Education blog: Blurred lines - The new normal in schools

There’s a problem in schools that’s being ignored. It involves bullying, the behavioural epidemic of our times. I’m not referring to student intimidation, which has become the focus of schoolwide behavioural interventions over the past ten years. Student bullying continues to be a problem, but students aren’t the only ones who bully. Their parents bully, too, and they’re targeting their children’s teachers.

Cases of teacher harassment by parents have increased in Quebec schools of late. Several factors have contributed to this unsettling trend, one of which is the change in societal attitudes towards teaching. Respect for the teaching profession has declined. Teachers are treated as glorified babysitters, and schools as a place to house children while parents are at work. Gone are the days when teachers were revered as the people responsible for shaping young minds. Parenting practices have also changed, favouring overprotection of children over accountability. Parents are reluctant to allow their children to experience any consequences for their actions, whether it be a bad grade on a test as a result of not studying or a punishment for disrespecting a teacher. The need for a “safe space” for children at all times has sent parents on a crusade against teachers who are only trying to prepare those children for success in the real world.

A third factor unique to English schools in Quebec is declining enrollment. English school boards will go to great lengths to keep students enrolled in their schools, even if it means granting parents more power to influence classroom outcomes than they should have. Consequently, some principals have been inadvertently led to encourage parents’ bullying behaviour when they should be discouraging it, choosing to help a parent satisfy an unreasonable request rather than supporting their teachers’ decisions. This factor, coupled with the changes in attitudes towards teaching and parenting just described, has led teachers to covet a “safe space” of their own.

Parents bully teachers for a myriad of reasons: to ensure that their children receive higher grades than they deserve, to secure educational resources beyond what teachers are required to assign, and to prevent teachers from singling out their children as needing extra help. Some of the parent behaviour that I’ve been privy to would shock you. I’ve seen parents write disparaging reviews of their children’s teachers on, going so far as to pretend to be students. I’ve heard of parents maligning teachers for daring to suggest that their child might have a learning disorder. I’ve even heard of parents complaining about their children having to miss recess to practice lining up as a punishment for refusing to line up outside when told.

The problem of parent harassment of teachers comes down to a boundary issue. Somehow, the boundaries between the role of teachers and the role of parents have become blurred. It’s not a teacher’s role, for example, to convince a child to eat his or her vegetables; only a parent should be disciplining that child for poor eating habits. Nor is it a teacher’s role to accommodate for a child’s family vacation or extracurricular activity absences by providing work in advance of classroom schedules or at a rate suggested by a parent. Teachers and administrators need to reinforce these boundaries. Furthermore, administrators need to set boundaries between themselves and parents. A principal is not a parent’s friend; a principal is the leader of a school, and is responsible for the safety and security of his or her teachers and students. Harassment of any kind isn’t conducive to a secure learning environment. When parents bully teachers, we all lose.

Parent harassment is an unfortunate reality that teachers will have to face. Teachers and administrators need to be prepared to handle this disturbing and growing trend.

Suggestions for Teachers

Teachers who feel that they’re being unduly harassed by parents need to take certain steps to protect themselves:

  1. Familiarize yourself with your collective agreement.
  2. Bring the harassment to your principal’s attention as soon as it occurs.
  3. If your principal can’t successfully stop the harassment, then contact your union.
  4. Maintain frequent contact with your union, keeping them abreast of all communications with the offending parent.
  5. Keep a record of all relevant communications with the parent, your principal, your union, and any school board officials involved in the case.
  6. Have a witness present in all meetings with the parent or other parties involved in the case.
  7. In the rare case that your union cannot offer you the support that you need, then file a complaint with the CNESST and consult an attorney if necessary.

Suggestions for Principals

  1. Redirect any initial complaints about a teacher to the teacher.
  2. Speak with your teachers about any parent complaints before addressing them with the parent.
  3. Present a united front with your teacher when meeting with a parent, even if your teacher has erred. Discuss the error with your teacher privately at a later time.
  4. Explain to the parent why their request is unreasonable or inappropriate, communicating your support of your teachers’ decisions. 

Bianca Lallitto has a Master's degree in Psychology with a certificate in Industrial/Organizational Psychology. She has a penchant for behavioural analysis, and enjoys exploring the possible causes of people’s actions. Her analyses frequently extend to the world of fiction; her thoughts on the behaviour of fictional characters can be found on her blog, Fiction Digest.