There are some schools where a complaint from a parent has the power of Mjölnir. In these schools, teachers live in abject terror of parents. A call from administration to say that ‘One of the parents in your class has called…’ represents a death knell. Bong!
A no-win situation
I’m in one of those schools while I write this. The teachers here tell me the parents have complained to the school that they give too much homework, that students use phones in class, that there are pages from the book that haven’t been completed, that the teacher is pushing students too hard, that there isn’t enough homework, that students aren’t learning enough, and so on and on.
Each complaint brings with it a fresh set of sanctions and red marks against a teacher (or all the teachers). In the latest instalment, a parents complained that teachers were ‘playing’ with their phones – the school’s response: ban teachers from using phones – yes even as Covid ends, and teachers are teaching hybrid lessons. Who knows. Keeping the parents happy is a big job.
To start this discussion, let’s be reminded of one of Aesop’s fantastic fables – the tale of the man, the boy, and the donkey. For those who don’t know it, I’ll paraphrase it briefly.
"A man and his son were leading a donkey to the market. They passed an old woman who berated the old man for making the boy walk, especially since it’s a donkey’s job to be ridden. Chastised, he boy got on the donkey and they walked on. They passed a group of men who castigated the boy for riding the donkey while his father walked. Obligingly, then, the boy got off and let his father get on. Later they passed an old woman who chided the man for sitting on the donkey and making the boy walk. The boy got on with his father and they both rode the donkey. As they neared town, another passerby rebuked the man and boy for being so lazy and making the poor donkey carry all their weight. They got off the donkey and strapped it to a pole and carried it"
The moral of the story is something like ‘try to please all, you please nobody’. It’s not impossible for teachers to feel a little like this. You give the class homework, and get told it’s too much, so you give less homework only to find out there needs to be more.
Since we can’t please everyone, we may wish to rather base our classroom decisions on a set of well-grounded pedagogical principles. If we are doing things in the classroom that have a basis in something other than whims and fancies, the parents simply need to know what these principles are.
For instance, if parents complain about games, they need to be informed that these are not actually games, but activities that follow a communicative student-centered learning approach, and they can read more about it in an excellent paper by Zoltan Dornyei (Dörnyei, Z. 2009. The 2010s Communicative language teaching in the 21st century: The ‘principled communicative approach’. Perspectives, 36(2), 33-43). I’ve found that parents actually love it when there is a clear and pedagogically sound reason for what they have found out about the classroom.
Let’s explore why all this complaining comes about. Firstly, we need to bear in mind the position parents take in their children’s schooling. They pay a load of money, drop their kids off, and then hope. What they get back is some homework (to supervise?) and a bunch of scores. This may be sufficient for some parents, but for others this gives little sense of empowerment or agency in their child’s education.
Secondly, we need to bear in mind that the classroom is a closed system which resists easy scrutiny from outside. When a child says, ‘We played a lot in class today’, how exactly is that to be interpreted by a parent? “What does ‘play’ mean? Like, playground stuff? Where was the teacher? Is that what I’m paying for?”
Research and findings
Now because parents are (generally) not teachers and don’t have degrees in pedagogy, these minute insights into the school day must necessarily be interpreted according to a remote understanding of how classrooms work. If a parent then brings this up with the school to clarify what is going on, unfortunately it’s usually not the teacher they speak to, but some sort of administration officer who has no context for offering a pedagogically appropriate response.
Involvement of parents in children’s education was the focus of a study by researchers from Brown and Harvard universities. They compared three groups of teacher-parent communication: in one group, parents received no communication from the teacher; in the second group, the parents got a one-sentence message with feedback for improvement (something like “Jini missed two homework assignments this week and can do better next week”); and in the third group, parents received a one sentence message with positive information (something like “Jini was active in class all week”).
Findings indicated that children of families who got positive messages were 41% less likely to fail. The researchers argue that the finding is likely a result of parent-child conversations at home that centered around the messages the parents received: positive messages led to added parental support and motivation.
When parents get nothing from teachers, their involvement in their children’s learning is reduced. If they want to get involved, they are forced to search for a chink in the educational armor the school puts up and elbow their way in. In my dealing with parents, these ‘complaints’ are more often some sort of attempt by parents to engage in dialogue with teachers (or an informant who can speak for the teacher). When a principled pedagogic explanation is given to a parent about what’s happening in the classroom, most parents are satisfied, or at least mollified.
Back to this school with its ban on teachers’ phones, just as a coda. The staffroom version goes like this: Betty was on her phone during the break. She was on her phone, it’s true, but nobody asked her when, or why. There’s no moral to this story, I’m afraid. Let’s stick to Aesop for that.
Steve has been a teacher and teacher trainer for over 30 years, and is currently a lecturer on the Master’s in TESOL program at King Mongkut’s University of Technology Thonburi in Bangkok.