At my daughter’s parent-teacher interview a couple of years back, I made the teacher cry. I didn’t mean to. All I said was, "Thank you."
My daughter was having a great year and my wife and I just wanted to express our gratitude. As tears formed in her eyes, the teacher told us people didn’t usually say things like that.
It surprised me at the time, but talking to friends who are teachers, I have a better idea about why she reacted as she did.
It turns out that parents expressing thanks to teachers is as rare as kids taking the fruit out of the schoolbag before it goes mouldy. Many parents treat teachers as if they are their own personal staff, and as if schools are run to cater to their – and their child’s – every whim.
If we're honest, we have to admit our generation of parents are a bunch of complainers. We complain about teachers giving too much homework, not enough homework, being too strict or too lax, pushing kids too hard and not pushing them enough.
Diane, a principal of a Melbourne secondary school who spoke on the condition she was not identified, knows parental entitlement well. Most parents are great, she says, but there’s a very loud, and demanding, five per cent who add unnecessary stress to teachers’ and principals’ lives.
Parental entitlement often rears its head when it comes to the organisation of class groups, with parents demanding all kinds of special treatment for their child based on rumours about the quality and teaching style of the teacher.
"If there is clear evidence and that it's in the student's best interests, of course we look at that," says Diane of the often complex processs that goes into putting class groups together. "But generally, they're pretty emotive and non-evidence-based requests. It's just they have a perception and they will lobby and sometimes try to rally other parents to join their way of thinking."
But even as they advocate for what they think is best for their own child, parents often ignore the knock-on effect for other children.
Diane recalls an incident where one parent demanded her child be moved to a preferred teacher's class, even after being informed it was already full.
“[The mother said] that's alright, just take somebody else out.” When the mother was informed this would disrupt another child, the mother was unmoved.
Co-curricular programs are another flashpoint for entitled parental complaints. Since many co-curricular activities are paid for as extras, in addition to school fees and levies, some parents feel as though they have special rights to direct matters according to their wishes, she told me.
Even parents who have no discernible skill or expertise in the co-curricular activity in question take it upon themselves to give unsolicited advice.
"We have some really high quality aerobics coaches, but parents think that they would do a much better job of managing the program and organising the training schedules and organising the strength training," says Diane.
Diane says she has had parents ask to know details of staff contracts and how much they are paid.
"As a principal, you explain 'they're my staff and no, you can't see their contract and you can't see how much they're being paid'," she says.
But not all principals can withstand the pressures of entitled parents. Through friends, I know of a private school in Melbourne that buckled to several parents’ demands that their children star in the end of year school play by simply creating more lead roles.
If only Shakespeare had foreseen the levels to which some parents would go, he could have saved schools a lot of trouble by expanding his cast of characters to Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, Tarquin Macbeth and Jocasta Macbeth.
In fairness to our generation of parents, this stuff doesn't emerge out of thin air. We regularly hear policy makers from both sides of the political divide diminishing the professionalism and capabilities of teachers, contributing to the impression that teaching is the option for chronic underachievers – even though the data shows that the majority of teachers achieve eminently respectable tertiary entrance ranking scores.
While there is no doubt that students and schools benefit from having parents who are involved and interested in their children’s education, many of us need to back off – not just for the sanity of teachers but also for the wellbeing of our kids.