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Pointing fingers: When parent complaints about teachers hit close to home

In this essay, education writer and advocate Patti Ghezzi looks at the top complaints parents make about teachers. Read all the way through because this is more than a lament about teachers.

By Patti Ghezzi

With a new school year revving up, I thought I would jot down a few peeves I hear over and over from parents.

My career as a repository of parent complaints started when I became an education reporter in 1996. I left that job in 2006, and today I’m co-chair of the parent group at my daughter’s school and on the governing board of another charter school. I hear gripes at Publix and at the pool. I have joined in and initiated the venting on many occasions.

I believe teachers can resolve a lot of parental discontent by yielding on some of these smaller issues. Compromising on little things would make it easier to work with parents on complex issues like motivating unmotivated kids and getting disruptive students to stop disrupting.

Here are the top five complaints I hear from parents about things teachers do:

1. Showing movies. Even a quality film tied to the curriculum can hit a raw nerve. The parent may view the film’s content as inappropriate, but more likely the parent and others think watching a movie during the school day is a waste of time.

2. Letting kids play games on the iPad. Screen-time is a sore subject, and time spent playing games on the iPad feels like time squandered. Claims that certain games are educational often do not hold up under scrutiny.

3. Handing out candy and junk food. Parents get especially peeved when candy is offered as a reward. Two documentaries streaming on Netflix, "Fed Up" and "Bite Size," may be cited as further evidence that teachers should not contribute to the overfeeding of the American child.

4. Staring into a smartphone. Parents notice when a teacher is engrossed in his phone, especially when the teacher is supposed to be supervising kids on the playground or when he could be walking around the classroom helping students.

5. Taking away recess as punishment. Teachers sometimes cancel recess for the whole class because of the misbehavior of a few. The parent most likely to get annoyed is the one whose innocent child gets caught up in the sweep. And that parent is all parents, because we all believe our kids are innocent. Teachers tell me they are using the leverage they have. Parents note that kids need exercise and might behave better in class if they have their time on the playground.

I can’t ignore a theme with these complaints. I could just as easily title this list, “Strategies I Turn To Every Single Day to Maintain My Sanity.” I plop my kid in front of Netflix or suggest iPad time when I need to jump on a conference call. I say yes to chips and cookies, because I know that while my kid is devouring junk she at least won’t be asking me for anything.

I scroll through my Facebook feed while my kid and her pals climb a flimsy, half-dead tree as if it were a sturdy oak. I resort to discipline tactics that don’t work but give me a temporary feeling of control.

A big part of the reason I don’t want teachers using these tactics is because I want to employ them for my benefit. I feel entitled to these strategies. They are mine. I feel guilty enough for the time my kid spends in front of screens. I don’t need the added guilt that I’m letting my kid watch a feature-length movie instead of sending her outside when she already watched a Disney movie at school.

We parents want school to be what our households would be if we weren’t so busy/lazy/interested in kicking back and relaxing. We want school to be a place where our kids are constantly engaged at the highest level and where their intellectual growth is always top priority.

We give into screens and junk food because we need a break, but we don’t think teachers deserve a break, even though they have 20-plus kids to manage.

So I started writing this hoping teachers would be inspired to address these complaints, all of which I believe are valid. The message I was going for was something like, “Hey teachers, quell parent grumblings by not doing these five annoying things.”

Seeing the list typed out, I can’t do it.

I would be thrilled if my daughter’s teacher vowed to never do any of them. But, would I be willing to make the same promise?

Maybe the path to better communication and more respect between parents and teachers is for us all to understand where the other is coming from, acknowledge that we’re imperfect and give each other a bit of a break.




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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.