’Nightmare’ parents harrassing teachers

APRIL Lee* has been teaching year 1 for more than a decade and has experienced her fair share of difficult parents. But last year, one parent bullied the 42-year-old Northern Beaches teacher so relentlessly she considered quitting teaching for good.

"There was a group of three girls in my class who fell out early in the term. I tried to mediate, but one of the parents claimed I was favouring the other girls in the classroom," Ms Lee tells news.com.au.

Initially, Ms Lee would find herself cornered after school, but the situation escalated quickly, with the aggressive parent turning up in the classroom under the pretence of helping out and then shadowing Ms Lee's every move.

"(The parent) constantly undermined me in front of my class - she just stood in the corner with her arms crossed glaring at me," she said.

"She would ignore any instructions I gave and make snide remarks about my clothes and appearance in front of the kids."

Teachers are dealing with a staggering rise of unwanted and extreme contact from parents.
Teachers are dealing with a staggering rise of unwanted and extreme contact from parents.

To add to the intimidation, the parent's daughter started acting out in class - and whenever things didn't go her way, the mother would come charging in accusing Ms Lee of picking on her daughter.

"It became a nightmare. There were no boundaries at all. Everyday, there she was in my classroom throwing her weight around and openly telling her daughter to ignore me," Ms Lee said.

Although the extent of Ms Lee's intimidation is extreme, she is not alone in being harassed by a parent. Last week, The Daily Telegraph revealed parents at a NSW school had been forced to sign a document agreeing to limit their contact with teachers.

"Your communications have been via telephone, text, email, impromptu visits to the front office, appointments with staff and directly with teachers outside classrooms," Robert Curry, the principal of the prestigious Conservatorium High School, wrote in a letter to three parents.

"Please be advised that the volume of your communications is so great that it is no longer sustainable for the school to give it due consideration and respond to it all."

These are not isolated cases. Some experts say all teachers will experience harassment from a parent at some stage in their career.

Gabbie Stroud, an ex-teacher and author of the book Teacher: One woman's struggle to keep the heart in teaching, says teachers have lost their autonomy. "They are not recognised or valued as professionals within society," she tells news.com.au.

Stroud has experienced harassment from parents first-hand. "I have even had the experience of being stalked. I once had a parent drive behind me as I left school one evening. He followed me all the way to my house, which was incredibly intimidating," she says.

Former teacher and writer Gabbie Stroud.
Former teacher and writer Gabbie Stroud.

When news.com.au put out a call for teachers who've experienced harassment or bullying we expected to be inundated. But we weren't - one teacher we spoke to said although it was a common problem, fear would prevent people coming forward, especially on the record. "No one is willing to talk about it because they're afraid of getting sacked," he said.

Another teacher, a retired principal from the Hunter Valley region who did agree to an interview, told us she had experienced all sorts of bullying during her career. In one particularly frightening incident a parent "lost it". "He was in my office, shouting and swearing about female teachers and so on. I felt unsafe and threatened," she recalls.

"Unfortunately my emotional health suffered from aspects of the role - I was dealing with some very challenging situations."

So what can teachers do if they feel a parent has overstepped the mark? Stroud notes there isn't enough support within the system. "The support that is there depends very much on the local school 'climate' and the quality of leadership at the helm," she says.

Stroud, who is working on her new book, A Letter to The Parents of Australia (out later this year with Allan & Unwin), says parents are not entirely to blame.

"I don't believe parents are the problem. The system and the framework that enables parents to behave in this way - that's where the problem lies," she says.

"Most parents just want what's best for their child - they're just misguided as to what that is and how that should be achieved through school."

Gabbie was once followed home by a school dad.
Gabbie was once followed home by a school dad.

One explanation could be that Australia has a business model for education. Stroud notes Australia positions parents as consumers and teachers as "service providers".

"This means that some parents feel they can behave in the school setting as they might behave in a retail setting - complaining if the service isn't to their liking and demanding different products/services be provided," Stroud says.

"Sadly, the old adage of "the customer is always right" has infiltrated some schools with school leaders feeling pressured to please parents rather than support their teaching staff.

"Parents - along with the rest of society more broadly - don't seem to understand or value the work that teachers do … and really … that's a great tragedy."

*Name has been changed

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