It serves a useful purpose – but can quickly become a hotbed of teacher-bashing. Tes’ maven of manners offers advice.
By Thomas Blaikie
Am I alone in thinking that parent WhatsApp groups have become a modern-day curse for teachers?
Of course, sharing important and useful information on such platforms can be very helpful – sometimes essential – for busy parents. But, increasingly, these groups seem to have become breeding grounds for gossip, Chinese whispers and criticism.
Class teachers are routinely vilified, as an unfortunate colleague discovered when he was inadvertently added to such a group. His dismay at discovering the contempt in which he was held by his pupils’ charges was considerable.
Any ideas on how to persuade parents to use these groups in a more constructive way?
The lure of the WhatsApp group
Oh, the lure of a WhatsApp group! Who doesn’t want to belong? You get such an incredible sense of belonging, as much as anything else. Almost any WhatsApp group will do.
So convenient as well for last-minute changes of plan: “Forgot that Casper had an after-school activity today. Now he’s stranded at school. I’m in a meeting. Can anyone pick him up?”
Or, as you say, for useful information that might circulate: “What’s the English homework? When do the consent forms have to be in by? Can anyone remind me of the rehearsal schedule?”
It would be dreary, though, wouldn’t it, just sticking to travel schedules and deadlines? Inevitably, it just takes one person to push hard at the boundaries and…whoosh. You’ve lost it.
Part of the problem is that the boundaries aren’t properly in place, in any case. Parents routinely collude with their children’s gripes about their teachers. I’ve known several high-profile celebrity parents who did a terrific job of convincing their children that their teachers were idiots. Result: ruination of those children’s education. For some parents, it’s the more important priority: to prove that the teachers are rubbish.
A school is only as good as its parents
A school is only as good as its parents. Forty years ago and more, pupils were never allowed to object to their teachers. No parent would countenance it. All complaints were rejected out of hand. That wasn’t good either.
But now it’s swung too far the other way. Parents getting disinhibited and carried away in online chat groups is only part of the explanation. The truth is that nobody likes schools or teachers – however respectful, they’re still frightened of them. Otherwise they – like George Bernard Shaw – think “He who cannot, teaches” and all that. Teaching is a lowly calling for failures.
So it all comes spilling out in their horrid, indiscreet, ill-judged WhatsApp group. But the brilliant thing is – someone slipped up with the technology. Exactly the wrong person got added to the group.
This has happened before. It happens all the time. It’s the great danger with WhatsApp groups. Didn’t any of them realise? They got found out. They’re the ones who should be emerging from their murky WhatsApp bunker with red faces, creeping with shame for their childish antics.
That’s the first thing to realise: it’s not the teacher you mention who had to read all those awful things about himself who is humiliated here.
Not responsible parenting
Beyond that, it’s a question of governance and safeguarding, for which school managers are responsible. Someone needs to tell parents that it’s totally irresponsible to undermine their children’s education with this pointless bickering. When you engage the services of any other professional person, such as a doctor or a lawyer, you wouldn’t normally set about sniping at them behind their back. Complaints should be pursued through the proper channels, with evidence presented in a careful, objective fashion.
I remember, in one school where I taught, a parent who happened to be a bank manager scribbled on his child’s homework a message to the teacher: “You haven’t corrected all the spelling.”
The teacher aptly responded: “How would you like it if I communicated with you by returning my bank statement with comments scrawled all over it?”
We all know, anecdotally, that the pupils who encounter difficulties at school are frequently backed up by parents who insistently try to blame others, namely the teachers. Schools should point out to parents that careless chatter on WhatsApp is not responsible parenting.
Do we value non-teaching staff enough?
What to do about non-teaching staff? Well, what to do about them – as if they were a problem. Far from it. It’s the teachers who are the problem, not taking any notice of them, not even knowing who they are.
In the first school where I taught, back in the late 1980s, the caretakers were a couple living on-site, Mr and Mrs Smedley. Mrs Smedley was the main operator: an absolute queen as she passed through the corridors.
Once, as a nervous new teacher, I anxiously went to the school on a Saturday, needing to get hold of a vital worksheet or whatever for the coming week. I hadn’t reckoned on the fury of Mrs Smedley, outraged at the weekend disturbance.
In my next school, the administration staff plus matron were the heart of the school – stationed right at the core of the building, but full of kindness, good humour and patience.
As an additional duty, matron dispensed tea and coffee to the staff at breaktime, somehow conveying that she was offering a special elixir prepared for you alone. Everybody adored her. Many of the pupils would have preferred to spend most of their time with her.
Do we value non-teaching staff enough? Are they included in staffroom life? Is it time to make some changes?
Thomas Blaikie was a secondary English teacher for 25 years. He is author of Blaikie’s Guide to Modern Manners (4th Estate)