Families & the Community

Study: Teachers May Need Training in How to Deal With Parent Harassment

By Ross Brenneman — November 19, 2014 3 min read
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If teachers expect to have negative interactions with parents, they may very well end up having negative interactions with parents, a survey out of Kentucky suggests. And that means such teachers may benefit from added training in one-on-one communication.

A new report, published in late September by Eastern Kentucky University, the Kentucky Center for School Safety, and Mississippi State University, surveyed more than 5,700 public school teachers in Kentucky on email-based cyberbullying by parents, and found that cyberbulling constitutes a real, if not pervasive, problem.

The survey found that 10 percent of teachers had received harassing or threatening emails from parents. While male teachers proved to be no more likely to experience cyber-harassment than female teachers, the latter group reported a greater perceived risk of future harassment than males. The report says that this matches results of other studies showing women more likely to have higher levels of perceived risk than men.

One key finding looked at grade level, and showed that middle and high school teachers experienced greater harassment than their counterparts in earlier grades. The authors say this is likely a result of greater parental involvement at the elementary level, where parents are more likely to volunteer and be present, thus forming closer bonds with teachers.

But the biggest finding, the authors say, is that teachers who think they’ve been the victim of harassment are more likely to be harassed in the future. Part of that could just be personal perception—"harassment” has some subjectivity to it—but the report indicates these teachers may be caught in a “self-fulfilling prophecy":

These teachers may have heard horror stories of how parents will treat them when they become teachers in K-12 settings from their acquaintances or, perhaps more damaging, their university professors with negative experiences in K-12 environments. Consequently, they approach their job with a negative perception of parents; this perception is fulfilled when they invariably have a negative interaction with parents.

Basically, teachers primed for negative interactions with parents are more likely to perceive having negative interactions with parents. Pairing such teachers with mentors and offering them better training in face-to-face communication—especially with parents—may offer a solution, the study suggests.

The study’s authors admit that they can’t make greater generalizations about the experiences of teachers, in part because of the demographic constraints of the results: Ninety-six percent of respondents were white, with much of that group being female. Additionally, the study confined the method of harassment to email, leaving out potential experiences of harassment found on social media networks.

But to the extent that the results reflect a reality across the country, schools should have clear policies in place for how teachers should respond to parental harassment, the report concludes.

“Administrators should work to insure teachers and parents that cyber-harassment is unacceptable behavior but, more importantly, it is also a rare occurrence and, when it occurs, will be addressed swiftly to protect the teacher from future occurrences of these behaviors,” the authors write.

The report takes care to couch its findings amid praise for the important role parents play in their children’s education, noting that they serve as volunteers, coaches, and social-emotional supports. A small percentage of them, however, also appear to behave in “demeaning, manipulative, threatening, and/or directly or passively aggressive ways with teachers,” the report says.

Fear of such harassment can also potentially undermine teachers’ best practices. As Nancy Flanagan writes in a recent post on her blog, Teacher in a Strange Land:

My principal sent us a memo suggesting that we add at least one new grade [on students' work] per week, it being worrisome when parents see that several days have gone by with no grade posted.

But what’s a teacher to do? Sometimes their own responses can take them off guard. In her experience with an angry mother, teacher-blogger Marilyn Rhames writes about getting into a heated back and forth, before walking out on their meeting.

As I was excusing myself from the meeting, the mother blurted out, 'And you yell at the kids all day!' I turned around and said 'Whateverrrrrrrr,' then walked out. My unprofessionalism shocked me.

Teachers might be able to better confront harassment by learning from other teachers’ experiences, as the report says. So then:

What experience have you had with parental harassment, and how did you resolve it? Go easy on the venting, though, please.

Image: You’ve got mail. You might not like it, though. Credit: Ross Brenneman

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.