There is an old saying about education being a three-legged stool: it takes teachers, students and parents to make it work. By and large, we expect any wonkiness to come from our students. But what happens when parents are the problem?
Anyone who has had an awkward class knows the power of parental involvement. The mere mention of a phone call home can transform the trickiest student into a compliant cherub. And that is as it should be. Parents are ultimately in charge of the people their children will become, and teachers simply support that process as best we can during the school day. But those days become infinitely harder when students are given carte blanche at home and bring this attitude to school.
Just as there are myriad forms of difficult - or "challenging" - students, there are also endless varieties of challenging parents. The most heart- breaking I've ever encountered was early in my teaching career, when I met Eddie's dad. It wasn't just that this man had no interest in academic success but he was also determined to devalue the entire education process. As far as he was concerned, school was a place to plonk his son for eight hours a day until he was old enough to get a job and move out.
Several teachers found themselves on the receiving end of a well-rehearsed speech at parents' evening in which Eddie's dad bragged about never even bothering to open his GCSE results because they were so worthless. This made it rather pointless to call home when Eddie saw fit to write nothing more than the date in his book for weeks on end.
But some parents take things even further. On more than one occasion, I have leaped between brawling students who have gone on to insist, with wide-eyed sincerity, that they have been told to throw the first punch if someone is being rude to them. It's almost understandable - no one wants their child getting pushed around at school - but if every student had a "wallop first, apologise later" mentality, break time would be a battle royal before the children even reached the playground.
Causing just as much bother is a more malign breed of troublesome parent: those for whom only the best will do. Regardless of their child's progress, this lot are hell-bent on getting their offspring into the top set and will jolly well complain until they succeed. Again, their motives are sound: they want their child to do well. But they somehow fail to see that we, as teachers, also want the best start in life for these young people, and actually know quite a lot about getting them there. Top sets can be wonderful places, but they are for students with a certain level of capability in the subject, not those whose parent has the biggest mouth.
And the delicate chemistry of 1,000 people harmoniously sharing a building can be disturbed when parents disregard the rules, whether they relate to trainers or truanting. If encouraged to break the rules by their parents, the children are left in a difficult position, mere pawns in a bizarre battle of best intentions. It is understandable when they side with their parents, and often quite a sad day when they realise they should not.
But fear no longer: there are things we can do to fix the wonky three-legged stool.
Just as with students, parental behaviour is a means of communication. When a family member is becoming a thorn in your side, they have lodged themselves there because they don't feel everything is as it should be. Take the time to reassure them that you know your stuff and have their child's best interests at heart and you may see a dramatic change.
Never, ever let yourself be drawn into a negative conversation about a student's parents. Even if so-and-so's father is behaving foolishly, do not let students see your frustration. In the best-case scenario, you will make them feel awkward; in the worst, you could find yourself in serious trouble as a representative of the school.
Check the contract
The parent-school contract is fairly ubiquitous these days, requiring parents to pledge to the school's rules and ethos when they sign their child up for a place. Referring difficult families back to the document acts as an official reminder that their actions are breaking an agreement.
Refer up the chain
Ultimately, as a classroom teacher, dealing with family issues in depth is not part of your remit. Always alert your pastoral colleagues to potential issues; not only have they had training to deal with exactly this sort of problem but they have also probably encountered your difficult family before and can therefore pinpoint the best course of action. And they are the ones who can refer parents to an application form for another school if needs be.
Zofia Niemtus is a teacher from London
Watch this Teachers TV video for tips on problem parents.
The art of handling parents.
A teacher seeks advice about dealing with difficult parents on the TES Connect forums.