Shifting Power Dynamics

In order to discuss power-sharing, it is important to understand the power dynamics at play in interactions between parents or caregivers and teachers.

While both parties are adults with equal power in theory, many factors can shape the dynamics and create the context. For example, both parties have power related to their respective roles, but both may at times feel powerless. Sometimes, there may be unspoken or invisible hierarchies within schools (as in any institution or assembly of human beings). Some parents or caregivers may wield more influence or personal power. They may have a closer personal relationship to the principal. Add to this the power dynamics related to social inequity and exclusion and the situation may become quite complex.

A teacher from a marginalized social group may need to work with a parent or caregiver from a dominant group. For example, a teacher who is an immigrant and a visible minority encounters a parent or caregiver from the dominant ethnocultural group who is an established lawyer. This situation can have an impact on the existing power dynamics at play between a professional in a position of authority and a well-educated parent with strong communication skills who is aware of their legal rights, but who has no professional authority within the school system.

Similarly, a transgendered parent or guardian (for example, someone who identifies as a woman but is biologically a man) may approach a cis-gendered teacher with a great deal of trepidation. She may be very unsure as to how she will be received and wonder whether her identity will be accepted and respected. In such a situation, the power dynamics may be very unequal, since this individual not only lacks power socially, but may also feel less confident in her ability to advocate for herself and her child.

Reflecting on power dynamics with parents and caregivers

Take a moment to think about some of your interactions with your students’ parents or caregivers.

  • When have I felt I had more power than a parent or a caregiver?
  • When have I felt that a parent or caregiver was dominant?
  • In both cases, what led to your identifying the power imbalance?
  • What was the source of the power imbalance?
  • Was there anything I could have done or would have liked to do to share power in that situation?
  • How would the outcome have been different in a shared power environment?