Your Thoughts on Parent-Teacher Conflicts

Three very different answers to one question

Chairs stacked in a classroom.
Emily Keegin / Getty

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Earlier this week I asked you all, “What are the proper roles of parents and teachers, respectively, in the education of children?” What follows are three very different answers to that question.

Patricia writes knowingly as a mother:

When my daughter’s fourth grade teacher told me she was acting out in class––joking, talking over the teacher, distracting other students––I took decisive action: I began showing up at her school and sitting in the back of her classroom. My daughter hated it. But I was not prepared for how much more the teacher hated it. On the third day I was informed that the principal didn’t want me to sit in on the teacher’s classes anymore.

Tracking down the principal was difficult. Her schedule was full. She was attending district meetings. She simply had no availability in the near future. I persisted and we finally sat down to a frank discussion of how my presence in my daughter’s class was disruptive––me! I was the disruptive one. Within days I had accomplished an amazing realignment of alliances: I found that my daughter, her teacher AND the principal were all working together. Their one goal was to make sure I never sat in on my daughter’s classes again.

Mark writes analytically as a citizen:

I actually think there are 4 relevant groups, not just teachers and parents:

  1. Voters
  2. Parents (a particularly interested subset of voters, and consumers of educational services—which are two different roles)
  3. Governments
  4. Teachers

In an ideal world, the first three, through the political process, lay out the goals and broad outline of what public education should look like, and that outline is then handed off to teachers, the experts best equipped to realize that outline and fill in the myriad details left unspecified. In that ideal world, teachers can be trusted to implement education policy in a way that voters, parents and government officials would generally approve.

This ideal world can fail to be realized. Teachers, as a group, may hold educational policy views that are quite distinct from those of voters and government officials, and try to implement their views rather than those sought through the democratic process. It is then appropriate for parents to object, and for voters to seek legislation to correct this situation.

Right now, there appear to be two distinct disputes between teachers and parents:

  1. Parents seem to be upset over the response to COVID, and seek a more risk-tolerant posture than the teachers. This is really a labor dispute. Teachers are entitled to negotiate over the terms and conditions of their employment. Governments, acting as representatives of voters, are entitled to push back. Parents have a legitimate voice in this dispute.
  2. Separately, some parents believe that we have the problem outlined above: teachers seeking to create a classroom experience that these parents don’t like. There is a belief among some parents that the education world has in some measure sought to implement a classroom regime in which some teachers are seeking to push a political ideology with which many parents disagree, that the classroom has become a version of some of the more toxic DEI [diversity, equity, and inclusion] approaches associated with names like [Ibram X.] Kendi, [Robin] DiAngelo and [Tema] Okun, that children are being required to profess adherence to contentious political doctrines, and they are being subject[ed] to a racially hostile classroom environment.

This is often mischaracterized as “teaching about US history,” by supporters, or “teaching critical race theory,” by opponents, but I don’t think either is a good characterization. I don’t think there is much disagreement that teaching US history should involve significant discussion of our ugly racial history, and parents are in truth more concerned about critical pedagogy driving the classroom environment, teachers seeking to recruit students as activists, and DEI training under the guise of current topics courses.

It’s worth noting here that, while they may be delegated authority as experts, teachers have no particular rights in setting policy beyond their status as voters, albeit particularly interested and knowledgeable voters. They have no free speech rights that cover their work in the classroom (outside the classroom, they naturally have the same free speech rights as anyone else), nor do they have academic freedom rights of the kind that we normally grant to college professors. They are hired to teach in accordance with community wishes as expressed through the democratic process. They are granted authority as experts at the discretion of governments, and that authority may be curtailed or withdrawn as government (ideally expressing the will of voters) sees fit.

Lucretia writes from experience as someone who used to work in Canada’s education sector:

For most of the 80s, my job was to link the community with the school in an old, working class neighbourhood in Calgary, Alberta. The school and community were the oldest in the city. Most of the parents worked for the railroad, the brewery, chicken packing plant, or waitressing or pumping gas. Their memories of school were often brutal. Needless to say, they were very conservative, and very touchy about any hint of inferiority. They often saw no need for change. The school also served a vast number of immigrants, many of whom had minimal English. Pulling this together was no easy matter!

One essential was an Advisory Committee, made up of parents and service providers, including the police. This allowed issues to be brought up and addressed. Usually, the community was concerned about non-essentials, such as girls not wearing bras. The most important thing, though, was to develop a school that helped the children and made them want to be there. Access to art, drama, and dance made huge differences. We were fortunate to have a marvellous phys ed teacher who ran a dance program. One year we mounted a monster production of “The Wizard of Oz.” It ran for two shows because we could not fit all the community into the gym at one go. I ran a video program and art. The third grade teacher had me work with the kids to make a film about dinosaurs. Parents were invited in to watch and sat in awed silence as their little people demonstrated how tv worked, pronouncing words such as coaxial cable correctly. This was practical knowledge they could respect. The school developed a reputation for dealing with difficult situations in a positive way. A good principal was essential.

Another popular activity was having the gym open a night a week (we had to contend with the caretakers’ union) mostly for teen boys. One day the police zone sergeant plunked himself down in my office and told me that was his favourite night of the week because there was no crime those nights. The cops would come in to play against the kids sometimes.

We borrowed a program from another school to address discipline. The first week of school the teachers had the kids put together the rules they, the kids, thought were necessary. We held an assembly where the kids could look over these rules and decide which they thought were important. From this we put together a list, which the kids voted on. Amazingly (or not) the kids were concerned about the same things as the adults. They, too, wanted a safe, orderly environment. After this, the number of kids sent to the office dropped to almost nothing. The kids felt that the rules were theirs, so they followed them.

I would suggest that the people who learned the most from this were the teachers. Generally teachers come from the middle class. They were themselves the middle students with a university degree in educational theory. They, as a rule, had no idea what their students were living with. Educating them was essential. We also addressed social issues. We started the first subsidized lunch program in the city. Hungry children don’t learn. Of course, this was a program that caused controversy, as some thought parents should feed their own kids. Sometimes you just have to ignore complaints. Having someone in my position gave the school a free agent to coordinate with various services, sit on the phone to children’s services, attend funerals, and hear complaints.

It was a wonderful, provincewide programme, destroyed when the loathsome “greed is good” agenda took hold. You get what you pay for and an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. As long as it lasted it greatly changed the view of the community. Kids were happier and did better in school. Parents felt listened to. It was relatively cheap with huge consequences. Ultimately, if you want people to feel positive about a service, they have to see themselves as being part of it, and that it meets their perceived needs.

Thanks for all your emails, have a great weekend, and see you next Wednesday.