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Training Your Shadow: Parent Teacher Organizations

Updated on March 17, 2011

I’m five minutes late—damn. That means the kids are spread out about the room, facing the wall, pretending to read. Mrs. Pugel is, no doubt, trying to work with her small reading group, but her attention is naturally being diverted by the verbal warnings she has to give those whose charade is less than successful. I’m late because I was trying to wind up a phone call with a friend whose child attends a different school. She’s in charge of her school’s largest fundraiser, and after a twelve hour day of volunteerism, she feels like walking out on the whole project.

What might a sociologist say about the way Parent Teacher Organizations (PTO) and Parent Association Boards (PAB) operate in present day school structures? Structural and functional sociologists, such as Robert K. Merton (1949), have often urged small affinity groups present within society to examine themselves according to their interrelated interactions within the larger system of human context. Although some would argue a theory prescribed in 1949 is dated, and therefore no longer useful, Merton’s understanding of manifest, latent, and dysfunctional functions is just as meaningful today as it was when he published Social Theory and Social Structure which, according to Edith W. King  (2011), “placed [him] at the forefront” of his field.

Manifest functions are those which are both observable and intended outcomes (consequences) of a social system. Latent functions are those that were not necessarily intended, but can be seen as bonus attributes. Dysfunctional functions are just what they sound like—the functions that come about when the system reaches a point at which the negative and destructive consequences to the operation of a social system can no longer be constrained.

A school’s embracement of community involvement speaks highly to the institution’s set of values. Parent expertise and energy can greatly infuse the school culture with a feeling of care. However, that infusion should remain supplemental and not become essential. Schools could no longer operate successfully without a strong showing from their PAB’s or PTO’s. How did this happen? Once again, the answer lies in the way society at large views the field of education.

The manifest outcomes of a strong PTO result in not only the supplement of celebrations, with their Staff Appreciation Luncheons and their class parties, but also result in the generation of additional funds which directly benefit the student body. The latent function of any good PAB is the creation of a culture of care. Students, faculty, and staff recognize the returning parent faces, and the parents who are most active within the school come to know the names of school officials and students alike—even those outside of their respective children’s classrooms.

However, lack of government funding and added accountability pressures have led to the creation of a dysfunctional consequence to the way PTO’s and PAB’s currently operate within a school social system. State budgeting committees that opt to cut education funding cause school districts to transfer or layoff teachers, or in extreme cases, close entire schools. What happens to the children who were in that teacher’s class or to the children who were attending that school? They find themselves in another teacher’s classroom or another school entirely. The new classroom and school, however, do not pick up additional teachers to handle the added population. Instead, classrooms with 20 students become classrooms with 40 students. Too few students impacts the way a teacher approaches a subject—as does too many students. “I’d like to do this, but there’s no way I could pull it off with X amount of students.” That’s the reality. Teachers whose internal motivation and passion would dictate their approaches to curriculum are forced to curtail those approaches to accommodate the class’s size. Is this what school administrators or parents want?

In curriculum theory, the downsides to a curriculum (which I am comparatively and momentarily labeling the dysfunctional functions), could be called the curriculum shadow (Uhrmacher, 1997). This argument does not call for the elimination of PAB’s, but rather to re-examine their new roles within a school. When teachers have forty students, they need to rely on outside help in order to give differentiated or individual attention to their students. Parents often sign up for slots of time to come in and “help the teacher out.” Parents may be asked to run copies or pre-cut paper during those times, but they may also be asked to help instruct small groups during the times in which the teacher is working with another group. In essence—to team-teach. Here’s where the shadow can get scary. The more active the roles parents are given within the classroom, the creepier the shadow grows.

A shadow curriculum, according to the originator of the term, Bruce Uhrmacher (1997), is created when we examine the privileged aspects of a curriculum and seek out those elements which the curriculum disdains in contrast to the privilege. Looking back at the train of thoughts here: State budgeting committees privilege economic efficiency. That is their manifest function. State boards of education privilege favorable scores and deem schools with favorable scores worthy of the privilege of economic rewards—all manifest functions. Failing schools receive less money which causes those schools to let go of teachers. Some schools are closed altogether, and the district moves students to the more privileged schools. A dysfunctional function is now created. The structural changes to a school’s operational framework will necessarily work its way into the classrooms.

Teachers do something other than what they would normally do or normally privilege. What they disdain doing is the shadow. Mrs. Pugel believes in (privileges) small group interaction and one-on-one time with students. She disdains having to attempt to teach forty students at once—this is her shadow. To remedy the engulfing nature of the shadow, she relies upon parent helpers to come into the classroom, not in a supporting role, but rather in an essential role. This could be a latent function. Parent helpers, however, often see themselves as helpers—volunteers. They do not necessarily see themselves as essential components to the function of the social system of the school. They show up on time or not. They show up at all or not. They devote the twelve hours and feel overburdened and under-appreciated and the project they set out to do suffers. The essential functioning of the school suffers. A new shadow is formed from the manifest function of bringing in or privileging parent volunteers. The shadow does not have to be a negative projection—but we first need to recognize its existence.

Parent volunteers are grading papers. They are stuffing behavior re-direction reports into Take-Home-Folders . . . they are privy to otherwise strictly-protected, confidential material. Furthermore, and more alarmingly, they are being asked to teach without training. I have seen well-meaning parents reprimanding students. Conversely, I have seen overly-relaxed parents being over-run by the kids. Regardless of how great of a parent one is, if he or she is not trained to handle five or ten students of the same age at the same time, problems necessarily arise. If I am a parent volunteer, and I know Tabitha is bullying my daughter, will I act differently toward Tabitha during my group time with the students? I’d like to believe not, but because this is “alone-time” with students and not a supplemental class activity with multiple staff and/or parents present, there is no guarantee that every parent in that situation will be able to curb his or her personal feelings and work equitably with the bully. Educators are trained to handle those situations—parents are not. And what of the teacher who relies on those parents in order to do his or her job? Will he or she not be influenced, possibly on a subconscious level, to favor the children of those parents whom he or she needs?

Training our shadows requires us to first recognize their existence. The shadow can morph into a positive latent function, but not if we are blind to it. The way today’s PAB’s and PTO’s operate within schools is in dire need of examination. Confidentiality needs preserving. Opportunities for inequitable distributions of privilege need to be minimized. If a school cannot deliver a level of quality education to its students without parent volunteers, something needs changing.


King, E.W. (2011).Social thought into the twenty-first century. Amazon: Kindle, 2011. 

Uhrmacher, P.B. (1997). The curriculum shadow. Curriculum Inquiry. 27 (3), 317-329.

Brief Bio: 

Jenn Gutiérrez holds an M.F.A in English and Writing. Previous work has appeared in journals such as The Texas Review, The Writer’s Journal, The Acentos Review, Antique Children, and Verdad Magazine. Her 2005 debut collection of poems titled Weightless is available through most online book outlets.


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