiasm for participation was so great that additional copies were made. The survey took place throughout May and June of 2008.

This article is intended to provide veteran teachers, teachers in training, and teacher educators with information about how teacher characteristics affect the welfare of a child at school. The study specifically addressed the following questions:

* What are the expectations for teachers of parents whose children first come to school?

* What are the experiences of families with schoolage children with the children's teachers?

* Taking into account the findings, what should we change in teacher training?

RESEARCH RESULTS

Parents' Expectations for Teachers

Parents recognize the very important role of the first teacher in their child's development.

Positive Attitude Toward Children. Parents expect teachers to be very versatile, but the main characteristics they seek are a humane approach, friendliness toward children, and a caring attitude.

"He/she should love children--those who seek power are not fit for school."

"I expect mostly a humane attitude, understanding."

"Love for children and work/subject. Patient and understanding attitude toward children."

"The teacher should communicate openly, be tolerant toward differences and creativity."

Child friendliness and caring also means the desire to hear a child's problems and ability to support him/her and take into account the uniqueness of every child.

"Friendly toward children, interested in the activities and problems of children, taking into account the uniqueness of the child, listening to problems."

"Skill and willingness to hear the worry of the child, and not make judgments based on first impressions."

"Competent in their work, friendly, know how to take into account the child's personality."

Another important characteristic that parents expect from the teacher is a just and prejudice-free attitude toward every child, providing equal treatment and respecting every child as an individual.

"That all pupils are treated equally."

"Objectivity--that children are assessed according to their skills, not according to parents' social status."

"Attention for every child, irrespective of learning results."

Professional Demeanor. Professionalism means making things interesting and understandable, as well as exhibiting patience when relating to children.

"Deal with things calmly and patiently and make things easy and understandable for children."

"Competence and friendliness."

Parents are convinced that only teachers who do their work with joy, who find satisfaction in teaching, are suitable for the position.

"That those would work at school who really wish to work with children. Methodical skills alone are not enough."

"That all would do their work professionally and from the heart."

They expect many young people to go to school as teachers, and that they would be competent, have a good education, and be joyous.

"It is a shame when there are teachers working at school who are not very interested in their work and there is also no one to replace them. This often happens in rural schools."

"There is a need for young, active, and educated teachers."

Parents understand that expectations for teachers are very high and that the teacher gets tired. So they also wish for teachers with good health, strong nerves, a sense of humor, and endurance.

"Healthy nerves and love for children + psychological training for every employee."

"They should not be nervous."

"That they would be calm, motivated, happy with their work and wages."

"That their energy would last."

High Expectations for Children. A demanding attitude is considered to be the next most important teacher characteristic, which guarantees the development of learning habits, right values, and understanding, and forms a basis for successful learning in the future.

"The teacher should be child-friendly, caring, open to cooperation, but certainly also demanding."

"Taking children into account, demanding, solid frames, and partnership."

Serve as Role Models for Children. The teacher also is expected to be a role model for the children in terms of his/her own behavior and personal traits.

"The teacher should be a role model for the children in terms of his/her personal traits (calmness, patience, helpfulness)."

Willingness to Work With Families. Partnership is the next important quality that parents expect from the teacher. The responses of the parents show that they have not always encountered willingness on the part of the teacher to cooperate with the home, inform the family about what is going on with the child, or include parents in problem solving.

"The parents should be informed about the activities of the child."

"Open and helpful communication--with home and parent."

"Understanding attitude, patience, and readiness to cooperate with parents."

Creator of a Safe Environment at School The teacher is considered to be the main creator of a safe atmosphere at school. In order for that to happen, the teacher is expected to be attentive to the children's behaviors and to react instantly and objectively.

"That the teacher notices what is going on in the class and reacts to it."

"That there is no cruel behavior between the students at school."

"That a safe environment develops for the child, where his/her capabilities could open up and where his/her psyche would remain intact. Pay attention to what pupils are doing during recess and after hours."

Parents' Satisfaction With School

We asked the parents whose children already go to school to assess their satisfaction with the school. The parents see school as an environment where their children should be taken care of, not only by teachers, but also by representatives of a dozen other professions. A school today is not coping well, according to the parents, if it does not employ psychologists, social pedagogues, medical staff, security guards, and assistant teachers for pupils with special needs.

Child's Satisfaction. An important criterion of parent's satisfaction was the child's satisfaction.

"Child is happy--that is enough for us."

"It is important that the child goes to school in the morning in a good mood."

"We have good teachers and the child has always gone happily to school."

"For a primary school pupil, his/her teacher is the most important. This determines the school joys of the child and future study habits. A bit of uncertainty is involved with the time when the teacher should change."

Cooperation With Families. The parents greatly value the cooperation of school with home. Their answers on the questionnaire give the impression that the schools have not always been open to such cooperation. Yet, they consider joint efforts with parents to have a great potential for solving school problems and creating a safe environment for children's development.

"I consider the trusting relationship between school and parent to be very important. In an Estonian context, the parent also should be contacted for praise about the child, not only in case of problems--the same applies for parents."

"There is a working system of school-home: friendly, safe."

"Small primary school, good relationship with the teacher, very good cooperation."

"At times the indifference on the part of the school to solve problems can be felt. The information that is supposed to be moving in the direction of school to home, is not doing that."

Change From Primary School. It can be concluded on the basis of parents' answers that Estonian primary school teachers meet the parents' expectations as a rule, but problems arise at the next school level, where the relationship between child and teacher is no longer as personal or versatile.

"I do not like the primary school teacher, as he/she is unable to help solve the problems of children in puberty. Primary school teacher was very strong--there is a point for comparison."

"Problems of adjustment when the child changed the school when entering the middle level. Distance of the school and transport."

"Different attitudes of teachers when going from primary school to basic school and putting down the work of a previous teacher."

Dissatisfaction With the Teacher. Parents' dissatisfaction regarding teachers is related to how the teacher treats the child, the teacher's attitudes, issues of neutrality, forwarding incorrect or insignificant information, and also to a lack of selection among teachers.

Attitude."

"There was a problem with a teacher who did not wish for the child to do better in math, did not wish to find the best solution for the child."

"Teachers should forget arrogance, supremacy, and humiliating attitudes when communicating with children."

"Personal ambitions of some teachers have turned out to be bigger than the further educational possibilities of the child."

"Certain pedagogues have behaved unethically toward children, but we have managed to solve these problems quickly."

Insignificant or Incorrect Information Provided: "Since there is a lack of good teachers, then some teachers are still unable to forward their knowledge to pupils."

"The communication of parents-school should be improved and older teachers should be reminded that there is no USSR any more--outdated ways of teaching."

Issues of Neutrality:

"It is worrying when child comes from a different kindergarten and is not accepted and teacher is not helping to improve the situation, but is influenced by other parents who are economically better off."

"Teacher evaluates unfairly, teacher bullies the child."

"Children and teacher differentiate who comes from a more wealthy family. If not, then these children are bullied."

Lack of Selection Among Teachers:

"Unfortunately, it is impossible to be satisfied with the selection of teachers. There should be competition among teachers."

"Children do not want to go to school, as they find those things that they are told to study meaningless and useless!!! At the same time most attention is paid to insignificant details."

Concerns About Academic Demands and Options. Parents' dissatisfaction with teachers can also be caused by a heavy work load for the children, a too superficial attitude toward studies, lack of choices and possibilities to learn some areas more thoroughly, and lack of an individual approach.

"At the basic school level, there are too many incompetent teachers, the study load is big, and the children's years are filled with a lot of stress."

"The school day is shortened without much consideration (or it does not take place at all). Classes are canceled, and they are not later replaced."

"There should be a wider choice of additional subjects (specializations) and hobby circles."

"I find it negative that the so-called levelled tuition was stopped in natural sciences, as due to that the strongest in the class suffer, as they are not motivated enough. Also, the weakest cannot understand what is being taught and lose interest in learning. The learning speed of children is different."

One parent evaluated the entire school system very critically:

"In this kind of school system that emphasises the acquisition of facts and not learning skills and development of creativity, it is hard to wish for better and get it. School system has to change fundamentally."

Concerns About Violence and Issues of Safety. Another important area of concern is school violence by fellow pupils and lack of help from the teacher, Many families believe their children have not received necessary support or help in the case of school violence, and that the teacher distanced him/herself from the problem. This confirms the importance of a school psychologist/ social pedagogue present at school, and also that modern teacher training should prepare teachers to deal with social problems that have reached school.

"Violent behavior toward fellow students is not noticed enough."

"Due to bullying, the child did not want to go to school, but thanks to the school psychologist, the situation was solved."

"Dissatisfaction with teachers (complicated problem between teachers and children) and bullying, teachers' unprofessional behavior."

Parents' Assessment of Challenges Faced by Teachers

Some parents have realized that teachers have been left with fewer opportunities to realize their upbringing-related objectives than before:

"It seems that at the moment the teacher has only duties and the student has rights--a middle ground should be found."

"Teacher has been turned into an object of parents' and society's demands, in this situation everything is upside down."

"Teacher should have more right to discipline."

Based on the research results, we can conclude that teachers are overloaded with work and they do not agree to do extra work with children who have trouble keeping up with lessons. Pupils often lack opportunities to receive additional tutoring. This puts both parents and children in a difficult position and forces them to seek private tutors, which is often too expensive for the families. This situation indicates the need for assistant or support teacher for those pupils.

Parents agree that school cannot be viewed separately from the society; rather, school is a mirror of society--everything that is happening in the society finds its way to the school life.

"The child is a mirror of the society. If something is wrong in the child's home, then he/she takes it with him/her to school and this is what starts the fights."

"School reflects everything that is happening in the society--therefore, the teachers should recognize responsibility and possibility to make the society better. But parents should as well."

"Child is a mirror of home, school is a mirror of society. Tensions between schools create prejudices. This reaches also the children and destroys their motivation."

"The state starts from school--entrepreneurship, business ethics, communication skills, professions, good behavior and tolerance. The model of the state is not home, but school."

"School is a mirror of society and for the purposes of analysis and changing what is unpleasant, one should not blame the children, but look in the mirror and change oneself."

DISCUSSION

Parents expect teachers to be friendly and caring toward their children; at the same time, however, they desire exactingness and consistency in developing children's learning skills. An important factor is a teacher's alertness about what is happening in the classroom--the desire and ability to prevent school violence. The teacher is considered to be the main source of children's safety at school--the creator of a safe environment. Unfortunately, families too often experience times when a child is left without a teacher's support and attention in the face of school violence. Therefore, it is very important for schools to have a psychologist and/or social pedagogue present, and today's teacher education programs should be ready to deal with social problems that have reached the school. The teacher should consider her task to be not only a matter of transmitting knowledge skills, but also one of supporting the development of a child's personality; creating a safe environment is important for such development.

Parents have experienced both worries and joys in relation to their children's school life. The worries are mostly related to teachers' attitudes, particularly biased conduct and unwillingness to cooperate with the home and share information about the child. The SEYLE project, implemented during the last academic year under the leadership of professor Airi Varnik, studied, among other things, teachers' attitudes toward children's mental health problems and teachers' opinions about cooperation with different parties. The study showed that a large proportion of teachers do not consider it necessary to cooperate with the home and do not see parents as competent in supporting the child's learning (Tiko, 2010).

These findings show that teacher training should pay considerably more attention to developing the personality of the teacher in order to meet children's needs and families' expectations, and to guarantee the continuous development of every child.

CONCLUSION

The results of the current study allow us to conclude that school is, unfortunately, not always conducive to developing the social capital that is necessary for a child's well-being. Estonian schools do not sufficiently value relationships between teachers and parents, and between parents themselves.

In order to guarantee the development of every child according to his/her needs and abilities, it is important that teachers recognize their role in the development of children's personality. The basis of teachers' ethics must be the treatment of each child as an individual with potential, which reveals itself in the process of interaction. The teacher should recognize the impact of his/her actions on the child's socialization and the development of his/her self-consciousness, and also in creating a safe environment. In this context, a teacher's prejudiced attitude toward any child--labeling him/her--is impermissible. Teacher education could play an important role in this respect by emphasizing, more than before, the self-development questions of the teacher's personality as a professional in order to meet the children's needs and the parents' expectations. It is also vital that teachers be more oriented toward cooperation and an exchange of information with the child's home.

References

Antikainen, A. (1998). Kasvatus, elamankulku ja yhteiskunta [Education, life-span and society]. Helsinki, Finland: WSOY.

Bradshaw, J. (2009). Social inclusion and child poverty. In P. Perrig-Chiello (Ed.), Changing childhood in a changing Europe: Interdisciplinary workshop report (pp. 29-36). Strasbourg, France: European Science Foundation.

Eisenschmidt, E. (2008). Kas opetaja hoiab opihuvi? [Does the teacher maintain interest for learning]. In O. Aarna (Ed.), Pohikool annab pohja: Eesti Haridusfoorum Vaimelas, 11. ja 12. jaanuar 2008, Ettekannete ja artiklite kogumik [Basic school provides the foundation: Estonian Education Forum in Vaimela, 11th and 12th January 2008, collection of presentations and articles] (pp. 62-65). Tallinn, Estonia: Haridusfoorum.

Ellonen, N., & Korkiamaki, R. (2006). Sosiaalinen paaoma lasten ja nuorten hyvinvoinnin ressursina [Social capital as the resource of children's and young people's wellbeing]. In H. Forsberg, A. Ritala-Koskinen, & M. Torronen (Eds.), Lapser ja sosiaalityo [Children and social work] (pp. 195-219). Helsinki, Finland: PS-Kustannus.

Nivala, E. (2006). Koulukuraattori nuoren maailmassa [School curator in young person's world]. In L. Kurki, E. Nivala, & P. Sipila-Lahdekorpi (Eds.), Sosiaali-pedagooginen sosiaalityo koulussa [Socio-pedagogical work at school] (pp. 101-164). Helsinki, Finland: Oy FINN LETURA A.

Salundi, M., & Tiko, A. (2009). Koolivalikut mojutavad tegurid [Factors influencing the choice of school]. Tallinn, Estonia: Tallinna Ulikool.

Schaffer, H. R. (2009). Key concepts in developmental psychology. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

Sutrop, M., & Kraav, I. (2010). Koolinoorte vaartused ja vaartuskasvatus [Pupils' values and value education]. In M. Lauristin (Ed.), Eesti inmarengu aruanne 2009 [Estonian human development report 2009] (pp. 122-127). Tallinn, Estonia: Eesti Koostoo Kogu.

Tiko, A. (2010). Opetajate ja koolipersonali hoiakud opilaste vaimse tervise suhtes [The attitudes of teachers and school staff about the pupils' mental health]. In A. Varnik (Ed.), SEYLE konverents: Kooliopilaste tervise-ja riskikaitumine vaimse tervise kontekstis: Ettekannete teesid [SEYLE conference: School children's health and risk behaviour in the context of mental health: presentation theses]. Unpublished manuscript, Suitsidoloogia Instituut, Tallinn, Estonia.

Anne Tiko, Institute of Social Work, Tallinn University, Tallinn, Estonia
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Author:Tiko, Anne
Publication:Childhood Education
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Geographic Code:4EXES
Date:Nov 1, 2012
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