Should parents be allowed a voice?

Only today (30/04/17), The Observer newspaper joined the parent-bashing bandwagon, releasing the article, Teachers knows best? Not any longer as parents muscle in on the classroom. As the profession faces increasing pressure, the pressure of teaching is secondary to the online bullying we have seen rife on social media platforms such as Facebook. Some parents believe it is their right to broadcast their feelings to the world. But what if the tables were turned?

The world of education is changing. The 5-minute parent evenings of the secondary sector are unlike the half hour conferences I’ve seen happen up to 3 times a year in primary. When I was a child at primary school, my mum got a two-page report stating the level of my work and a two-sentence statement for each subject. There was even a box dedicated to letting her know how my social and emotional skills were developing. In my 8 years of teaching, I’ve never filled out that box.

When I taught English in the secondary sector, we had one 5-minute discussion a year for each child we taught. Apart from the fact I am a chatty-Cathy and pretty useless at reducing my thoughts into such a concise conversation, it was all about how well or how poorly the child was doing in the subject. However, that short discussion meant I had to stick to the bald facts; your child does x well, and should do y to improve further. Personally, I felt those parent meetings were a waste of time, and that comes from the freak who actually really enjoyed those conferences. The 5 minutes would have been better spent with the young person, given that we were encouraging them to take more responsibility for their learning.

In primary, the parents take the lion’s share of responsibility. We need them to oversee homework, ensure P.E. kits have been packed and that a suitably healthy snack is ready for playtime. The last school I worked in had a policy of seeing the parents once a term; we had half hour conversations booked, and the children were left with the teaching assistants for the best part of the week’s afternoons. (As an aside, I did work in a secondary school that had a similar policy, but they gave the young people home learning for one day to minimise the impact the meetings would have on their lessons).

At least this gave us time to talk to parents, especially since the report only gave a list of the objectives that had been met, or hadn’t been met. Having such a policy means that we allow the parents a voice. We encourage them to come in and talk about their child’s learning. They share their worries, we chat about how to resolve them and we give tips on improving homework quality.

Seeing the parents on a regular basis, other than when they pick up their child at the end of the day, allows us to build a rapport with them; that relationship means that any queries can be dealt with swiftly and with little confrontation. Other than the obvious impact on the child’s learning, this approach strengthens the community links a school has a responsibility to maintain.

The Observer article describes how some schools give parents guidelines about avoiding making defamatory comments on social media. They note that some schools haven’t yet managed to suss out how to develop relationships with parents, which frankly, appals me. I wouldn’t take kindly to being sent a letter about derogatory behaviour because it is not something I would do. It’s like the scenario in a classroom where the whole class is punished in consequence to the “naughty” child’s poor behaviour. It is absurd to treat parents like that and yet also expect that they will have respect for your staff.

We teach our young people that learning respect is one of the most important lessons they will learn. But tarring all our parents with the social media brush isn’t respectful. Most of us are sensible enough that we take what we read on Facebook with a pinch of salt, and don’t feel the need to spread malicious gossip. The Observer share the story of “Anne” who was signed off work for 5 months due to stress caused by a parent’s bullying. The paper focus on the parent’s unacceptable behaviour, yet there is no mention of the inadequate way the school dealt with the matter. We as teachers have all had parent confrontations. As a Head of Department, I had to meet with parents who complained about my team, and as much as we have to listen and respond to parental grievances, it is the job of management to ensure that teachers are not victimised.

It is not nice. It can be intimidating. It can make you question your ability to teach, but we should not fear parents. A few decades ago, there was far less parental involvement, in part to do with less testing and reporting. But we must move with the times. Being aggravated by that parent who calls each day should not be part of the job, and teachers should not have to bear the load alone.

Such biased articles full of skewed stats further destroy the relationship teachers are working hard to build with parents. After all, we are the people that those young people see more than anyone during the week. Why shouldn’t parents be keen to ensure their children are being brought up in an environment that conducive to their wellbeing. And just for a moment, think about the children who are going home to parents who are volatile; our role is vitally important. We may be the only voice of reason that child hears.

So should we turn the tables? Should we publicly complain about parents who don’t feed their child well, or who send them in clothes that haven’t been washed? Should we out parents who leave their children to fend for themselves while they go out to get drunk? Of course, not. It would be absurd. And not only that, it would destroy our professional gait. I’m truly disgusted that The Observer thinks publishing a range of unlinked facts- I mean, please do explain how the social media problems has caused a 7% reduction of acceptances to teacher training courses- will do anything but add fuel to the fire. Instead, let’s stay professional, and ask that the management of schools facing bullying complaints do something about it.

About the author: Now an English consultant, Jill formerly worked as both a secondary Head of English and a primary teacher.

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