Year: 1997-1998
Month: November
Leader: Group K

Situation/Case Study:

This is a very bright fifth grade child. He tends to be disorganized and gets very upset and tense when he doesn't have his work done on time. The parent claims it's the teachers' fault. The consequences for a late paper are loss of 5 points. One day this week, the parent and child came into the classroom at the beginning of the day, both in tears, sobbing, because he had a math problem he couldn't understand and neither could the mother and so he couldn't do it. Often the mother will walk to the lockers, take off her son's coat and hang it up and then come into the room with the child and unpack his backpack for him at the beginning of the school day. She always has excuses for him: his not having work is the school's fault, bad policy, teachers have favorites. Recently she came into the room and was shouting at the teacher in front of the child accusing the teachers of being cruel, ruining her child, that they were unfair and needed to take parenting class. This was a very personal attack on the teacher. This parent is very aware of what goes on in the classroom as she is a volunteer in the room (at a time that her son is not in the class.) There is a history of this problem from previous years. She is always threatening to change schools. In the past the principal has listened to the parent with patience and not done much about the situation. This time the entire team went to the principal and told her of the verbal attack and she seems to see the seriousness of the problem and has scheduled a meeting with the parent and the gifted specialist to let the parent know that the team wants to help the child.

The teacher might feel angry, concern for the student’s safety. Respect for the professional training from the parent is zero. The teacher might also feel concerned for his/her own safety. A teacher in this situation may feel very frustrated, embarrassed, angry, pressured, on-the-spot, speechless. It is the worst feeling to have a parent criticize you in front of your students. It’s so unbelievable how “out-to-lunch” some parents are. They are angry and unable to hear anything you say. These teachers may also feel supported by each other and the principal; comforted in “safety in numbers.” The teacher should feel threatened and needs to seek legal consul if the situation continues. A teacher in this situation would feel frustrated, angry, worried and upset. Frustrated and angry that they are trying to help and the parent isn’t seeing that commitment and caring side; worried, upset, and concerned about the well being of the child and his mental health. This is a stretch, but there also might be some worry for the mom and her instability. A teacher might feel angry and frustrated because they may know that anything they do could not be right for the parent and because the child is being “hurt” because of the pressure the parent puts on the child. A teacher in this position might feel angry defensive, and full of dread. She/he might feel anger because her teaching and her skill are being challenged. She/he might feel defensive because she/he is personally being attacked. She might dread seeing this woman and worry about any more possible ambushes occurring. A teacher might feel reluctant to help the child for fear that he may tell his parents and they wouldn’t approve of the approach even though they aren’t aware of all the circumstances. The teacher would feel defensive because she is being questioned and not completely supported by the administrator. The teacher may feel attacked and angry because the parent keeps at the teacher. She could feel like she’s being backed into a corner, and may need to come out running. The teacher probably feels: misunderstood, not trusted, frustrated!, disgusted, angry, crazy, second guessed, attacked, defensive, unprofessional, and not respected because of the nature of the attacks. A teacher may feel angry because she is not getting the support she needs. A teacher may feel frustrated because you feel you are providing for the child but the parent is not recognizing it. A teacher may feel pressure to do over and above what is really needed -- to satisfy the parent. The teacher may feel angry because of the inappropriateness of the attack. The teacher may feel frustrated because of the lack of understanding by the parent. The teacher may feel embarrassed by the attack when it happens in front the children. The teacher will feel attacked, angry and frustrated because of an unjustified attack.

Theories behind practice:
Whereas there is research that indicates that having parents actively involved as a result of the parents increased support and positive attitude about the process of schooling, in this instance the attack of the teachers and the school in front of the child is most destructive and can have a reverse effect on his school progress. The behavior of the parent enables the student to not accept responsibility for his not having his work done, promotes learned helplessness, and results in a decline both in self concept and motivation. Even though at this point the relationship between the parent and teacher is antagonistic, it is important to open communications on a more positive note, perhaps with a negotiator. The fact that the principal realizes the seriousness of the personal attacks, and has supported the teacher in not putting up with any more verbal abuse and has scheduled a meeting with other professionals is the ideal way to begin dealing with this situation. Cantor’s communication theory in dealing with difficult parents suggests that you try to win parents over to your side. This can be helped with a neutral party mediator such as the special education facilitator, the school social worker or the Gifted Education coordinator. In Diane Heacox’s Up From Underachievement, she suggests reframing the roles of teachers and parents as coaches and has forms for the parent and teacher to fill out with suggestions for helping the child and the roles each should play, working toward agreement and shared responsibility. This can include avoiding the placing of blame, reframing the issues as to what the child needs to experience success, acknowledging the need for parent support and coaching to help with the solution of the problem, as well as the coaching support of the teacher, and coming to agreement on the strategies each will use. When there is as much attacking on the part of the parent, it causes one to wonder what else is at issue here. The reactions of the parent are so out of proportion to the situation that it calls into question the home situation and problems the parent might be facing as well as serious concerns for the psychological well being of the child. For this reason, having the social worker present and possibly suggesting psychological testing during the meeting may be an idea. There might even be cause for calling child protection if the parent is verbally abusive to the child or about the child, with the full understanding that child protection may do nothing as they may not deem it threatening enough. Knowing how important parent/school communications are and how some parents do not understand or appreciate appropriate boundaries or times or methods of communication, a school should develop norms, guidelines, and expectations for parent/teacher communications and carefully spell them out in the school handbook, so that if these guidelines are not being respected, the policy can be pointed out and enforced. Because of the inappropriateness of the parent’s involvement when she brings the child to school and helps him off with his jacket, etc., perhaps the social worker can provide her with materials that help her understand appropriate social and emotional development (Erikson’s Stages, especially Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt, Initiative vs. Guilt and Industry vs. Inferiority. Teachers and parents could benefit from a review of Parenting Styles and their implications for children and teachers. (Baumrind, 1989; Baumrind & Black, 1967; Maccoby & Martin, 1983; Steinber, 1993.)

Impact on others:

Have a meeting to set goals for everyone involved and to clearly set limits for when it is appropriate to set up a time to talk with the teacher. Ask the parent what her expectations are for her child at this age? What should he be able to do for himself? The teacher needs to remind herself that it is not her problem, it is the parent's problem. Also to acknowledge that teachers have rights and if the teacher is being harassed, to involve the Teachers' Union to prevent further harassment. Perhaps this family needs family counseling and as communications open up the parent might be receptive to this suggestion by the school social worker. Involving the social worker in observing the child's behavior during stressful times or at the beginning of the day when the mother brings him to school might help bring documentation to support this suggestion. Get the child in an Affective Group dealing with friends, coping skills, peer groups and individual advocacy skills.

We began with a discussion about how individuals felt relating to last month's discussion on being overwhelmed. Though everyone still felt the burden of too much to do and not enough time to do everything as well as they wanted, by and large they felt some relief of their stress in knowing they were not alone and that there were some strategies which when implemented helped. The team of teachers and the gifted coordinator were part of this group. They felt much better about the upcoming meeting with the parent the next day. They also felt the shared anger and support of everyone there. There were some discussions about other parental problems when parents expected too much, or didn't respect boundaries, or over-protected their children.