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About Family Involvement Research Digests

Harvard Family Research Project's (HFRP) Family Involvement Research Digests summarize research written and published by non-HFRP authors and/or written by HFRP authors but published by organizations other than HFRP.  To access the full research publication summarized in this digest, please see the citation below. For help citing this article, click here.


Poor single mothers frequently experience their interactions with school staff as intimidating and humiliating. Through ethnographic observations and interviews with participants, this article explores a role-play of a typical “building assistance team” meeting in a school.

Project Description

The role-play was designed as an advocacy project by a group of single mothers in poverty and used with school staff. The role-play activity was developed by participants of Beyond Welfare (a grassroots community organization for women in poverty) and two school administrators who are allies of Beyond Welfare. The central purpose of the role-play was to educate the school staff to mothers' perceptions of these meetings so that the schools would change the way that meetings were conducted. Using a role-play gave mothers and school staff a neutral, common experience to use as a focus of discussion.

Research Method

This article is based on ethnographic data of two role-plays. With Beyond Welfare recipients, county school administrators and counselors facilitated the role-play once, as did county teachers affiliated with elementary “at risk” programs. The role-play concentrated on a “building assistance team” meeting about a fictitious boy named Carl.

“Carl” is a fourth grade student who had been doing well in other grades, but is now falling behind in math and reading. His teacher is concerned that he cannot give Carl enough attention and wants help meeting Carl's needs.

In the role-plays, a Beyond Welfare mother played the role of Carl's mother and school staff played the nine additional roles of professionals who are typically at these meetings, replicating the “ganging up” of the school staff that the mothers described in their interviews. Role-play participants received individualized cards describing their role and their attitudes about Carl. I conducted ethnographic observations at both role-plays and conducted follow-up interviews with a majority of the role-play participants.

Research Findings

Observations and interviews revealed that meetings are often more about middle-class prejudices, beliefs, and expectations that schools have of low-income mothers—manifest in negative evaluations, “deskilling,” and “infantilization” of the mothers by school staff—than the intended purpose of “problem-solving sessions” about a child's academic problems.

For example, during the role-play, negative evaluation was inherent in the persistent questioning about Carl's mother's (lack of) participation in Carl's reading and homework habits. Although feeling guilty that she wasn't home every night because of her school schedule, in the role-play the mother says she does read to Carl and helps him with his homework. She knows that these responses position her as a “good mother” and good partner with the school. But the teacher contradicts her, humiliating her. She is also intrusively interrogated about Carl's father. The negative evaluation is particularly obvious when the staff silently express disapproval that Carl's father is not present in their lives, suggesting that the absence of the normative, nuclear family is to blame for Carl's school problems.

The school staff also “deskilled” the mother during the role-play, both by treating her as lacking in expert knowledge about Carl when she tried to contribute her assessment of the problem to the conversation, and by ignoring her for a good part of it as they conversed among themselves using academic discourse. What is ironic is that if the meetings were intended to be a brainstorming session to help a child, then it would seem that her input would be valuable. However, the school staff was unwilling to accept as useful knowledge what the mother was telling them about Carl's discomfort in his teacher's classroom. They also argued among themselves for a substantial part of the role-play about batteries of tests, learning disabilities, and special help, ignoring the mother. By not bringing the mother into these discussions and discounting what she said about Carl, the meeting was mother-proofed, making her deskilling complete.

Finally, the mother was “infantilized” or spoken to as if she were a child rather than an adult. The most egregious example of this was the response to the mother's statement that she both goes to school “to better herself” and works full time. The principal chastises her, telling her she should wait to go to school and be at home more, treating her as if she is a child who made bad decisions. A greater comprehension of the effects of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, would make the mother's choices more clear. She is working because the law requires work to receive benefits and she is going to school because she knows education is the only route out of poverty.

Beyond Welfare participants and many of the school administrators I interviewed following the role-plays agreed that the role-play captured what goes on at a real meeting; they acknowledged the lack of respectful treatment of the mother. Therefore, changes were made to the structure of the meetings, particularly, having fewer school personnel in the room. However, some school staff resented what was revealed. Therefore, I conclude that although such advocacy is valuable, it needs to be accompanied by broader, critically oriented staff development and teacher training that gets at the underlying prejudices against poor mothers.

Implications for Teacher Preparation and Professional Development

I, along with everyone I interviewed, feel that continuing to stage role-plays in the school district, with these improvements, is a worthy pursuit. However, to make this kind of advocacy plan really work, my research has shown me how necessary it is to find ways both to help staff unlearn hegemonic beliefs about the poor and to build ideological commitments to advocacy. That is, the role-plays need to be supported by staff development of a special kind.

First, I would argue that if schools want to be effective in working with poor mothers, teacher education and ongoing staff development need to include classes on poverty and privilege in which attention is shifted away from the rationalist discourses of “poor mothers as problems” that permeate our society and focuses instead on how the schools reproduce inequalities of social class and stereotypes of the poor.

Second, it is also necessary to make visible how insisting that mothers be “agents” of the schools (e.g., by supervising homework and reading), without addressing how these norms reproduce already entrenched social inequities, dooms mother-school interactions to be always framed by hegemonic thinking that results in negative evaluations, deskilling, and infantilization of the mothers.

Finally, I think it is imperative that teacher education and staff development foster commitment to advocacy of the marginalized. Such commitments may result in the development of programs in which willing and knowledgeable school staff volunteer to serve disenfranchised mothers in the schools. Further, fostering advocacy may result in school staff becoming proactive in finding appropriate local solutions to these and other kinds of mother-school relationship tensions. With the help of school advocates, perhaps we can make sure that no mother will ever again need to cry out, as Karen did at one Beyond Welfare meeting discussing the schools, “I'm poor, I'm single, I'm a mom, and I deserve respect.”

Summarized from Bloom, L. R. (2001). “I'm poor, I'm single, I'm a mom, and I deserve respect”: Advocating in schools as/with mothers in poverty. Educational Studies, 32(3), 300–316.

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