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Parents as Bullies?

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The biggest problem for teachers these days? Overbearing parents, according to a survey of teachers in a well-to-do suburb outside Baltimore.

A Baltimore Sun article cited
a soon-to-be-released survey of teachers in Howard County, Md., a district of about 48,500 students. The survey reports that 60 percent of teachers have reported harassment, primarily by parents. Those working conditions make it particularly difficult to retain special education teachers, according to the Howard County Education Association, which conducted the survey. The association is an affiliate of the National Education Association.

An official with the Carroll County Education Association, the NEA affiliate in a neighboring county, said parents of children in special education are among the worst offenders.

"A teacher is a pretty prime target when the child is not meeting their potential," Barry Potts, the president of the association, said in the article.

Interesting thoughts from teachers are included in the article, and in the lively side discussion on the paper's Web site, where people are posting their comments anonymously. The article left me wondering if at least part of the issue is related to technology. With Blackberries, instant messaging and e-mail, parents may expect instant responses from teachers.

However, isn't communication with parents what all teachers want? I've certainly heard stories about parents who don't bother to show up at individualized education program meetings. IDEA mandates that districts promote parental involvement, and districts are being evaluated by the federal government on parental satisfaction, among other things. No one wants a teacher to be physically threatened, as the article describes. But, how much communication with parents is too much?

10 Comments

Articles like this make me want to get my big brother to beat up their big brother :)

On one hand, as a parent, it feels like a no win situation. We will be blamed for the problems if we are involved or uninvolved. And I think some of the need to scapegoat comes from (some)teachers who are struggling themselves and are intimidated by parents who may in fact be older and have more experience handling children. BTW--the best way to take care of the grandmother cited in the article would have been to start asking her to do things. She either would have become a valued volunteer, or found other things to do with her time.

But there are two other factors that I believe are important. One is the rejection of technology as a tool (in my district teachers have email AVAILABLE, but are not required to use it; most of the school websites--most of which are chronically out of date--do not list teacher email addresses) for communication. The other is refusal to consider basic "customer service" guidelines (too much like business--schools are not a business). I don't mind leaving a message for a teacher to return when they have time. But I do expect them to return the call when they do have time. They are generally calling me at my business to find out what I wanted--but they want to give a sound byte answer, don't have time for anything more in-depth; and generally refuse to provide a time for something more complete (unless I schedule a time in the middle of my work day to appear at school). The idea that a contact should be made within a timeline; or that ANYONE is ever responsible for resolution of a problem seem to be abhorrant.

While the article alluded to "harrassment" (60% of teachers, with 60% reporting parents as the perpetrators), it was pretty short on specifics. I gotta point out, as well, that the study was undertaken by a union. Unions have a stake in allegations of poor working conditions. I'll wait until it's published to make a final determination.

Ah, thanks for reminding me another question I had about this story, which was about the methodology. If I were writing a story about this myself, I definitely would want to see the survey instrument! At the very least, harassment means different things to different people.

And though this is just some more Monday-morning quarterbacking, I wish that some parent comments might have made it into the story.

Still, the tone of the reader comments that went with the story were so lively on both sides, that I thought it'd be good to put it out there. As a reporter, I've definitely interviewed both parents and teachers who feel harassed. In the special education realm, is there any way to run a smooth, non-contentious IEP process when there are disagreeements between the school and parents? Is it always just going to be dependent on the personalities involved?

I can suggest a number of strategies that I have NEVER seen utilized in an IEP meeting that would help. The use of "quality tools" would help. These include things like brainstorming techniques, evaluation tools and means of arriving at consensus (The Memory Jogger by QPC is a good resource). Even basics like agreeing who will record the discussion, and use of visual aids like flip charts for recording areas of agreement.

Planning the agenda ahead of time (with consultation with all parties), as well as providing materials to be discussed (like data that define the Present Levels of Performance) so that parents have an opportunity to prepare. Not expecting that a single hour-long session will result in a signed IEP. At best it can provide a draft that a parent (and teachers) can reflect on.

Anything that a district can do to demonstrate that they intend to follow the intent (not just the letter) of the law helps to build the trust of parents. By this I mean, don't use the gym teacher as the only "regular ed" teacher present. Content teachers should be provided time for and expected to participate in IEP meetings. Goals should be measureable in a quantitative (and realistic) way that will actually provide insight into whether there is adequate progress. Reporting should actually occur. When there are behavioral issues there should be an informed response that becomes a part of the IEP.

So--I don't think the process is wholly dependent on the personalities, there are some real skills involved. Noting the responses posted to the article, there are a lot of feelings and ill-will on both sides of this issue. This is a tough issue.

I have yet to read the entire story but have enjoyed the comments. I recently left a special ed position...I have been a special ed parent and a special ed teacher in combination for about 15 years. I will say that I have been harassed by parents, I have been harassed by my own staff, as they wanted special ed students to disappear or magically understand the textbooks and hand in all their work, or even better, just be with me all day. The special ed process is about being a team, and in some cases...I have been harassed and threatened by STUDENTS! Yes, students...and the school chose not to discipline. Just because a student struggles academically, doesn't mean it's okay to blame the teacher. Most of my kids did not want to spend time in special ed or have me even close to their classrooms, or even approach them when anyone else might see. This is where parents and administration come into play. I don't think I'll go back to teaching per se, but help those that want it in an advocacy position...keeping my fingers crossed!

I am a parent of a special ed student as well as a regular students mom. I can say that first hand in our school district that the parents are the ones harrassed by the Special Ed Dept and they are backed by the district 100% and no one in the district wants to help parents like myself in getting to a real resolution to ultimately help the child and the community. The dictatorial style I see is a real shame,for our country, our youth out there who struggle and are put into a stereotyped catchall program which does not responsibly address the individuals real needs. I wish there was an advocacy program out there that can be involved in an unbiased way and help these children and their families. Sure, they are many agencies out there who say they want to help these children, but again, it comes down to everyone watching out for themselves, their job security, god forbid anyone really care about the kids and put their needs #1. There are already many agencies doing the same redundant stuff, no real change, just loopholes everywhere, another bandaid for the schools, more cover ups of incompetent behavior. I can't imagine how things are ever going to change. Children become uncooperative because they have been put thru so much because of their unrecognized issues and because the parents opinion does not seem to make any differnce to the school district, the child looses confidence in both the school and eventually their own families who care so deeply to help them but are up against a "wall" group of people who just refuse to admit they have ever done anything incorrectly and refuse to step back to hear from someone who although doesn't have a professional degree in education or mental health but may have a broader mind than alot of those who do and also who have nothing to loose in terms of career or status except what is ultimately the most important thing of all, their own childs well being and future or future success in living in our world. I hope someone who has the status can someday step up and do for these children what the others refuse to do. Sometimes it shows a persons true value when they admit their mistakes and compromise for the childrens sake. But I'm still searching for that amazing person(s) who can put someone before their own selfishness. I have a friend who I have respected for many long years who recently told me to let go of it, that the beaurocracy or rather the dictatorship behind all these issues is too big to dig thru. I have to say it was a shock for me to hear this persons perspective on this as this was someone who always believed in going on and not giving up ever. But to give up is not a valid answer, although I may never find my childs resolution to his educational and emotional well being, I pray that someone out there will eventually be strong enough to make the difference...after all why should I quit the search...the biggest leaders in our country can not do their jobs and better as far as I can see...Politics is everywhere and our children are the result of poorly handles decisions by these same people. Would JFK or any other have made any difference...the truly talented and caring are so few....God Bless Our Children...I'll keep searching and praying....

I'd like to add a bit more: My children went to Catholic school, one graduated from the Catholic School and did very well, another was thrown out because he was different and that was not acceptable to the catholic school sytem, so it seemed. Another child went thru catholic school thru the seventh grade and was blessed since his birth with a high IQ along with a fantastic personality, etc. He now attends public high school and I can say that he does very well not because of the public schools but because of several things: his natural born intelligence and personality, very good basic education in catholic school, my parental discipline at home where I daily gave my children lots of love and support and guided discipline and art and fun. (More about this in a moment) I have another child who went to catholic school until the 5th grade and also was blessed with natural high intelligence and talents and he also excelled in school, even in public elementary school thru grade 6, but now in 8th grade he is changing. He doesn't have the same feeling about school that he used to, he now hates school and doesn't want to go to school and seems to think the teachers and other personnel in the school are mean to other students. He is very intelligent, but now says he is not smart. Because he is a sensitive personality type, he is not able to withstand the same environment as his brother with equal intelligence, but instead of shrugging off the ugly he has internalized it. I am so saddened by the change although I do know why some of these things are ocurring. I am not totally surprised because I have seen before the changes that occur when a child is facing frustrations that feel too big for them and the school is definitely a part of the problem. You see they make these children feel small, like objects to be displayed or disciplined, too many educational teachers or other school personnel stop at this and then immediately want to label this child, of course, our child is not stupid but quite aware of what is about to happen and in response they will then go into a withdrawal mode (especially if the parents don't see what is happening), because they know and they are then more frustrated by the reactions of these people and the cycle begins. But fortunately for my child I have already seen what can happen and so I know what to do to save this child. Because I have another child, the one who was expelled from catholic school years ago who was not allowed by this public school to be part of the regular school society but instead was thrown into alternative school (the catchall for all "problems" by the public school because it is so much easier to let these children be handled by another agency, the mental health society. And the children are thrown away by the school, parents told that this is where they must go and then we watch and argue and plead and argue and become intimidated and are so deeply frustrated and saddened by what follows all becasue the schools have loopholes, lawyers, rules and the power that distances the average parent from being heard as an equal partner in the childs education. And I believe that the child is discriminated against by this society and then rebels at some point in all of this and then that cycle goes on and on until we have a drop out or other horrible statistic. I say this because I know first hand...I am a single parent who has endured all this and more...I'm not attacking anyone or group but being deeply honest and hope that someone good can hear and understand and who has power to fight this terrible and unjust system...to save these children...I wish I could save my child...

I'm pretty amazed by the comments of the parents on here. Most teachers choose education because of the strong feelings they have about helping students succeed. Parents don't seem to realize that we love their children and want what's best for them as well. I believe that 99% of teachers do all that they can for their students, including many hours in addition to the contract day. I hope that the parents who have posted on here remember that teachers are people who are responsible for 24 or more other children in addition to yours. We can't return calls while class is in session as we're teaching. If you're a parent of a special ed. student, your child is getting even more attention and resources than the rest of the class (not that I disagree with this, but it is a fact). It's great to advocate for your child, but think about if you are being reasonable about your expectations. As for the parent whose child has discipline problems, it's not fair or honest of you to put all the blame on the school not understanding your child. It seems as though our society is expecting our education system to fix everything that's wrong with a child.

Yes, bullying is democratic; it occurs in every part of society. For me the most disturbing part is how school systems model bullying behavior, and thereby teach our students that it is acceptable. Usually bullying occurs when a power imbalance exists. When teachers receive the professional respect we are due, my guess is that all forms of bullying will decrease. It has also been my experience that bullying can not persist unless it is condoned (overtly or covertly) by administrators. I have found it helpful to read the research of Tim Fields, Ruth and Gary Namie, and Olweus.

It's taken me several days to think about how to respond to Angela. I had to let my "angry parent" die down first. Refocusing the argument about what students need and how to form effective relationships with parents into a caring contest (we love their children and want what is best for them) is an example of an ineffective strategy--if the aim is to build an effective team that includes parents. If you love my child and want what is best--what are you saying to me, as a parent, when we disagree? That I do not love my child, or do not want what is best? Rather than using this as a base of common agreement on which to build, it becomes a means of dismissiong parental concerns.

If 99% of teachers are doing everything that they can (and my child is receiving an extra share due to special needs that not everyone has) AND only motivated by their love for each child individually, how do we account for uneven levels of achievement--particularly when we see some schools that are able to improve in measureable ways?

My point is--it isn't about caring. It also isn't about how hard you work. Those are things that I will easily cede to 99% of teachers that I have encountered. But it is possible to care deeply and put an enormous amount of effort into doing the wrong things. One wrong thing is to dismiss the point of view of parents. A parent, by the end of elementary school, has watched a lot of those caring teachers disappear at the end of each school year. Your view is not the long view. A student with special needs may change schools more frequently than others (we don't have that program in this building). It is the parent who will be the constant in this process, not the teacher. The parent is the one who will have information about recurring patterns of behavior, ongoing difficulties, common pitfalls.

The parent also has an outsider's view of each school building and how the teachers work (or don't work) together. A student with special needs frequently has multiple "specialists" within the district that they work with. It is critical that these personnel work together to ensure consistency, transitions, etc. When each is calling the parent individually about a problem that could be impacted if they had a conversation together, the parent is likely to have the perspective to see this. I spent a year once with two teachers, across the hall from one another, who couldn't figure out how to transition my child across the hall with notebook, paper and pencils intact. But "coming to class unprepared" is a problem that a parent is expected to solve--and to do so after 6 weeks of allowing the behavior to continue. Of course, I could provide several different solutions--the most obvious would require that the two teachers work together to figure it out. But when I am cast as "just a parent" with typically unreasonable expectations for my child (who after all doesn't "care" enough to take the proper materials to class), it is very difficult to have an impact.

When a simple phone call takes days (call, leave a message, wait a day, call again and leave a message, receive a call-back at a time that the teacher cannot talk, try to schedule a time, schedule an IEP meeting so that both teachers can be involved, wait weeks to get all of the required personnel, reschedule due to a snow day, etc), it is hard to get anything simple done. Meanwhile, other unresolved issues are likely to crop up. By then it is the end of the year, and the caring teachers have moved on and the process will have to begin in the fall with a new crop--beginning with the suggestion that we extend the IEP for a month to give the a chance to "get to know" my child, first.

Margo Mom, Reading your posts, you seem to have a problem with every teacher, school and IEP meeting in which your child has ever been involved. You comment on varying levels of achievement in schools, yet seem to have moved your child to several, and not been happy with any of them.

You've spent a lot of time observing, reacting to and forming your opinion of the education system; which, I 'm in 100% agreement, has many flaws. You resent (rightly) having to schedule an appointment in the middle of your work day to talk to a teacher, but seem to regard the fact that teachers aren't willing to spend as long as you wish on a personal phone call or meeting, regarding your child, as a lack of professionalism. You are absolutely right; a school is not a business. In a business situation, meetings can be held at almost anytime. In a school, trying to find a time when every party (especially teachers) whose presence is deemed necessary in a meeting can be free to attend is very difficult, particularly when there are dozens of students who require those meetings.

Since you seem so ready to provide "several different solutions', and notice so many teachers "doing the wrong things", I'm wondering why, in your years of frustration with the system, you've not become qualified to be a special ed. teacher yourself. You have many ideas, and seem to think you could do the job much better than anyone else you've seen doing it.

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