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Can't we all just get along? The rules of engagement for teachers and working parents.

Christine Armstrong thinks it’s time for a different conversation about working and parenting. We’re in a place where mortgages are larger, the work day is longer, but school and childcare remain unchanged.

It’s a disconnect that compounds the stress of both teachers and parents, as each grapples with the expectations of the other.

Determined to find a way forward on this (and dozens of other issues that affect working mums, dads and carers), Christine interviewed people on both sides and brought their wisdom together into a manifesto for happy professional families called The Mother of All Jobs.

The following is an extract called ‘How to engage with teachers’. Take notes, folks.

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Many career parents struggle to get the right tone when dealing with the teaching and leadership team. Are the teachers to be deferred to because they are teachers? Or are you equals because you are both professional and all adults with the same intention of getting children educated? Or do they work for you, paid for by you (through tax or fees) to deliver your child a good education? If they work for you, then are they up to the job? Every parent seems to be able to furnish you with a story about a teacher with flawed grammar.

Christine Armstrong shares the lie working mothers tell.

When we were children, our parents put teachers in the same group as doctors and bank managers. To be respected, listened to, deferred to. My mother says that, aged 25, she felt good as a newly qualified teacher driving her little Mini and having a little bit of status in society. Sadly, for those groups it has very much changed and teachers are now used to all sorts of unhelpful interaction from parents.

A mother of two who taught before having her kids describes how she sees the disconnect between teachers/parents like this: “I was a newly qualified teacher in 1994. I was so keen and so excited by my job, I arrived at school at 7.30am and left at 7.30pm and did more lesson planning at home later. But my fierce commitment meant I was also completely disparaging about parents and what they didn’t do. I couldn’t understand it when, three days later, they still hadn’t responded to my important note in the Home Book. I saw them as totally irresponsible. At parents evening I was pompous and smug about what they needed to be doing. Now I have two kids and can see the other side so clearly. I am a teacher and I find myself thinking about my daughter – ‘F***, why is she still on the reading scheme in Year Four?’ As I scratch my head to remember the last time I read with her. I forget to attend parents’ evenings! I completely miss some of them. The kind of thing that would have horrified me as a [newly qualified teacher].”

A principal says that working parents can be particularly disengaged: “Some professional parents take the ‘my child’s OK approach’. They think it is cool to not fuss over their child and ignore correspondence in the child’s book bag. They then question at parents’ evening why their child is not on the next reading book, when it has lain among the sandwich crumbs at the bottom of the bag for half a term. They don’t bother to read the weekly update letters, so forget to send their child in with money for the charity pyjama day, and arrive flustered and late to the nativity, missing their child’s key line, as they only realised it was happening when their friend texted to say little Eric is in floods of tears as he can’t see them in the audience. These are also the parents who expect sports shorts and trainers bought in September to still fit on sports day in July, and wonder why their child doesn’t win the race because it actually hurts to run or they are embarrassed by their tight-fitting PE gear.”

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(Extract continues below…)

Image: Bloomsbury

Some choose this path of non-engagement as part of their parenting strategy. A secondary school teacher tells of a 12-year-old who asked to be emailed the parent letters and updates. The school said no, because the letters are for the parents. But the child got terribly upset, saying her parents were far too busy at work to read them and that it was her responsibility to know when she needed sun cream for a trip or had to sign up for a new club. This ended in an unsatisfactory stalemate on both sides, with the parents saying it was about taking responsibility and the school feeling it was about the parents supporting their kids.

In contrast, others put their efforts into trying to fix the school: "There are these career parents on maternity leave for a second child, or between jobs, who cannot resist trying to organise the school from the gates. Snookering the principal who is trying to get the children through the gate on time, they will bend the principal's ear with their latest inspiration, which 'you could do for the children', while the poor principal is shuffling the late-comers into line, and desperately thinking what they have organised for assembly, and how on earth they are going to cover the lessons for the absent French teacher as two other staff are out on a training day."

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Much of this boils down to some fundamental questions about whose job it is to educate our children.

Teachers say that parents expect miracles without doing anything at home. One told me about a mother, an engineer, complaining bitterly to him that her Year One child wasn’t making any progress in maths. The teacher suggested she got a game of snakes and ladders and played with him in the evenings, saying how quickly children learn to add up dice when they are working out how to avoid those pesky snakes. The mother looked at him like he had two heads. She explained that she didn’t have time for that. She rushed through the door at 6pm to race through dinner, bath and bed. The thought of stopping to play board games was incomprehensible.

This is a theme echoed by other working parents. "Every parents’ evening the teachers tell us what we need to do with our children. I am like 'hang on a bloody moment, I am at work all day doing MY job, YOUR job is to do the education bit, not tell me how I should be doing it'."

Which all points to the fundamental mismatch between the work and school days. One mum winced when she realised that her child had perfectly replayed her response to an invitation to a school show at 11.30am two days later with: "My mummy says that if you put these things on at the start or end of the day, and gave some notice, then people like her with REAL JOBS would come but, as you don’t, no, she won’t be there."

The Mother of all Jobs by Christine Armstrong (Bloomsbury, $29.99) is out now.

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