The more things change the more they stay the same. Over the last few weeks I have seen the truth of that simple phrase. My work as an educational consultant has taken me to three continents in the last three weeks, working with schools within very different cultures, any yet with amazingly similar challenges.
While the scope of those challenges reaches beyond my word allocation, one issue is too strikingly similar to ignore: parents. From Johannesburg to Jacksonville, principals and teachers alike all bemoan the fact that parents seem to be taking over our schools. Whether chairing school boards or organizing grass roots committees, they seem to be everywhere, voicing their opinions with conviction and unyielding determination.
Long gone are the days when the teacher was always right; it seems these days the teacher can do no right. “You’re the professional, you know better”, has been replaced by “I’m the parent, I know what’s best.” Parents focus solely on the needs of their child, completely oblivious to the fact that their child’s needs must be balanced with the needs of twenty five other children in the classroom. They leave little room for compromise and seem to want immediate results.
In many of the private schools in which I consult, the prospect of losing tuition dollars is a significant concern. Enrollment statistics can make or break a school, giving almost every parent the ability to threaten and to have those threats taken seriously. If good business practice lives by the motto, ‘the customer is always right’, where does that leave the classroom teacher or the school principal who valiantly tries to please, or at least placate, his or her ‘customers’.
Complicating matters is what I call the Goldylocks Syndrome which plagues many schools. Is the porridge too hot or too cold? Did the teacher give too much homework or too little? Were there too many words on the vocabulary list or too few? What customer A wants, customer B hates. (The funny part comes when the student’s mother is customer A and his father is customer B!) I don’t know of a more people-intensive environment than a school community, and balancing the competing needs of all the members of that community has become an educators nightmare.
What can be done? Obviously, there are no easy solutions. But, that said, I would like to offer two thoughts.
First, as difficult as it may be, we should try and empathize with parents whenever appropriate. By in large, parents are not bad people, out to cause anguish for their child’s teachers. In almost all cases they would love nothing better than to hear that all is fine in school so that they do not have to spend even a second dealing with teachers or administrators. Today’s economic realities demand more and more of their time, frequently resulting in both parents working long hours. When their child comes home unhappy and demands their attention, their stress level rises and they search for the easy solution, the path of least resistance; blame the school. While we the educators know the issue is with the child, not the school, that option is too painful (i.e. would demand too much of their time) for parents to comprehend. So, if possible, just bear with them.
Which leads to my second point. Many times, parents just want to be heard. Acknowledging the fact that there is a problem may be all that is needed. Sometimes saying, “I understand your concern and will see what can be done”, may suffice to cool a rising temper. A defensive stance may be justified, but many times will escalate the tension, when cooler heads must prevail. Parents know that change will not happen overnight, or possibly not even in the foreseeable future, but they also want to know that they are not being ignored and that someone feels their pain.
While the above does not relate to the truly difficult parent, I feel it does apply to many of the challenges mentioned above. Perhaps the path of least resistance might have some merit after all.