Saturday, June 12, 2010

A Teacher's Right

This year, a certain teacher I know refused to communicate with a certain parent I know. The parent said to me that federal law mandates she communicates with him. I am well aware of why the teacher shut the doors on communication with this parent. Her reasons are perfectly defensible; this man frightens her… and he provoked that response through his emails to her. What I began to wonder is what laws are there to protect teachers from hostile parents and what responsibility do teachers really have in regards to communication?

The parent was incorrect about federal law. Current law only guarantees both parents, regardless of custodial arrangement, have access to a child’s school records. One can legally request health charts, absence and tardiness records, and grades. In fact, a school is allowed 45 days in which to provide said records once having received a written request. The exclusion to this policy is if a court order mandates that a parent not have access.

But what about communication, written and spoken, between parent and teacher? What I found online was surprising—policies fluctuated per school, per district, per state-- and then I remembered that I had once been in the same shoes as this particular teacher. I had been confronted by a woman who set up a meeting with a team of teachers, and then used it as an opportunity to embarrass me. Why her son could not behave was a problem that went beyond the structure I could provide as a teacher with 28 or so other kids in the room, and 600 per week on my books total. Her anger and frustration that this behavior appeared in my class and not in English or Math confounded her, but as I saw her anger pour out, visibly and inappropriately, I developed a new understanding for why her boy was a thorn in my side. Look at the example she set. My art class was a non-graded, specialist class without exams, and we met once weekly, by the way—there is no accountability for the student, at least not one he will take seriously under this design. The boy’s mother had no fear of saying what she said to me in front of several teachers. In fact, she was proud of herself. I was visibly pregnant at the time, and entirely shaken with her hostility. Teachers consoled me after the incident, but no one defended me, and no one intervened. No administrator took me aside later to say that they would put a guarded policy in place for dealing with this woman. I almost turned in my resignation. I was 27 at the time, too young to know I had choices. Apparently, after enough incidents like these, other schools have begun to construct their own policies regarding parent-teacher communication. What schools really want these days is protection—not just from parent hostility, but out-of-control students as well.

If a parent defies the initial right to speak with the teacher (due to untoward behavior), communication then takes the route of privilege. One school in Washington State has an email policy which limits communication by email severely in order to prevent two things: massive amounts of emails for a teacher to read and respond, and cyberbullying. Isn’t it tragic that we have come to this? The policy stated that all emotional or highly complex matters be handled in person. A teacher I know at a second school told me once that if a parent is really interested in his child’s welfare, then he will come in person for a full sit-down conference. The parent she was referring to specifically was one that had refused to visit the child’s school out of spite for his remarried and relocated ex-wife. She said, sadly, she has seen this many times before.

There were many sites that said administrators do not protect their teachers when confronted with what we now call Hostile Aggressive Parents. HAPs are not necessarily those that yell. They also threaten, manipulate, harass, criticize, and coerce. How tragic that this exists. Dealing with it is a tricky matter because HAPs think they are justified in their actions and do not see the damage they incur. Provoked fear is a victory for the HAP. Just imagine how the children of these parents must feel.

The teacher that I discuss today has had her right to terminate direct communication with this parent supported by her administrators. Her documented reaction to the difficult parent was noted in a court of law, as well. I do not know if the provoking parent has ever had his deeds truly explained to him, but I sincerely doubt it was worth the effort. Note that the parent’s communication regarding his child was not severed, but re-routed through the school’s administrator and counselor.

Sometimes, absence of law protects a person as much as the presence of one can. If this woman were mandated to work with this parent, imagine what she must endure. I read recently about a woman in another state’s school district who was arrested and jailed for her hostility with a teacher. The school had to call the police while the woman was ranting and thrashing about the building. One of the reasons I have been reluctant to return to teaching in both public and private schools is due to the lack of protection I felt as a young teacher all those years ago. I had trouble not just with some parents (although most provided wonderful relationships), but with a particular student who frightened me so badly I was afraid to walk to my car alone after school. My administrator, when I told him this, laughed at me, by the way, and the child’s mother was less supportive. She endorsed her child’s use of profanity and threats with teachers in general. Eventually, this child was banned from the school. With problematic parents though, teachers are less lucky and have to endure much worse for longer before preventative measures can be put in place.

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