The late January back-to-school ritual has turned ugly. Among the cute little stories about multiple sets of twins beginning school together and the healthy snacks parents can concoct for their child’s lunchbox, is a new form of click-bait that blames parents for coddling their child and turning them into monsters that harried teachers then have to deal with.
One particular piece would have us believe parents feed their children nothing but junk, allow them to stay up to all hours then pass their “already tired” offspring to beleaguered teachers at the end of six weeks of holiday chaos. Mums and dads (but typically mums) then lie in wait for about the first two weeks, at which point they begin to “whinge” about their child’s teacher.
Have you noticed how opinion pieces like this follow a predictable pattern? First come the generalisations, then incitement to outrage, followed by the taking of sides (always the right one) and self-righteous advice gained from the perfect personal experience.
Another example of this type of ‘bad parent’ click bait features a series of rants by anonymous teachers about the horrors of teaching today’s school students. Seriously.
These articles may well do what they have been created to do, act as click-bait, but they are just plain awful when it comes to nurturing parent-teacher relationships in Australia.
They also have a nostalgic air; they present as a short-form journalistic ode to the ‘good ‘ole days’ when children were seen and not heard. Are we supposed to believe that no one parents well these days, even though a large proportion of teachers are also parents?
Evidence shows that today’s parents are probably working harder at parenting than at any time previously. Whilst it is always possible to find examples of neglectful or ineffective parenting (both now and in mythical golden-ages), those parents aren’t helped by contempt directed at them by the media.
And here I will add that teacher staff room gossip about parents should be included in things that are not helpful. Staffroom gossip can also breed an unhealthy feedback cycle that works to build reputations around particular kids and families. The result is that some students never get a fair go.
What’s worse is that it can set up a vicious triangle that works to keep teachers, students and parents at odds. The teacher generally ends up being at the long end of the triangle and it is very difficult to get a positive outcome from there.
What my research tells me
One thing that has come across very loud and clear in the many student interviews I have conducted is that no matter how dysfunctional their family background, children still feel love for their main caregivers.
When asked if there was anything they would change about themselves if they could, one boy replied that he wished that he could turn back time. He wanted to go back to the time before he was taken away from his mum, before she became addicted to drugs and alcohol, before she would lie on the floor in her own blood and vomit.
Children often know when teachers speak and think ill of their families. The resentment towards teachers felt by some of the young people in my research was palpable and many indicated that they reserve their worst behaviour for the teachers they perceive as judging them and their families.
Many teachers will know that one sure-fire method kids use to start a fight in the playground is to call another kid’s mum a “slut”.
But, what doesn’t seem to be as well understood is that the disapproving glances, dismissive air, imperious tone, and short shrift that some teachers give when interacting with parents is picked up by their children.
And it makes those childen angry. It makes them both defensive and protective. It makes them feel inferior. What it doesn’t do is help.
The strongest message that came through these student interviews is that, if forced, kids will back the people they love.
We need to reject the parent versus teacher positioning
That’s what worries me about click-bait that positions parents as inept and teachers as victims. Such articles exacerbate an “us v them” mentality.
It gives licence to hostile teacher behaviours that can affect a whole school’s culture. Over time, the more positive teachers may leave, taking with them the possibility of seeing and doing things differently.
The end result can be a war-zone with rampant bullying and physical aggression between students, complete disrespect for teachers, high absenteeism and very little learning.
Places much like the schools described in one of those articles. But rather than question how these schools became like that or what we can do to fix them, it seems easier or perhaps more entertaining to just blame parents and the ‘monsters’ they’ve produced.
Schools need involved parents
Parents are great advocates and many (mothers in particular) contribute a significant portion of their time to fund-raising for their local school, sitting on P&C committees, and/or supporting teachers in reading groups, going on excursions and donating class supplies.
This occurs much more now than in the good ‘ole days because many schools are critically under-resourced.
Children who have parents who are involved in their schooling, even on a very simple level, can have a much more positive experience. Teachers who get to know parents can find new ways to connect with their students.
For this to occur, we need to acknowledge that productive parent-teacher partnerships benefit all involved: students, parents and teachers.
So, as tempting as it might be, we have to resist the click bait because it won’t help any of us form those partnerships.
Linda Graham is Principal Research Fellow in the Faculty of Education, Queensland University of Technology (QUT). She is the Lead Chief Investigator of two longitudinal research projects focusing on disruptive behaviour. One examines the experiences of students enrolled in NSW government “behaviour” schools (Australian Research Council DP110103093), and another is tracking the language, learning, experiences, relationships, attitudes and behaviour of 250 QLD prep children through the early years of school (Financial Markets Foundation for Children FMF4C-2013). In 2014, she was elected Editor of the Australian Educational Researcher (AER) and serves as a member of the Australian Association for Research in Education (AARE) Executive Committee.