Tensions between the Personal and the Professional in Close Teacher-Child Relationships

By Quan-McGimpsey, Sharon; Kuczynski, Leon et al. | Journal of Research in Childhood Education, January-March 2013 | Go to article overview
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Tensions between the Personal and the Professional in Close Teacher-Child Relationships

Quan-McGimpsey, Sharon, Kuczynski, Leon, Brophy, Kathleen, Journal of Research in Childhood Education

This study investigated teachers' experiences of tension in close relationships with individual children in early childhood education (ECE) settings. Structured interviews were conducted with 24 female teachers of children between ages of 3 and 5 (mean age = 3.9) regarding their conceptions of closeness and specific interactions where they experienced closeness with a particular child. Two interconnected themes were found: systemic tensions and ecological factors. The systemic tensions concerned dialectical contradictions that emerged when relating to individual children and included one child versus group, exclusive versus shared closeness, and parental role versus role of ECE teacher. The ecological factors concerned the system of relationships that were the source of the contradictions and included self, profession, parents, and children. Thematic analyses indicated that how teachers reported experiences of personal and professional tensions may be related to the intrapersonal processes involved in managing closeness with children.

Keywords: early childhood teachers, caregiver child relationships, qualitative evaluation, child care


A teacher's relationship with a child plays an essential role in the child's adjustment in the early childhood classroom (Pianta, 2006). The relationship itself is complex and fraught with divergent expectations. On the one hand, effective caregiving relationships with young children require personal investment, physicality, affective responsiveness, and empathy. Research on affective features of the relationship, such as closeness (Buyse, Verschueren, Van de Water, Can Damme, & Maes, 2005), warmth (Pianta & Stuhlman, 2004), and attachment security (Howes, 1999), has found these features to be associated with positive behavioral adjustment (Birch & Ladd, 1998) and higher academic achievement (Hamre & Pianta, 2001). However, the teacher-child relationship is also expected to be a professional relationship, governed by institutional standards, such as developmentally appropriate practice (Bredekamp & Copple, 1997). Efforts have been made to distinguish the teacher-child relationship from mother-child relationships (Katz, 2000; Zhang, 2007) to help teachers maintain a professional distance and objectivity in the relationship, and to avoid teacher burnout, which is assumed to be associated with crossing boundaries between personal investment and professional distance (Noble & MacFarlane, 2005).

Recently, researchers have attempted to conceptualize teaching in a way that avoids dualistic either/or conceptions and have moved toward a more holistic view that recognizes the inherent complexity of the teacher-child relationship. Models of teacher-child relationships should capture the experience of participating in an affective interpersonal relationship while carrying out teaching and caregiving functions. Manning-Morton (2006) argued for a relationship-based model of teacher training that is focused on the interpersonal processes of teaching and not only the content of teaching. Similarly, Goldstein (1999) argued that the teacher-child relationship is a proximal context not only for the development of the child but also for the caregiver. Teachers experience a moral investment in the child, described as an ethic of care, characterized by receptivity, empathic reciprocity, and responsibility. More recently, Quan-McGimpsey, Kuczynski, and Brophy (2011) found that teachers report three domains of teacher-child relationships when describing the experience of closeness with individual children: a professional domain, an attachment domain, and an intimate personal domain, characterized by mutual enjoyment, a sense of emergence over time, and exclusivity. They argued that the experience of closeness in the teacher-child relationship is multifaceted and inherently blends different functions, with the personal domain predominating.

This holistic view of the teacher-child relationship is echoed by new conceptions of parent-child and professional-client relationships.

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