The letter, published in St Andrew’s Cathedral School’s Head of School newsletter asked parents to “chill” .
“In my 28 years (so far) as a Head of School, I have noticed a considerable increase in parental anxiety,” it reads.
“I am having to interact with too many parents who have verbally abused, physically threatened or shouted at a staff member,” he adds.
The letter mentions a master/ servant relationship Collier feels develops in some parents’ minds as a result of paying school fees, and the belief that they are entitled to make extravagant demands.
“I have chosen to draw this matter to the attention of all parents as the frequency of incidents of unrestrained behaviour appears to be increasing.
“While some schools may regard that as normal, it has never been the case here and will not be acceptable at SACS.
“I take it this drift is part of a general decline in civility in society, and needs to be called out. We want to be better than any kind of basic common denominator,” the letter continues.
When mainstream media picked up on Collier’s letter in July, his message, intended for a small and specific audience, was spread far and wide.
This, he says, was a total surprise.
“I was writing just to our own community, and I had in mind just toning down the behaviour of a small minority,” Collier tells Australian Teacher Magazine.
“The reason that I went into print is that I know what’s been happening was becoming more vitriolic and its numbers were growing slightly, so I thought something had to be said in case other parents took on this kind of behaviour.”
Even more surprising was the response which followed from the broader community.
“I’ve got the most support I’ve ever received in 28 years as principal,” Collier says.
“Masses and masses of support … I’ve printed and got a whole document file full of support.
“I wasn’t trying to start a movement, but it seems to have resonated with a lot of people, not just in education. I’ve had emails and phonecalls from people working in health services and other areas, in retail, to say that they suffer from similar conditions.
“The irony is that here [St Andrew’s Cathedral School] the problem is, I’d say, very likely less than in most places.”
Indeed results of an Education HQ reader survey conducted in July indicate that parent behaviour poses a significant problem in most schools.
Of readers who took part in the survey, 86 per cent indicated that rude or aggressive behaviour from parents towards school staff is an issue of concern at their school.
Beth Blackwood, CEO of the Association of Heads of Independent Schools of Australia (AHISA) has seen her fair share of ugly parent behaviour throughout her 30-year career in the education sector, as teacher, head, deputy principal and principal of various schools.
“It’s not a new issue and I think it’d be safe to say that all school leaders and teachers will have a story to tell about at least one parent whose protective instincts towards their child caused them to lose perspective and cross the line of acceptable behaviour,” Blackwood says.
“I think across time, parent behaviour has become more intensive,” she adds.
“And there is a common term that seems to be used today to describe an approach to parenting that has become more common and that’s the term ‘helicopter parenting’.”
Why are more and more parents behaving badly?
According to Blackwood, a lot of disrespectful behaviour coming from parents stems from the desire to have the best for their child.
“Another part of that is they also want their child to be happy, and that sometimes translates into seeking rewards for their child, that the child has not earned,” she explains.
“And it also is about avoiding any distress to their child. And as we know, and as the research tells us, this maneuvering for immediate gain, for instant gratification, can in fact have long-term negative effects for child development in terms of their self-confidence and resilience.
“The parents are trying to protect their children from experiencing any negativity and they do them a disservice by doing that.”
Collier says in his experience, another issue arises from the increase in single-child families.
“For many parents there’s only one child, everything’s invested in this child, so there’s a desire or demand that everything be perfect,” he explains.
Collier also believes that rude or aggressive parents are a product of the society in which we all live.
“I think it’s the increase in hyper-individualism in society, where often the message of the world is that it’s actually all about you and it’s about your rights, and that empowers people,” he says.
“In higher fee schools, there is sometimes the sense that ‘because we’re paying, we’re entitled to have our way’, and that can be problematic because the school is trying to operate in the best interests of the child, which may actually be different from what parents want, so that’s a factor.
“I think another factor is the increasing bad behaviour in public of some people in the public eye, such as politicians, sports people … I think society has picked up on that in other domains,” he adds.
Blackwood also says there’s been a change in the way schools and parents interact.
“What we’ve seen over the years is a shift from a very singular focus on the student as the client, with schools claiming total authority over the education of the child and keeping parents at arm’s length, to what is now a more inclusive embrace with the notion that the family is the customer,” she says.
“So there’s a greater acceptance today of that notion that ‘it takes a village to raise a child’, and I see schools working very hard to be a proxy for that village.
“I think what’s important to remember is that school staff are important members of that village, too, and principals have a legal and moral obligation to protect and support their staff members just as they do in protecting and supporting their students.”
What’s the impact on school staff ?
Whatever the causes, it’s clear something needs to change in our schools.
“I think the really pressing issue here, for school leaders, is staff welfare,” Blackwood says.
“Isolated incidences of poor and even violent behaviour from parents are distressing and they should not be accepted, but they are often part and parcel of the bigger issue of increasing parental expectations of schools and teachers, and how these expectations are contributing to stress levels of teachers and of ancillary staff as well.”
Blackwood says in a recent survey of independent schools, school heads were asked about the challenges they faced with regards to the health, wellbeing and morale of their staff.
The number one factor reported was increased parental expectations, including the demand for individualised teaching. “And then if you align that with the increased accessibility of teachers, by email or other means of social media, with parents’ expectation of immediate response, you’re leading to unreasonable and aggressive demands,”Collier says.
When Collier took the courage to call this out in his school, and stand up for his staff, their appreciation spoke volumes.
“They were absolutley delighted,” Collier reflects.
“And again, I didn’t expect the level of expressions of tremendous gratitude from staff.
“I think they felt endorsed and protected which is what I was trying to do, but I wasn’t trying to do it in such a high-key way.”
“Teachers need to feel that someone has their back, that the workplace is emotionally safe for them.
“It’s very important that teachers know that they can do their job with confidence and any kind of vitriolic attack will not be tolerated.”
Stamping out the issue, a twopronged attack On a school level, Blackwood says well-thought-out and communicated policies and protocols can go a long way towards shielding school staff from unnecessary attacks.
“Schools need to have in place, very clear protocols around incidences involving parents, so that staff know when and where to refer a matter – be it to a head of a house or to the head of the middle or senior school …
“It’s important that there are protocols that staff understand around those incidents,” she says.
She says all schools should also have clear complaints procedures that are communicated to the school community, and those complaints procedures should be based on the principles of natural justice, the right to a fair hearing without bias and respectful relationships.
Communication guidelines for parents can also be helpful, stipulating the hours which are appropriate to email their child’s teacher, and setting reasonable expectations around a time frame for response.
Outside of the school gates, Blackwood says there’s also work to be done around respect, and how the teaching profession is esteemed.
“On a much broader level, I think we need to change the narrative around teachers and teaching in Australia,” she says.
“Schools and, by extension, teachers, have been a point of blame in education policy discourse in Australia for too long now.
“Even as recently as the release of the Gonski 2.0 report on the achievement of educational excellence in Australian schools, Australia’s schooling system was castigated for failing a generation of students.
“Now, no-one yet has been able to explain why the PISA results of many Western countries, not just Australia, are declining.
“There’s no evidence base at all for giving a fail mark to the work of Australian schools over the last 15 years.”
Blackwood says AHISA has been challenging this deficit model of thinking, and pointing instead to the innovation and entrepreneurial activity occuring in our schools.
“There is an exciting transformation underway in education, and it’s being led by the profession, not the policymakers.
“So we need to build trust and respect, not undermine the profession, which unfortunately I think, the failed discourse does.
“And there are so many great stories to tell about the work of teachers and the important role they play in shaping the future of Australia.
“I think if we were to tell those narratives more often, rather than the deficit model, we could help build community trust and respect in the profession.”
A selection of responses from EducationHQ's Parent Behaviour Survey
The worst behaviour I have witnessed from a parent is...
‘Coming in and shouting at me because I had disciplined her child. Then attacked my personal life in order to ‘win’ the battle.’
‘Verbal abuse of staff in front of a large group of parents.’
‘Bullying a teacher until she resigned.’
‘Telling their child they would beat up the principal if he didn’t do what the parent wanted.’
‘Swiping me across the face with a clipboard, yelling and verbally abusing teachers, keyboard warriors who abuse teachers via email.’
‘I was followed outside of school and physically threatened.’
‘Belittling the teacher’s capabilities in teaching.’
‘Demanding that their requests be met or they will remove students from the school is the constant bullying tactic to go above and beyond the guidelines and procedures of the school.’
‘Leaning over a desk to grab a teacher by the blouse.’
‘Wheelies in the car park.’
‘A parent stormed into a Year 1 classroom in the middle of a lesson, demanding that the teacher deal with an issue concerning her child.’
‘Yelling abuse at teachers for their child behaving badly in school. There are a lot of parents that can’t switch themselves off social media which is having a negative eff ect on the children and their behaviour.’
‘Parent taping parent teacher interview without teacher’s knowledge or consent.’
‘Sending multiple epic emails in the middle of the weekend, becoming gradually angrier in tone when no reply received until the following working day.’
‘Purposely spreading false rumours about the teacher to other teachers and parents, intimidating a child when her child was getting in trouble, encouraging her child to steal and then blaming the teacher.’