It is late afternoon, and the herding instinct has taken over. They are gathering together, seeking safety in numbers. Safety, though, is an illusion: predators prowl the margins on the lookout for easy pickings. Violence might erupt at any moment.
It's not the Serengeti we're watching but a typical primary school at home time. And the "animals" are not the children but the parents. For after a day of managing children's behaviour, teachers are now increasingly having to manage the behaviour of parents, too.
In May, police officers were forced to use pepper spray to break up a fight between parents at an infant school in Cornwall. In June, a fight between mothers at an elementary school in Florida became a YouTube hit.
If you think these are rare examples of parents behaving badly, then think again. Many primary school teachers witness verbal (sometimes physical) violence between adults on a regular basis. It usually occurs at the end of the day, in that grey area between loco parentis and loco parents.
Fights between adults usually involve the same individuals, and are prompted by the same petty rivalries and underlying issues around low self-esteem and bullying as fights between children. The only difference is that disputes between parents might be fuelled by alcohol or drugs, rather than whose turn it is on the climbing frame.
Unfortunately for teachers, adults are bigger than children and can't be kept in at lunchtime, so dealing with them can be tricky. Until we are routinely issued with tasers and canisters of tear gas, here are my top tips for managing badly behaved parents.
Always assess the situation first and decide whether it is safe to get involved. My general rule is: if machetes are being waved around, lock everybody inside and call the police. Luckily, primary teachers communicate with parents on a daily basis, so it doesn't take long to work out which ones are likely to present behavioural problems. To manage these parents effectively, make a special effort to develop firm but friendly relationships with them - and to nurture them every day.
Go in all smiles blazing
"A brave heart and a courteous tongue. They shall carry thee far through the jungle, manling," is Kaa's advice to Mowgli in The Jungle Book. This is also good advice for teachers dealing with badly behaved parents. If, after reading the signs (raised voices, angry looks, aggressive body language), you decide to intervene, go in all smiles blazing. Teachers know that whenever children have been fighting, the worst thing they can do is storm in and read the riot act. The same applies to warring parents. Never meet them with a severe frown and demand that they conduct themselves in a civilised manner. Instead, smile and ask how you can sort things out together.
Accentuate the positive
In the words of the US singer Johnny Mercer, we should accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative. This applies to badly behaved parents as well as to their little ones. How often have we as teachers soothed classroom arguments with words such as "I know what lovely children you really are, and I'm sure you would never deliberately hurt each other"? Well, whatever works with children works with parents too, so before Mrs Kneejerk attacks Mr Annoying, try interrupting them by saying something such as "Excuse me, but I must tell you how pleased I am with young Kneejerk and little Annoying today. They have settled their differences and done some fabulous co-operative learning. This is a real credit to both of you."
When children display persistent behaviour problems, schools often put in place a programme to support them. Why not do the same with adults? We recently targeted a group of "challenging" parents by involving them in an art project. Working with a local artist, they collaborated to create a series of spectacular animal sculptures, which has been displayed around our school. So now it isn't just at home time that our school resembles the Serengeti, and the good thing is it's nowhere near as dangerous.
Steve Eddison teaches children aged 7-11 at Arbourthorne Community Primary School in Sheffield, England.
Former headteacher Mike Kent reminisces about his school's own Raging Bull moments.
Uncover the facts about parental separation and divorce with this detailed resource.
- Primary school teachers often find themselves managing not just the behaviour of students, but of parents as well.
- The school playground at going-home time can become a hotbed of arguments and violence, and it often falls to teachers to referee.
- If the parental tiff is at an advanced level of violence, the priority is to protect the children and telephone the police rather than trying to stop it yourself.
- For petty arguments or less violent scrapes, the solutions are all about using the techniques you use with students: accentuating the positives, appealing to common sense, early interventions and well-established relationships.