Attack of the parents

14th March 2014 at 00:00
Forget about the students - the truth is that parents can be the worst offenders when it comes to challenging behaviour and alarming attitudes. Eleven of our front-line writers remember their most exasperating encounters

The daily realities of working with young people provide the intense challenge and opportunities for triumph that define a career in education. But one phenomenon is often overlooked in the life of the teacher: the depressing fact that parents can be far harder to deal with than their offspring. Some are pushy, some are aggressive and - most troubling - some are completely disengaged.

The fact is that every teacher has a wealth of experience when it comes to tricky interactions with parents. In a bid to find some of the funniest, most melancholic and downright scary stories, we asked 11 of our teacher-writers to relive their most memorable run-ins.

Brace yourselves - the worst classroom maulings are a breeze compared with these "quick chats".

The hulking one Mr Smith was a corporate lawyer, a staggeringly large man in every sense of the word, who entered my office during the first day of my first leadership job. It was the middle of summer. He was sweating profusely and wearing a belt and braces.

It's documented in the classic western Once Upon a Time in the West that you should never trust a man who wears both belt and braces, as that man clearly does not trust his own trousers.

Mr Smith plonked himself down with a sigh and began to expound on the failures of the school in relation to his son, and how these failures to recognise his offspring's indubitable talents jeopardised well-established plans to attend an Ivy League university.

I meekly suggested that his son's 37 absences in the previous year might have contributed to his poor academic performance.

This suggestion stirred Goliath into action. He painstakingly elevated himself out of his chair and crossed the metre of space that separated us.

He stood over me, eclipsing my view of everything other than the pattern on his necktie (I can still recall that it featured small goldfish). I felt the heat of his body and experienced his ongoing struggle with halitosis.

He shook in anger; a deep, whole-body shake born of inexpressible fury and frustration that suggested tremendous violence to come.

My first thought was that it would be sad to die in this place, all alone. But he eventually sat down. We made a plan for his son, who did better the next year and was accepted to a top US liberal arts college, to his father's delight and my own great relief.

Hans van Mourik Broekman is principal of Liverpool College in north-west England

The pugnacious one

Twice in my 30-year teaching career, parents have threatened to beat me up. That may not be such a bad ratio.

On one of those occasions it was down to a student having not been selected for the house netball team. The other, scarier incident came after I found a teenage boy smoking yet again on the school field.

I decided it was time to involve his parents. But his father was having none of it: his son, he told me on the telephone, never smoked. In truth, the boy was a serial offender. He walked with the swagger and exuded the acrid scent of someone who had just clambered out of a booty-filled white van from Calais. He was well acquainted with nicotine.

In not so many words, I explained this over the telephone. The boy's father became increasingly irate, accusing me of a vendetta to humiliate his son. Finally, he yelled: "Right! Stay where you are." There followed a threat that he was heading to school to "sort me out". The leafy lanes of Suffolk were about to be set alight by a pugnacious father on a mission.

I headed to the office of the eminently calm headteacher, who had appointed me as his rookie deputy just a few months before. There, I watched him greet the fulminating parent, welcome him into his office, disarm him with tea and allow him to vent his considerable spleen.

The headteacher said nothing much for the first 10 minutes. He simply waited until the man's anger burned itself out, like a screaming baby toppling into exhausted sleep. Then he summoned the sheepish student and, with a few careful questions, got the boy to admit that he had indeed been smoking, visibly and defiantly. The headteacher ended with a killer punchline: "Do you realise what you've done by not telling the truth to your dad? You've left him looking foolish."

The man was totally disarmed. Magic.

Geoff Barton is headteacher of King Edward VI School in Bury St Edmunds, England

The anti-homework one

It's parents' evening. I'm sitting at a desk towards the rear of the hall, positioned strategically close to the exit. Mr Johnson is up next. As he plods over, I offer a clammy hand and a polite greeting.

He is an aggressive, sturdy man with a five o'clock shadow and a dark grimace. His daughter is his world and he knows what's best for her. Every time I keep Leanne behind at break time for not handing in any homework, or for swearing, or chewing gum, or failing to complete class work, I brace myself for the inevitable phone call. This week, Mr Johnson has been saving up his rants so he can deliver them in person.

"Right. My Leanne doesn't need to do any homework, OK? School is for work; home is her own time. She needs time to be a child."

I wonder how many hours a day one needs to "be a child", and remind him that I am here to educate Leanne and give her the best possible chance of succeeding.

He is not satisfied and offers a simple, clear response. "Not for Leanne," he says. "Homework is for posh kids. Give up forcing her to learn and let her be a kid."

"Sorry, Mr Johnson, but I'm not sure I can do that."

Tessa Matthews is a pseudonym. She is a secondary teacher in the Midlands, England

The quick-fire one

I was tired. It was late: graveyard shift at parents' evening; last appointment. No rogue cowboys yet, but then a highfalutin, outraged parent walked into the OK Corral with finger poised on trigger, ready to squeeze.

I had done everything possible to accommodate the substantial needs of this woman's daughter, as I do with every child I teach. Differentiation doesn't even begin to cover it.

And I thought I'd done a pretty good job. Apparently I was wrong. Why did her child enjoy drama club more than my GCSE class? Why did I teach in a different way to the drama club teacher? Why was I making her child explore experimental types of drama that didn't require a script? Why was I not following the same drama syllabus as her best friend's cousin's uncle? Why had I slowly, deliberately and manipulatively dashed her child's lifelong hopes and dreams of being an actor?

I tried to get a word in edgeways, but the quick-fire questioning continued, leaving me reeling. "Well," I stuttered, "I can assure you that I have tailored every single part of your child's education to her needs by."

"And so?" She cut through me: ready, aim, fire. I was but a sitting duck at a cheap fairground stall.

She left, slinging her still-smoking gun back into its holster as I bled out on to my desk.

Amy Winston teaches in the West Midlands, England

The beastly one

He appeared out of nowhere, an hour after the children had gone home. No appointment had been made and no warning given. There wasn't even a knock at the door, just a feeling of being watched. "Aha.hello, Mr Barnwell," I gasped, stifling a scream. "I'm afraid you took me by surprise."

Mr Barnwell suffered from an eye condition that required him to wear strong spectacles. This had the unfortunate effect of making him look unnaturally curious. "Is it about James? Is there a problem?" I asked. He scrutinised me closely but made no attempt to reply. I wondered if he was trying to convey his thoughts telepathically.

"His learning and behaviour are excellent," I continued. "I just wish there were more like him, ha ha. So, what can I do for you?"

"You need to look at these," he growled, removing a matchbox from his pocket. Both ends were sealed with sticky tape - he was either ultra safety conscious or it contained something more sinister than matches.

Mr Barnwell picked at the tape. "James came home from school with these," he said. He slid the box open and tipped the contents on to my table. Several head lice tried desperately to look innocent of all charges. "I want to know what you're going to do about them," he said.

I smiled nervously. "You've got me scratching my head there," I chuckled.

He didn't get the joke.

Steve Eddison teaches at Arbourthorne Community Primary School in Sheffield, England

The pilfering one

She wasn't always difficult. She could be a dream: supportive, reasonable, presenting you with designer perfume at Christmas. But suddenly all that would change. She would come storming in, claiming that her children were being treated unfairly, had been given too much (or too little) homework, and were being bullied by teachers and children alike.

She must have been doing something right: her children were delightful. But those of us who taught them quickly learned to be on our guard when we saw their mother approaching.

One day, she came in smiling, offering to drive children to netball; the next, I got a letter saying that her daughter couldn't take part in the tournament as we had endangered her health by playing in the rain. The teacher of her youngest child received several furious phone calls when he cast another student in the lead role for the class assembly.

Her appearance at school concerts would trigger a jump in blood pressure. If we were lucky she would sit quietly, applauding in the correct places. Other times she would shout impromptu stage directions to her children, harass other parents and depart loudly mid-concert.

Two days after such a concert, she presented me with a bottle of bath foam as a thank you. Then, suddenly, we didn't see her at all.

The message finally filtered through: the children were being looked after by relatives while their mother was in prison. She had been convicted of stealing from the shop she worked in - goods including bath foam and bottles of designer perfume.

Those poor kids.

Jo Brighouse is a pseudonym. She is a primary teacher in the Midlands, England

The pushy one

After five years teaching in British state schools, I didn't think there was much more I had to learn about parental management. But then I moved to Asia. The goalposts didn't just move: I was on a differently shaped pitch with no goalposts at all.

Take 11-year-old Sabiya, a cross between Hillary Clinton and Mother Teresa, with just an edge of Miley Cyrus. She is house captain and form captain, as well as 50m freestyle champion and solo singer runner-up for her rendition of Adele's Rolling in the Deep at the Battle of the Bands. I'm not sure she sleeps.

And yet I find her crying because she was not cast in a school show and she knows how disappointed her mother will be.

But that's not the end of it. Sabiya's parents, who live in the Philippines, cannot make it to parents' evening. Don't worry, their daughter has hooked up a Skype connection and parked her laptop in front of me. The trouble is, I can't understand much of what her parents say. It might be the line but it might just as easily be their accent, and it seems rude to ask them to repeat one of their intense questions about Sabiya's progress a third time. What a nightmare.

This may be an extreme example, but it is far from unique. This is a culture where I have to fight to persuade parents to let just one of their child's three private tutors go, and where after-school club can run from 5pm to 11pm, five nights a week. I usually avoid setting homework, just to give the students a break.

For children like Sabiya, with parents like the ones she has, it's the only break she's going to get.

Nelson Thornberry is a pseudonym. He teaches at an international school in Asia

The indifferent one

I was working at an institution for excluded boys aged 14 to 16, in an area of town that I would avoid even driving through. The place was run by ex-professional fighters who had enormous compassion but no teaching experience. The students spent much of their time boxing, and I was there to deliver the required classroom activity.

Some boys responded well and grasped their second chance; others were simply killing time between stretches in young offenders' institutions. One morning, I arrived to discover that my brightest hope had mugged someone in a drug-fuelled frenzy and had been arrested for attempted murder. Released from custody and back at our institution, he was wild-eyed but subdued.

His mother arrived with her silent boyfriend, the alleged "hardest man on the estate" (although, noting his black eye, I can only assume he was second hardest), to discuss the boy's grim future.

I assumed that tensions would be running high and chose every word with care as I spoke to her. Handing her a cup of tea, I said: "Right now, consistency and routine are really important. I'm sure this is a very difficult time for all the family. I can't imagine what you're going through."

The boyfriend sloped off for a cigarette with a faintly amused grunt.

I could have sympathised with aggression, or with a desperate apportioning of blame from a mother coming to terms with her child's actions and the consequences of them, for him and his victim. What I was unprepared for was her indifference. She shrugged. "Shit happens."

I know that far too many children are dealt the most unfair hand in life, purely as a result of the people they were born to, but evidence of such casual neglect when the stakes were so high was beyond my comprehension. She was behaving as though her child had been throwing paper aeroplanes in class.

I searched for something optimistic to say: "He's a bright lad and he's been doing really well in my classes. He'll be able to continue with his study whatever happens."

She stood up. Apparently the meeting was over. As she reached the door, she turned and said: "Waste of time is school. I didn't bother with it and I've not done too bad."

Sarah Simons teaches in further education colleges in Nottinghamshire, England

The unlettered one

In the 1960s, I was teaching in a tough, working-class area of London. I had been warned about Juliette Barnes' mother, who had a reputation for throwing open classroom doors and shouting at teachers. Juliette had been described to me as pretty, petulant and devious. In fact, I rather liked her. She was an able child with a talent for writing, unlike her mother, who could hardly read or write at all.

At the autumn open evening, I was disappointed not to see Mrs Barnes. I had sent a report home with Juliette the day before, asking her to read it to her mother.

The next day, Mrs Barnes strode into my room. She was enormous, and I noted with fascination that she had only one tooth. "I want a word with you," she demanded.

"Certainly," I smiled. "Let's go into the corridor." Once we were outside, I looked Mrs Barnes firmly in the eye. "I'm always happy to see you," I said, "but next time make an appointment. Don't come into my room like that and don't wag your finger or shout at me. It's extremely rude. Now, how can I help?"

She wasn't used to this: usually people backed away. She pulled the crumpled report out of her pocket. "What do you mean by saying my daughter is careless and can't concentrate really well and she ain't made much progress and she's late for school?"

"I think you need to read it more carefully. I've written that your daughter has charisma - Juliette loves big words and I asked her to explain that to you. And it says that Juliette can concentrate really well and has made much progress. It also says that she's rarely late for school."

Mrs Barnes stuffed the report back in her pocket. "Hmm. All right. I must say, she seems to like you." This was as near to an apology as I was going to get, and she hurried off down the corridor. It was the only time I ever spoke with her.

Mike Kent is a retired primary school headteacher in England

The unavailable one

"I'm going to call your mother."

"Go on then!" Melissa juts out her jaw with the full force of her defiance.

Melissa is moody and unpredictable. One day, she sat quietly all lesson and when she handed in her work it contained nothing but an enormous expletive. Today, I asked her to move away from her friend, so she pushed her table over in a rage and called me a bitch.

I dial a mobile number and Bon Jovi's Livin' on a Prayer plays. I leave a message. I call a landline and several children and a raspy female voice tell me no one can get to the phone right now. I leave another message.

I try both numbers again and again over the following days. I am now well and truly sick of Bon Jovi. I've spoken to a little brother and a grandmother, and once I even got hold of a gleeful Melissa. I've called from different phones at different times and not one of my messages has been returned.

Melissa tells me that her mother has several jobs and is very busy. "You can't get hold of her, can you, Miss?"

"Is there something wrong with her phone?" I ask. Melissa shakes her head and I detect some sadness behind her outward triumph.

Melissa remains volatile, her mother remains elusive, but when I call now the answering message plays Dire Straits.

Ellie Ward teaches English at a high school in Western Australia

The deluded one

Being a parent must suck sometimes. For a start, you get snippy braggarts like me telling you how to do it better. But I think it fair play when you get parents who fancy themselves as a classroom Jedi, convinced they possess the key and cipher to how their child learns best.

One parent - let's call her Mrs Readabookonce - had very firm opinions on education, and especially on her son's education. Let's call him Drippy. Drippy was bright enough, but Mrs R could only see untapped genius in his averageness. Drippy was tall, skinny, hidden from the world by a comedy wig of hair, and believed he was several notches too good for any class he was in. I cannot imagine where he got that from.

The problem was that Drippy didn't give a monkey's in his lessons. Give him work and he would wave a pen at it, sighing at the injustice, before rolling his eyes at his invisible audience. He never finished anything, he never did homework. He was chippy in detentions, which he only attended if you stood at the door and reminded him.

Eventually, Mrs R was called in for a chat: we didn't want all that untapped genius to go to waste. But this was when we realised that Drippy wasn't the biggest problem.

We relayed the issues to Mrs R and waited for the usual disappointment and, eventually, support. We gave Mrs R her moment.

"Why aren't you inspiring him?" she said. I looked at her as if she'd just pulled a rubber chicken from her handbag.

"I don't understand," I said. "He isn't working. He's late to lessons. He's rude to the teachers."

"Well, maybe," she said. "But that's because you lot aren't inspiring him."

And then I realised. She was one of those parents who believe that their child can do no wrong. Who feel that teachers should be like Moses, Martin Luther King and Tony Robbins all at once. Who think that all students must be engaged, enthused and interested at all times, or they have every right to tell you to stick your lesson up your pencil case. The parents who have no idea about teaching, in other words.

Poor old Drippy. He didn't stand a chance. And when it came to his mother, neither did we.

Tom Bennett is a teacher and TESS behaviour expert

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