My Dad wants to see you, Miss

11th November 2005 at 00:00
No one enjoys dealing with stroppy parents. Even headteachers. Gerald Haigh outlines some basic principles to steer you through sticky situations

There comes a time when every parent gets angry with their child's school.

Even something that seems trivial, such as a busy teacher repeatedly forgetting to give a child a new homework book can bring on the red mist.

"She's not forgotten again! I don't believe it! How difficult can it be for heaven's sake?"

What matters to you, the teacher, is how the angry person handles it - and in turn, how you react.

Most of the time - thankfully - the flare-up is followed by a more reasoned response: a note, or a polite reminder. Occasionally, though, the storm builds, and the parent comes marching into the classroom prepared to be either stubbornly uncompromising or very loud.

Nobody who works in education is immune from this. Anyone up to and including the chief education officer can be - and is - yelled at. One of my abiding memories of the early years of headship is of hearing from outside the window a cry of "Right! Where's Haighy!" from a very determined and well-built chap striding towards the front door. (He believed that I wasn't doing enough to protect his daughter from a bully.)

Such behaviour is part of the territory, a product of the natural protectiveness of parents towards their young.

However, there are things you can do both to pre-empt and to deal with parental anger. You should think, all the time, how your words and actions, generated in the friendly warmth of the classroom, will be construed in the colder, perhaps more questioning atmosphere at home.

So be careful about making remarks, no matter how light-hearted or amusing, about a child's dress or appearance. What sounds funny to you - and even to the child - can take on a different complexion at home.

"Did you or did you not call my daughter shortylofty fat thin cross-eyed ginger deaf blind an idiot?"

Be fair. If you punish one child and not another, or detain the innocent at playtime along with the guilty, then be ready with your reasons.

The general point is that the possibilities for offence are more numerous than you might think. None of that means that you have to compromise your professional judgment. Teaching and learning always come first. What it does mean is that you must think, when you're doing your planning, and on your feet in the classroom, about how what you're doing will play with adults at home, and how you'll answer any questions that come up.

Part of that same pre-emptive strategy is to make sure your manager - head of department, year leader, deputy head - is aware of any difficulty you may have stored up for them. If you've lost your temper and reduced a child to tears, and it looks as if there might be trouble, or if you simply overhear a child planning to bring his dad up to school, you'll do better to come clean however tempting it is to keep quiet and hope for the best.

Every teacher has been in that position, and senior colleagues will appreciate your frankness. And when it's sorted out, be sure to ask for a debriefing, because you need to know whether your judgment was at fault.

Most importantly, your school should have an explicit policy that deals with this and similar issues. Ask about it, and be familiar with it. Your professional association or union will also have guidance - check the website, andor ask your school representative.

In the end, though, try as you might to prevent it, you'll be very lucky if you never have to deal with a steaming adult calling for your head on a plate.

Faced with that, what can you do? The Teachernet website, run by the Government, has a safe schools leaflet that's for teachers and teaching assistants as well as for senior managers.

Notes on how to handle abusive behaviour in schools


* Don't be alone in an empty classroom. Work with a colleague, or use a workroom or staffroom.

* Don't be caught sitting while an angry person stands over you. Stand up.

* Don't accept abuse or threats. If they continue, walk away.

* Don't get angry, argue, interrupt, or feel pushed into filling silences.

Wait until the person has finished.

* Don't make judgments about the other person's views.

Send a colleague to fetch a senior teacher if you have any doubts about a visitor's attitude * Be ready to walk away if you're not spoken to properly. You're not in school to be a doormat.

* Ask what the problem is - and then listen.

* Keep the focus on the child - give the message that you are both committed to the child's welfare and progress.

* Look for ways in which you and the family can work together: "How can I help you with this?"

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