Parent bullies: are student teachers scared?

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Half-heartedly stirring the steaming mug of hot chocolate in front of her, teaching student Jessica Read lets out a deep sigh.

“It makes me nervous,” she says. 

We’re talking about parents bullying teachers. Two tables away, a group is discussing the most recent Game of Thrones episode, laughing loudly and blissfully unaware of our sombre conversation.  

Stories of teachers being bullied, harassed, defamed, stalked, even physically hurt, are infiltrating news bulletins more and more frequently. These revelations are bringing to light the enormity of the issue in Australia, but it’s a La Trobe University report that has uncovered the true extent of Teacher Targeted Bullying and Harassment (TTBH).

Over the past 9-12 months, 80% of Australian teachers surveyed experienced bullying and harassment.

Despite many of these accounts coming from teachers who have spent years in the industry, student teachers are also being exposed to hostile parent behaviour – before even starting their career.

Glimpses of anxiety mar Read’s expression as we talk. She never imagined parents being a concern before embarking on her degree, and still finds it unbelievable despite having witnessed it first-hand.

“One of the biggest issues teachers face nowadays isn’t student behaviour, it’s the parents,” she says.

“That’s what all the teachers say now.”

Having completed four placements across Melbourne schools, Read is hardly a fully-fledged teacher. Despite this, she’s already observed a host of irate parent behaviour, from overbearing to nit-picking, all the way to confrontational behaviour that she describes as “scary”.

She recalls an incident from one of her placement schools, where concerns for the health and safety of a grade five in her class led to the student’s father – an ex-principal – being called to the school.

She says he was angry, and clearly exhibited this. She remembers vividly how “his body language was an issue” as he stood with his hands on his hips and used his finger to point at Read’s mentor as he hurled verbal threats at her.

“He threatened that he would take her to the education board, and that he knew all the directors so he could get her fired,” Read says.

“It’s really hard when as a teacher you are trying to tell [parents] what’s going to benefit their child and they’ve just got this blank wall up and there’s nothing you can do.

“The hardest thing in that situation was the dad. Because he was an ex-principal, he came in with this whole, ‘I’m better than you, I’ve been a principal. What are you? You’re just a grade-five teacher’, kind of mindset.”

Besides aggression and threats, this situation epitomises a far deeper-rooted problem that appears to be consistent across all cases of TTBH. That is, an overwhelming lack of respect for the profession within society.

Former teacher, Barbara Chapman, who taught for 25 years in areas of disadvantaged education wrote in a letter to The Age, “Negative attitudes are modelled from the top down. Politicians, bureaucrats and commentators display open disrespect for teachers.”

This is a sentiment that Dr Emma Rowe, an expert in school choice and education policy, echoes strongly.

“It’s part of a cultural problem as well, because I think overall we lack respect towards teachers,” Rowe says.

Research shows that female teachers are more likely to experience TTBH than male teachers (71% to 68.4%), and Rowe says this is “indicative of a wider social problem…the epidemic of violence against women”.

“Socially and culturally, there’s a lack of respect towards women. And when you combine the two, that does create a problem.”

A secondary school teacher for many years, Rowe too has been confronted with barrages of emails and phone calls from unhappy parents. However, she believes problem parents tend to align with the school’s socio-economic status (SES).

“If you work in a more elite private school where parents earn the big bucks, you are more likely to get parents who think they own you, and they can push you around,” Rowe says.

“They’re paying money, and they might think they’re more prestigious than a teacher as well. If they’re a lawyer or something like that, they might think, ‘well, you’re only a teacher so I can push you around’.”

Rowe’s experience teaching in a low SES school proved parent attitudes to be the polar opposite of this – grateful, respectful, “anything but pushy”, and consistently trying to show how thankful they were.

It’s unsurprising then to learn that the placement school where Read witnessed the abhorrent behaviour of the student’s father is high SES.

The ease of communication in the digital era is one of the massive contributors to TTBH. Cyber safety expert, Susan McLean, told The Sydney Morning Herald the online defamation of teachers by parents has risen significantly in the past five years. As have abusive emails, which McLean says can be more difficult to handle.

Read says, “It’s so much easier to sit behind your phone or computer and talk all the talk you want, and that’s what I’m probably most nervous for.”

However, this ease of communication will become teachers’ most powerful tool in combatting TTBH.

Much of the research available on parent-teacher relationships is around how the amount of communication between parents and teachers influences the amount of trust parents have that their child is receiving the right care and education.

This is a sentiment Read has seen reflected in advice from experienced teachers.

“All my placement mentors have always said, ‘keep on top of the parents, and the issues won’t arise’,” she says.

“The minute you drop off the radar and you’re not in constant communication with home, it gives parents an excuse or a reason when something goes wrong for their child – like if they’re behind in reading or writing – to target you.”

Despite the statistics, the stories, and the situations she’s witnessed, Read doesn’t show any reluctance to enter the profession.

“I’ve always wanted to be a teacher,” she says.

“When you’re driven, I guess a challenge is something that you just kind of take on board.”

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